26. Lebensohl

The Lebensohl idea is perhaps the key idea of advanced bidding. This idea is applicable in a wide variety of competitive situations, but we begin by learning it as a way of dealing with interference over a 1N opener. It can also be used after partner doubles a 2-level preempt or when opponents interfere over a 2♣ opener, or after an opener’s reverse, and in other competitive situations. We cover the other situations later.

What these seemingly different situations have in common is that a bidder has to differentiate different hand types but is running out of room to do so at a reasonable level. While frequently the word Lebensohl is used to refer to a bid of 2N relaying to 3♣, that’s really a misuse. Rather, 2N as a relay to 3♣ is the signature bid of an idea.

A variant, Transfer Lebensohl, is becoming popular among experts. A lesson on it is available from Gavin Wolpert at wolpertbridge.com.

There never was a player named Lebensohl, and Kenneth Lebensold, who got the credit at one time, denies having created it. So arguably the convention should be spelled lebensohl.

Lebensohl After We Open 1N

Since life will usually be easy for us after we open 1N, opponents are motivated to interfere. That uses up the room we need to decide our strain and level. Lebensohl gives up one natural reply in order to effectively double the remaining space.

Suppose we open 1N and this is overcalled. Of course, if responder is weak they need do nothing. But what if responder is competitive or better?

For example, suppose responder has a good 5(or more) card suit and enough values that he wishes to compete for a part-score or a game. Consider this bidding sequence:

1N (2♥) 3♣

Imagine responder has one of these two hands:

  1. ♠xxx ♥xx ♦Jx ♣KQxxxx

  2. ♠AQx ♥xx ♦Jx ♣KQxxxx

With (1), responder would like to have the contract be 3♣. With (2), responder would like to force to game, probably 3N or 5♣, depending on opener’s heart holding.

The one bid 3♣ cannot mean two things. It is ambiguous.

Absent Lebensohl, a cue bid of their suit traditionally is Stayman. For example, 1N (2♦) 3♦ is Stayman. Suppose opener bids spades but you have four hearts. Can you bid 3N without a stopper? If opener had neither major, can he bid 3N without a stopper? It’s ambiguous.

Resolving ambiguity is the heart of Lebensohl. How do we come up with a way to express these different hands?

When we have a 5(or more) card suit to show, it might be:

  • Competitive, wanting to stop in responder’s suit;

  • Invitational;

  • Game-forcing.

We will use an artificial bid, called Lebensohl 2N, to effectively double the number of 3-level bids available to us. This bid is called Lebensohl 2N. After we bid 2N!(relay), partner must bid 3♣. Then we can make a three-level bid. So there are two ways, for example, to bid 3♦. Bid 3♦ right away, or first bid 2N!(relay) and after opener bids 3♣, bid 3♦.

Bidding immediately is called a “fast” bid; going through the relay first is the “slow” bid. For suits, the fast bid will be the stronger way; for Stayman, the slow cue bid will show a stopper, while the fast will deny one. For 3N, slow will show a stopper, fast will deny a stopper.

Important

How We Treat Artificial Bids

When the intervenor has made a bid that shows one suit and an unknown second suit, we ignore the second suit for the moment and proceed as if they had bid the known suit. For example, a Cappelletti 2♥ bid shows “hearts and a minor”. We’ll react as if it was just hearts. A D.O.N.T. bid of 2♦ shows “diamonds and a major”. We’ll react as if it was just diamonds. If the intervenor makes a bid showing two definite suits, see Artificial Overcalls, below.

Lebensohl After A Natural Two-Level Overcall

Lebensohl is off when they double or bid 2♣

If the overcall was in clubs, or intervenor doubled, Lebensohl is off. Systems are on. This is also true when they make an artificial 2♣ bid or an artificial double promising one long suit.

Systems on means we use our normal bids, as if they had not bid. Double is Stayman, 2♦ is a transfer to hearts, and so on. If they doubled for penalty, it is a runout situation. If they made an artificial double that showed one definite suit, we treat it as if they had bid that suit; but when the suit is unknown our system is on, and redouble is Stayman.

When they made a natural bid of 2♦, 2♥, or 2♠.

Over their two-level overcall of 2♦, 2♥, or 2♠:

  • A two-level suit bid is non-forcing (“to play”).

  • A three-level suit bid is game-forcing (fast bid).

  • A bid of 2N!(relay to 3♣) forces opener to bid 3♣. Now responder:

    • Can pass with a weak hand with long clubs;

    • Bid a suit of lower rank than the overcall as a signoff (slow bid); or

    • Bid a suit of a higher rank than the overcall as invitational.

Note that a direct three-level bid might be a jump (e.g. 1N - (2♥) - 3♠) but it isn’t weak because if you were weak you could have just passed.

