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Inspired by many bridge questions on this site, e.g. this or this.

As I understand bridge bidding systems, they are very detailed, for example in a comment to one of my questions David Siegel wrote:

In the variant of SA that I play, an opening bid of 2 C says "I have at least 20 points, or at least 8 playing tricks". A 2-club response to partner's 1C opening says "I have at least 5 clubs and more than 10 points, and no 5-car H or S suit" a 2 C overcall over opponent's 1S opening says 'I have at least 10 points and at least a 5-card club suit"

Since the bid conveys serious information, why don't the answers to most bridge questions begin with "that depends on what your bidding system is"? For example, for the first linked question, it seems reasonable (maybe even crucial) to ask "what does South's 1H bid mean?", and without that information it seems pointless to even try to answer the question.

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  • 1
    Short answer: Almost everyone other than top experts, absolute beginners, Poles, Chinese, and British play variants of the same bidding system. Apr 24 at 3:29

3 Answers 3

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There's a very old quote by one of my teachers: "Don't let mycroft near the novices." And it's true. Because my answer to most questions about bidding is "it depends"(*).

It depends on the system you are playing.

It depends on what conventions you have available, and what conventions you don't use, and what room you have to replace a natural sequence with a convention.

It depends on your style for opening (especially pre-emptive openings).

It depends on your opponents, and their system and agreements - and skill level and state of the match and whether you have a history (or, indeed, a history).

But a lot of that applies to your constructive [when the opponents aren't (yet) in the auction] bidding only. Even the "what do I do with this hand after partner's 2♥?" question - which frequently isn't a "our hand" auction - depends strongly on what you expect for partner's 2♥ opener.

When the opponents are in the auction (and not just preempting) - when it is competitive, in other words - a lot of "that depends" goes away, because the goal stops becoming "find our best contract, giving away to the defence only what information is necessary" and becomes "win the partscore" - go -100 into -110, or +110 into +100, and definitely avoid -800 (**). And those rules are much more easily prescribed by results - there really is "one right way" to do it (or at least it's much closer). Hence all of Tom Au's takeout double questions and "why is this 9-count worth more than this 13-count (or less than this 5-count)" - there's one right way to do it, because wrong ways can get punished more often; and good players know when to punish.

Defence is even more than bidding defined by the math. Sure, signalling choices change the information available, as does the auction, but the "right choice" based on the information given is all down to statistics (or "only hope"s), and players good enough to play at world championship level know how to work out those statistics and only working positions. So when someone plays "a non-standard style", and it works measurably better than the way everyone else knows is right, then either the math works out and "everyone" starts playing that way, or it doesn't work out, and people start looking for other reasons it works for "someone" and not, say, for them.

What Joe says is also correct, however, especially in North America. There's A Style (which because I'm an old C hand, I call the "One True Bidding System". People either get it or they don't) that is so common and so universal that I can sit down with anyone, agree "2/1, with [defence to NT], [preempt style], and [keycard version]" and a) partner can play it, and b) we'll get 80+% of auctions right. And so, unless otherwise specified, questions asked are assumed to be in that framework. And in that framework, at least for the first round or two, there is very often "the answer" - imposed by system.

What you say in your comment to Joe's answer is also true - 12-21 (Opener's 1-of-a-suit) is a massive range (***), and there are some serious holes in a standard/ 2/1 system that need to be covered by conventions, mostly around resolving that massive range. And others that players like to cover with conventions, even if it's not necessary. And there are choices in what, if any, conventions to play and what holes to live with. And there - is where, even in an assumed 2/1 base, "it depends".

So, yes, "it depends". But frequently - especially in newspaper bridge columns and periodicals (The Bridge World excepted - it deliberately aims at experts) - unless they're trying to stump for their pet methods, there will be "the answer". In fact, the hands are chosen partly so there is "the answer", most of the time - with maybe one outlier that shows potential problems or potential choices.

And you can see from the number of side paths and "mostly"s and ... even in this answer, that "it depends". And that maybe I'm not the best person to answer this question to a new/non-bridge player...

*) new players can't use "it depends", they need "the answer". Even if it comes along with "as you get more experienced, you will find that there is another answer that works better - or works better for you. But for now, this." And I'm horrible at doing that (and frequently can't think down far enough to see it), so all I do is confuse.

Note that when they get slightly more experienced than "novice", where they can see the interactions, I am considered a very strong teacher, and many come to me with these kinds of issues. But, still, "it depends"; and what's right for me, or what's right for my partnerships, can very much not be right for the questioner.

**) Okay, at IMPs and money bridge. Matchpoints has its own reward structure based more on frequency than size of wins and losses, and that limits the amount of the potential win or loss in a way that "real bridge" doesn't. But most bridge writers are most often either discussing high-level events (which are more often long IMP-scored team matches) or advice for "kitchen" level players (who score rubber or Chicago - "money bridge", even if there isn't any stakes).

***) In fact, a majority of systems that aren't OTBS (or simple swaps to weak NT or the like) have an explicit goal of limiting the one-of-a-suit openers. Whether it's Precision (10-15) or Polish Club (12-18ish) or even Strong Pass (8-12). Even K/S (the weak NT system I play) has a goal of making at least the 1♣ and 1⋄ openers better defined, by taking out most minimum hands (either to 1NT or pass). Of course, they all do it by making something else harder to deal with. If that weren't the case, there would truly be OTBS.

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  • I assume you also agree carding. With that caveat, 80% is an underbid. Apr 22 at 21:20
  • Certainly. I thought about putting it in the answer but as it wasn't bidding, I thought it would confuse. I explicitly said "80% of auctions" : -) Maybe I was wrong.
    – Mycroft
    Apr 23 at 2:09
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You're not wrong; certainly the meaning of the bids is important to the question, and can vary from partnership to partnership.

