20. Balancing

Mike Lawrence has a wonderful book about balancing, “All About Balancing”. Learning to balance is very important, especially at matchpoints.

Balancing refers to making a bid when passing would end the auction. The situations vary as to whether one or both opponents have bid, which suit they bid (or notrump), and the shape of your own hand. The key point is that how many HCP you have is not as important as it usually is, because in these situations your partner and you may have half the points or nearly so.

Balancing In Fourth Seat

Your LHO opens a suit, and after two passes, it is up to you. The opener’s partner has nothing,but your partner may have a variety of hands. He has a hand that could not overcall but he could even have a good opening hand that had no suitable bid.

As a general rule, you bid as if you had 3 more points in your hand (called “borrowing a King from partner”) and when partner replies, he will reply as if he had 3 points fewer.

To balance with 1N you should have 12 - 15 HCP and definitely a stopper in opener’s suit. Above 15 HCP you usually double first, in the same way that you would double rather than make a direct overcall if you had 18 HCP.

For example, after LHO opens 1♥ and it is passed to you, holding:

♠ KQ82 ♥92 ♦KQ96 ♣J72

you can double because you have at least three cards in the other suits and could open the hand easily if it had another King. Your partner with 10 HCP would NOT jump in reply, as he would if you were directly after the opener, because he owes you that King.

But, with:

♠ KQ82 ♥92 ♦KQ962 ♣J7

you cannot double, because you really won’t like it when partner bids clubs. You have a five card suit so you can bid 2♦. (There is a convention called Equal Level Conversion Doubles, designed for exactly this situation, but it is a partnership agreement and requires experience to recognize).


♠ KQT82 ♥9 ♦KQ96 ♣J72

on the other hand, bid 1♠; it is important to show that five-card spade suit. If you make a takeout double, you’re denying five cards in an unbid major.

With partnership agreement, 2 of the opener’s suit is Michaels. 2N is Unusual 2N, showing the lowest two unbid suits, perhaps only 5-4 in the suits if you have some decent points. Two-suited bids allow you to get in there more often, but require more experience.

Balancing after (1N) P (P)

You have to be more careful than when overcalling 1N because the big hand is to your left. We play our chosen defense to 1N in passout seat as well as direct seat; ask your partner about doing this or just bidding natural suits.

Balancing When Both Opponents Have Bid

Balancing in auctions in which both opponents have limited their hand so that their side appears to have roughly half the deck, say 18 - 22 HCP, is important. Consider these auctions:

(1M) P (2M) P – they stop at 2M
(P) ?

(1m) P (1N) P – they stop after a 1N response
(P) ?

(1m) P (1y) P – they stop after a 1N rebid
(1N) P (P) ?

Balancing in passout seat has been previously covered. It differs from these situations in that the opener has not limited his hand as much. Likewise, an opening bid of 1N that is passed out can leave your side with as few as 15-16 HCP. By contrast, the auctions above indicate a deck that is more evenly divided with a tentative contract that will often make.

The 1M - 2M auction is especially important. If your opponents have a major fit and have made no effort to go to game, then the deck is about evenly divided. Both sides have 18-22 HCP. If you pass, you will usually get a very poor score, especially at matchpoints. It is worth considerable risk to compete. They have a fit, so we have a fit. Let’s find it.

If they have stopped with a suit preference, that’s different: 1♥ - 1♠ - 2♣ - 2♥ does not show that the opponents have an 8-card heart fit, just that responder prefers hearts to clubs. He might have something like ♠KT83 ♥98 ♦KJT32 ♣92. This means your side might not have a fit either, so bidding over them is more dangerous.

The third auction tells you your side has about half the points, so again you try to get into the auction, but it is more difficult.

If your opponents have 18-22 HCP, then you and your partner have 18 - 22 HCP. Therefore YOUR HCP ARE RELATIVELY UNIMPORTANT. Whatever you do not have, your partner does have. Your shape and suit quality ARE important. The more flexible you are, the better. A one-suited balance is the least flexible and the most dangerous.

Be liberal about balancing in matchpoints. You likely have a bad board if you pass. If you turn that bad board into a top once in a while, it will more than overcome losing a little more a few times.

At IMPs, be more discrete when vulnerable as there is no gain if you go down one. Always have a perfect distribution for your action.

Besides competing, learning to balance helps your partnership avoid competing in ways that are more likely to get you into trouble, such as ill-judged takeout doubles, two-level suit overcalls in live auctions, and overcalling weak four-card suits. Partner can pass such hands if they can trust you to balance.

What Is The Goal?

Getting them to bid one more is the goal. Getting the contract isn’t.

If they “take the push” and bid one more, you stand an extra chance of setting them that you otherwise did not have. And after all, if they are in three hearts making three, they get the same score as if they are in two hearts making three.

If they do bid one more, we pass. Our work is done. No more bidding. No penalty doubles.

Always try to balance and respond as flexibly as possible. Convince your opponents that you have found a fit and they may bid on.

How Do I Balance?

Your distribution is the key to your choice of balancing action, and to responding when your partner balances. Agreeing on a convention for two-suited bids is important.

We will discuss some specific auctions below. However, there are some general guidelines:

  • Double only with at least three cards in all the unbid suits.

  • Bid a one-suited hand (5+ cards at the one- or two-level, 6+ cards at the three-level), in any of the auctions, if the suit is good.

Balancing When They Stop At Two

Your opponents have bid 1M - 2M, passed to you in balancing seat. If you pass, odds are that you’re getting a bad board, especially in matchpoints or non-vul at IMPs. Do something! But what?

  • Double is for takeout, with three-card or longer support for all unbid suits. Partner should bid their best suit. But, by partnership agreement, it is good to be more flexible if you can. Partner with two four-card or longer suits can reply 2N! (two places to play), and we then bid up-the-line until a fit is found.

  • Balancing with 2N! shows two places to play; this will be four-card support for two unbid suits. Partners bid up the line to find the fit.

  • After 1m - 2m (not inverted), or 1m - 1N - 2m, double shows three or more in both majors, although 4-4 or better is preferable.

Balancing A Notrump

The auctions:


are opportunities to balance. They have opened a minor and stopped at 1N.

After 1♦- 1N, the responder has clubs of some sort, and after 1♣ - 1N, the responder may have by-passed four diamonds. Be aware.

It is unlikely you want double to be penalty so treat a double as takeout for the suit they mentioned.

Again: the goal is to get them to bid again. Act confidently. When they fall for it, quit. Glare at your partner if your partner doesn’t quit too.