Further, if responder has a game-forcing hand he can show other hand types besides a suit of his own:

  • An “fast” cue bid is Stayman and denies a stopper in their suit.

  • A “slow” cue bid is Stayman and shows a stopper. (“Slow shows”).

  • An immediate bid of 3N over the overcall denies an unbid four-card major and denies a stopper.

  • A “slow” 3N bid denies an unbid four-card major and shows a stopper.

One can also still make normal bids at the four-level.

  • 4♣ is Gerber.

  • 4♦! and 4♥! are Texas Transfers to hearts and spades, showing six card suits and values for game only. With a strong hand and a six-card major game-force at the three level first.

  • 4♠! (rare) invites opener to pick a minor game.

  • 4N is invitational to 6N and of course promises a stopper.

The sharp-eyed reader will have noticed that there is no way to invite in notrump (we gave it up for the Lebensohl 2N), and there is no way to invite in a suit of lower-rank than the overcall. The explanation for the suit bids is that when responder has a higher-ranked suit S he has three ways to bid it:

  • 2S – to play

  • 2N relay then 3S – invitational

  • 3S – game-forcing

But when the suit S is lower-ranked, the 2S bid does not exist, so the relay has to mean the “to play” bid and we just don’t have an invitational bid.

Examples

Five-card suit:

  • 1N (2♦) 2♥ is to play

  • 1N (2♦) 2N! - 3♣! - 3♥ is invitational

  • 1N (2♦) 3♥ is game-forcing.

  • 1N (2♥) 2N! - 3♦ is to play

  • 1N (2♥) 3♦ is game-forcing; there is no way to invite in diamonds.

  • 1N (2♣) 2♦ is a transfer to hearts. (Lebensohl off for clubs!)

Balanced hand, without a four-card major:

  • 1N (2♦) 2N! - 3♣ - 3N is to play, diamonds are stopped – slow shows.

  • 1N (2♦) 3N wants to play 3N but does not have a diamond stopper. Opener will pass if he has one, or start suggesting suits up the line.

For the Stayman cases:

  • 1N (2♦) 3♦ is GF Stayman, but denies a diamond stopper.

  • 1N (2♦) 2N! - 3♣! - 3♦ is GF Stayman and promises a diamond stopper.

After this the Stayman dance is modified in obvious ways. For example, in these auctions, opener without a four-card major will have to bid:

  • 3N if he has no unbid four-card major and either has a diamond stopper or was promised one by responder, or

  • 4♣ to show responder that we lack a major fit or a diamond stopper.

Note

Do not call the 2N bid by itself “Lebensohl”. Lebensohl is the entire system described in this chapter. This bid is its signature, but it isn’t the only thing to know.

Lebensohl and Doubles

Is Double Penalty?

Lebensohl per se does not say what a double of the overcall means. Two choices are:

  • A double is penalty-oriented, or,

  • A double shows competitive values and while takeout-oriented it promises 2 or 3 in their suit. This allows opener to pass for penalty without running into some massive fit for them.

Rodwell’s pamphlet on Lebensohl says to play it for penalties.

A reopening double by opener of an overcall in fourth seat is for takeout.

The remainder of this section is less well standardized. I give some common-sense suggestions.

Three-level Overcalls

Over three-level overcalls, we obviously cannot use the Lebensohl 2N bid. A suggestion:

  • A double is for takeout, showing support for the other three suits.

  • Bids at the three level are natural, one-round forcing, and

  • 3N, 4♥, 4♠, 5♣, and 5♦ are to play. I suggest 3N promises a stopper.

  • A cue bid is Stayman, or may show slam interest lacking a four-card major:

    • 1N (3♦) 4♦ – 4♥ – 4N (to play)

    • 1N (3♦) 4♦ – 4N(no major) - Pass

    • 1N (3♦) 4♦ – 4? – 5♣ (slam interest in clubs)

Two-Suited Overcalls

If their overcall shows two definite suits, Lebensohl is off. I like to use the spirit of the General Defense To Two-Suited Bids, letting the invisible cue bids show a game-forcing bid of responder’s suit using the lower-lower concept, and letting double show a penalty double of one of their suits. Bidding one of “our” two suits naturally is to play if we can bid it at the 2-level.

When we speak of the overcalled suit or suits, we mean the ones their bid showed, not the artificial one actually bid. E.g. a Cappelletti 2♦ meaning “both majors” makes the two major suits “theirs” and diamonds is one of “ours”.

Doubling says you have a penalty double in at least one of their suits.

Rodwell in Lebensohl (See Resources) has a more complicated scheme.