However, the far majority of people play a variety of "2 over 1" or "Standard American", both of which are very similar in how they treat many bids especially at the opening. For most, 1H = 5 hearts and 12-18 points, give or take a little. Thus, bridge questions that ask about things like that (like your initial question) tend to assume that people are playing some variant of the standard systems - if they are, for example, playing precision club, one hopes the question would include that information!

Further, when asking about a response to an opening bid, it matters somewhat less what the opening bid means. Not to say it matters not at all - but it's reduced to "natural" versus "artificial", and nothing beyond; and again, one hopes that the initial question or bridge article would mention if 1H were artificial.

Ultimately, many of our questions/answers do end in "it depends" answers, of course. That doesn't mean you can't have a useful discussion (or answer, in this case) that is grounded in strategy; perhaps "is this double for takeout" is in part dependent on agreements, but "should this double be for takeout" has a useful answer ("if you agree this is penalty, you'll not gain very much, but if you agree it's takeout, it's useful for XYZ reasons").

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  • 12-18 points? Isn't that a huge range? It's two extra Kings or an Ace + a Queen.
    – Allure
    Apr 22 at 14:31
  • Sure, the initial 1H is 12-18 (and it's really more than that, 12-18 or 12-17 is just for 1H-[normal responses], it can go up to 21 really). The responses tell partner what part of the range it is in. If big ranges like that bother you, play precision club :)
    – Joe
    Apr 22 at 17:05
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    @Allure As Joe implies, you could play a highly artificial bidding system where your first bid gives your point count within a narrow range. However, points aren't everything, or even the most important thing, so the disadvantages of that approach tend to outway the advantages. You could fill a whole bookshelf with discussions on the relative merits of artifical vs natural bidding systems though.
    – richardb
    Apr 22 at 19:05
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A full answer to any such question does indeed depend on the biding systems in use, at least those used by the partnership begin addressed, and may well be far more detailed than any answer on this site is likely to be. If you read a bridge column, particularly one aimed at intermediate players or higher, there will usually be some indication of the bidding system(s) that the players are using. Unless the point of the column is to compare systems, however, this will not be emphasized. Rather, having mentioned the assumed system once, the author will take it for a given, because the point is to compare different possible actions and sequences within a given system. Indeed many continuing professional columns simply indicate that all discussions in that column use a particular system.

It is also true that several of the systems in wide use, particularly in North America, have a similar general structure, differing only in certain specific aspects (althoguhn that difference may be vital when one of those aspects comes up)

Mycroft writes:

[a style] is so common and so universal that I can sit down with anyone, agree "2/1, with [defence to NT], [preempt style], and [keycard version]" and a) partner can play it, and b) we'll get 80+% of auctions right.

While it is true that that sort of bare-bones discussion will allow two good players who have never played with each other to do reasonably well, that is partly because there are widely known and agreed "defaults" which say things like "If your partnership hasn't agreed to play convention X, it is not in use, and the more basic convention Y is in effect". Indeed there is a whole system defined for such cases, known as "ACBL_Yellow Card" that has no options at all. The idea is that two players can say just 'yellow card' and they have agreed to several pages of conventions, and to no others.

I recall playing in a weekly individual "pro-am" match at a club long ago. In an individual one changers partners every two or three hands, and in a "pro-am" the players are divided into two general groups by ability, and each pair consists of one stronger and one weaker player. At those games three fairly basic systems were sketched on a chalk board at the front of the room, and each pair was to agree on just "System 1", "System 2", or "System 3" when they sat down together, no other options, because there wasn't enough time for detailed discussion.

That said, when I meet a player new to me at a tournament, I prefer to have 20 minutes to half an hour to discuss the various choices of conventions we will use, and so do most other players in my experience. If I make an advance date to play with a partner new to me, I will often have several telephone calls (totaling perhaps 3 hours of discussion) and several exchanges of emails with lots of "If I bid this and you respond that, what should I do with holding ABC? What about holding XYZ?" I find this level of preparation often leads to significantly better results than the 30-second version specifying three or four key choices.

Thus most answers here and on more advanced bridge forums either explicitly or implicitly include a certain system or range of related systems in determining what actions to consider, but except for those discussion devoted to comparing systems, the system involved is rarely more than briefly mentioned, instead it is an underlying assumption.


Also, the question asks about "the meanings of specific bids". If one is speaking strictly, there is usually no such thing as the meaning of a specific bid. What has meaning is a bidding sequence. Consider the partial auctions:

  • 1H - 1S - 2NT - 3D (E/W silent)
  • 3D- P - P - P
  • 1H - 2D - P - 3D
  • 1H - 1S - 2H - 3D (E/W silent)
  • P - P - 1H -P - 2C - P - 3D

the bid of 3D has a significantly different meaning in each of these 5 sequences. Normally a bid is meaningful only in terms of the entire auction up to that point, or at least the immediately proceeding two or three calls by the partnership.

(The following is based on he versions of Standard American I tend to play. In the first auction 3D might be showing a diamond stopper, or agreeing a heart contract, depending on the partnership agreement. In the second it shows a weak 7-card diamond suit. In the third it shows diamond support, and at least hints at a 5D contract. In the fourth 3D firmly denies a heart fit. This may be a misfit hand, or it may work at 3NT if opener has a club stopper or two. Or if the pair is playing "new minor forcing" it may just show extra strength and a desire to hear more from partner, and say nothing about diamonds. The fifth is probably a Reverse Drury response showing a full opening bid with extra values and a diamond suit.)

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