7. Planning The Auction

Before making any bid we should note our position, vulnerability, and classify our hand. We sometimes have to anticipate our next bid in choosing the current one.

Note Your Seat!

You must always check your position and vulnerability. If you have not previously passed (“an unpassed hand”), there are slightly different rules than if you are. Some rules for passed hands are sometimes labeled “BPH” (By Passed Hand). vulnerability factors in less than you think, but it is important in preemptive bidding and other competitive situations.

Classifying Your Hand

The key is to know whether your hand is weak, competitive, invitational, game-going, or has slam-interest, and to constantly re-evaluate it as the auction proceeds. You make an initial assessment of this and then modify it as the auction gives you more information.

  • Weak: under 6 points

  • Competitive: 6 to a bad 10 points. Also called “minimal”.

  • Invitational: 10 to a bad 12 points. A raise of this size is called a “limit” raise.

  • Game-going: A good 12 or more points. Also called “game-forcing”.

  • Slam interest: When we either have 33 points between us, or have found a suit fit and are not too far below that.

Our goal is to bid to the best strain and level for our combined hands. To be at the two-level it would be nice if we had at least more points than they do. After all, we’re contracting to make 8 out of 13 tricks, which is 62% of the tricks. While being able to name the strain will help, having fewer than 50% of the points could be a problem.

For a game at 3NT we need at least 25 points; for the four-level in a suit, 26 points. For a minor game 29 points. The six level usually needs 33 total points, and the seven level 37 points. When we are in a suit contract, these figures include points that are gained due to distribution and support. In a misfit, HCP may be all that matters.

Deciding what to do with 10 or 12 points is where a lot of the agony happens. It used to be that a minimum opening hand was 13 HCP. So if responder had 12, they wanted to be in game. But with the opening requirements now down to 12, responder wants a decent 12 or 13.

Is This Forcing?

As we begin our study, some advice: the key to bidding is understanding passing! The most two common mistakes are:

  • Bidding when you should have passed, and

  • Passing when you were required to bid.

So, pay great attention in studying to know which bids are forcing to game, forcing for one round, or not forcing. If your partner makes a bid you don’t understand, don’t just pass in confusion. Rethink the sequence so far to see if you’ve misinterpreted something – not an easy task, as the brain tends to take us down little rat-holes. Was there a conventional bid you missed? If still confused do something, something as obvious as possible. The GOAT, Bob Hamman, said: when in doubt bid three no-trump.

When partner makes a forcing bid you must notice their message and respond, but if the opponents bid before you get that chance, you’re “off the hook”. You must estimate your joint strength and proceed accordingly.

One rule is ironclad: a new suit bid by an unpassed responder is forcing for one round; that is, the opener must respond to it IF the opponents are silent. Even this rule has exceptions, the most important being that if you were forced to bid, such as when partner makes a takeout double, you are not promising anything.

The opposite is true when a passed hand bids – almost nothing partner did is forcing except some doubles and artificial bids.

The Captain Concept

The Captain of a hand means the partner who becomes in charge of guiding the partnership to a good spot to play. When one player has shown the strength and nature of his hand (generally called limiting his hand, because it refers to having shown limits on the hand’s strength), the other partner becomes Captain. For example, after a no-trump opener, opener’s strength is known to within three points, and the responder is the Captain.

When partner is Captain, go to your cabin, look out the porthole, and enjoy the view. Your partner may go to game or tell you to stop; obey the Captain. Otherwise, just answer his questions or show something new about your hand if his bid was forcing. The Captain may put control back into your hands by making an invitational, non-forcing bid.

During the auction, both as opener and as responder, we need to plan our path forward. There is a concept called a reverse that is crucial, so we have to discuss that before we get specific.

Reverses by Opener

Imagine an auction that begins 1♦ - 1♠ - 2♥. As we will see, if responder has six to a bad ten HCP, they can only bid once, except to make a final choice of suits if necessary. For example, after 1♦ - 1♠ - 2♥, responder with such a hand must choose between diamonds, hearts, or his own spades. If he only has four spades, he has to choose one of opener’s suits.

But if responder cannot agree to hearts, his bid of 3♦ may be too high. The partnership might have fewer than half the points between them, yet we’re promising to take 9 of the 13 tricks. For this to be safe, opener would need around seventeen points.

Compare this to 1♥ - 1♠ - 2♣. Now if responder has to prefer hearts to clubs, a 2♥ bid is comfortable. Opener with a big hand might bid again, but at least they know we have a minimum.

So what caused the problem? It was that opener’s first suit was lower ranked than his second. Therefore the opener needs a very good hand to do that.