Answering Takeout Doubles Of Weak Two Bids

When an opponent opens a weak two bid, and we double it, that shows a decent opening hand with shortness in their suit. The double is for takeout. But we run into a familiar dilemma. Consider an auction that begins (2♥) X (P) ? where the advancer holds a very weak hand with six diamonds. Advancer definitely wants to bid three diamonds and have that be that.

But if he has a much stronger hand with diamonds that wants to go to game, then he wishes he could ask partner whether he has hearts stopped.

The solution is to realize that (2♥) X (P) ? is not that different from 1N (2♥) ?. We can just play Lebensohl. The doubler can refuse a 2N! relay to show a strong hand.

There is one more scenario that should be considered Lebensohl:

(1x) X (2x) ?

where x is not clubs. This is similar to (2x) X (P) ? Thus, play 2N here as the relay to clubs. This means:

  • 2y is to play

  • 2N is a relay to 3♣, pass or correct. To play if the suit was not biddable at the level, otherwise invitational.

  • 3-level bids are game forcing.

Again, refusing the relay shows a strong hand.

When They Overcall Our Two Club Opener

The auction 2♣ (2♥) is similar to 1N (2♥). We have the same dilemma of wanting to compete but not wanting to confuse partner as to our hand strength. Lebensohl can be used in these situations. If opponents play 2♣ (X) as showing the majors we would treat that as a two-suited bid in hearts and spades.

Lebensohl Over Reverses

Imagine this headache: partner opens 1♣, you bid 1♠ with a minimal four-card holding, and partner reverses with 2♥. This is forcing for one round. What to do? If you had five spades you could just bid 2♠. But let’s say you don’t, but you do prefer clubs or have five diamonds you by-passed in order to show your four-card major.

If you just bid 3♣ as a preference, that’s ok – until the next time when you have a better hand and can’t bid 3♣ because the partnership has decided it is to play. Hmm. This sounds familiar – it is the same ambiguity as 1N (2♥) 3♣ – what does it mean? And the dilemma has the same solution – Lebensohl.

So, for example, a direct bid of 3♣ over a 2♥ reverse is game-forcing. A “slow” trip to 3♣ via 2N, lets you pass and stop there.

Simplified Lebensohl

If you do not feel comfortable with full Lebensohl, use this simpler version of it. It covers most responder hand types.

The opposition has bid a suit 2♦, 2♥, or 2♠ over our 1N opener.

  • Double is penalty-oriented with at least two cards in their suit.

  • Two-level suit bids are to play

  • Three-level suit bids are game forcing

  • 2N! is a relay to 3♣!(forced), pass or correct. If responder corrects to a suit he could have bid at the two-level, it is invitational; otherwise, to play.

  • 3N is to play with a stopper.

  • A cue bid is game-forcing Stayman. Opener should show a major if he has one.

When you’ve been bitten enough times by the holes in the simplification, you can learn the rest of it.

You can get super-simplified by just remembering the 2-level is to play, and 2N is a relay to 3♣, pass or correct. Ordinary bridge logic should kick in from there.

Good - Bad 2N

This Lebensohl variant is explained most fully in Larry Cohen’s “To Bid Or Not To Bid” and in Marty Bergen’s “Better Bidding With Bergen”.

In a competitive auction, it is your turn to bid and RHO has just bid 2x, whether as a raise of his partner or a new suit, after your partner doubled or made an overcall. For example, let’s suppose the auction went (1♥) - 1♠ - (2♥). Suppose you have a good diamond suit but no spade support. Then what does your 3♦ bid show? Most of the time of course you’re just trying to compete but other times you have a extras and partner may wish to go higher knowing that.

Enter the Good - Bad 2N, created by Larry Cohen in his book “To Bid Or Not To Bid”. Whenever we are in a competitive suit auction and our RHO has made a 2-level bid, 2N! is a relay to 3♣, pass or correct. Bidding directly on the three level shows extras.

Take for example this auction:

(1♠) 2♦ (2♠) ?

Without an agreement, a 3♦ bid here is hard to read. With Good - Bad 2N, 3♦ might be a good four-card diamond suit with 9 points, while 2N!(relay) - 3♣!(forced) - 3♦ might be only six points and partner will know not to compete further.

This convention also applies when you opened:

1♥(you) (2♣) Pass (2♠)

If you have a two-suiter in hearts and diamonds, you want to distinguish 3♦ giving partner a choice vs. 3♦ showing something like an 18-point 5-5 hand.

You must draw inferences when partner does not use the relay when he could have.

With some experience, you can use the Good - Bad distinction in many other competitive auctions. According to “Better Bidding With Bergen”, it is important that this convention be off in situations such as:

  • where 2N is clearly Unusual 2N

  • when either side has opened 1N

  • when the opponents opened a strong 1♣!.

  • when the opponents have made a penalty double

  • when we have already found a fit

  • when we are already in a game-forcing auction.