A reverse by opener is a rebid that meets two tests:

  1. Opener’s rebid is in a suit higher than his original suit, AND

  2. Opener’s rebid is a level higher than responder’s bid.

A reverse shows about 17-18 points and an unbalanced hand with more cards in the first suit than in the second. A reverse is absolutely forcing for one round unless opponents interfere, but not forcing to game. We can take length points into account. A few shapely hands with 15-16 hands qualify as well.


The second bid suit is always shorter and higher-ranked than the first bid suit. Opener cannot “reverse” from one four-card suit into another.

Example: 1♦ - 1♠ - 2♥. Hearts is higher than diamonds, and the 2♥ bid is up a level. Opener has more at least as many diamonds as hearts (typically 5-4).

There is one important exception. If responder has made a two-level bid he has shown at least 10 points, so if responder has to preference to 3♥, there is no problem – we’re already known to have around 23 points. Therefore, we do not consider a 2-level continuation a reverse. For example, Pass - 1♥ - 2♣ - 2♥. The 2♣ bid shows 10+ points.

Downey and Pomer’s book Standard Bidding With SAYC has a long section on reverses with a lot of examples.

When you have a five-card suit and a higher four-card suit, you have to open the five-card suit, but on your rebid you cannot show your four-card suit unless you have the values.

For example, with five diamonds and four hearts, if the auction goes 1♦ - 1♠ - 2♥, opener has reversed. Lacking that many points, opener may have to bid an imperfect 1N or repeat diamonds instead.

With 4 diamonds and 5 clubs, such as ♠92 ♥Q9 ♦AQJ5 ♣KQT43, we have a similar dilemma but without the risk of hiding a major. If we open this hand 1♣, and partner answers with a major or notrump, we have a problem. So some people will open this hand 1♦ instead. Others will bite the bullet, open 1♣, and rebid 2♣ if they have to, even though that suggests you might have a six card suit.

Obviously the quality of the two suits will influence the decision, unless you just always open 1♣.

When Opener Is Stronger

Since a reverse is forcing one round, you can sometimes use it when nothing else is available to keep the auction going. But in general, if your hand is 19+ points, and you have a good suit, opener might think of jumping a level in a new suit. This is called a jump-shift by opener, and it is always strong.

Responding To Partner’s Reverse

Suppose partner reverses: 1♦ - 1♠ - 2♥. This is forcing, so you have to bid.

If you bid opener’s first suit, it is a simple preference with a minimal hand. If you repeat your own major suit, you’re showing five cards and a minimum. Otherwise you bid naturally.

Some situations are ambiguous. Consider these two hands:

    1. ♠KT9832 ♥K98 ♦T86 ♣9

    1. ♠KQJ984 ♥K95 ♦T63 ♣A6

Hand (1) had to respond 1♠ on his first bid, with six points. But after opener reverses into 2♥, what would it mean to bid 2♠? And if that means something like (1), what bid should be made with hand (2) so that we get to some game? It seems like 2♠ had better mean a weak hand, and an offer to play there. And with (2), we get to start guessing.

Optionally, 2N!(relay) is a conventional bid telling your partner that you may have a minimal hand. It asks opener to rebid his first suit; then you will pass or correct to your suit. This convention is called Ingberman 2N or Lebensohl Over Reverses. Your partner should say “alert” (which is why I used the exclamation point).

Any bid other than a suit preference or 2N is game forcing when using this convention.

2N!(relay) - 3♣(forced) - 3♠(to play) shows a minimal hand like (1), while a direct 2♠ is forcing a round and shows 5+ spades. After the relay, bidding one of partner’s two suits is showing a suit preference with a weak hand.

In this context 2N! is called Ingberman and it is a use of the Lebensohl principle. If the opener has extra values they may choose to break the relay.

The full solution is covered in the chapter on Lebensohl. However, you can play the 2N! relay discussed in the above two cases without playing full Lebensohl.

Reverses By Responder

When responder reverses, it is just a game-forcing natural bid. For example, 1♠ - 2♣ - 2♠ - 3♦ is a game-forcing reverse, since diamonds are a higher suit than clubs. Again, the same principal is at work; an opener who wanted to prefer clubs is now forced up a level compared to bidding diamonds first and clubs second.

Note that 1♣ - 1♦ - 1♥ - 1♠ does not count as a reverse; we’re not up a level. But bidding 2♠, not 1♠, is a jump shift and game forcing. For this reason it is best to treat this 1♠ bid as forcing.

Sometimes a responder reverse is the fourth suit bid and therefore unlikely to find a fit with partner, so most play it as a conventional bid that is one-round or game-forcing but not showing that suit, asking partner to bid notrump with a stopper in the fourth suit. See Fourth Suit Forcing.