Aces on Bridge — Daily Columns

The Aces on Bridge: Sunday, May 4th, 2014

Where do you stand on the issue of using the opening no-trump call with hand-patterns such as 5-4 in the minors? Does your holding in the majors influence that decision?

Red Brick, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Where you have an easy rebid (as with five diamonds and four clubs) your hand would have to be stacked in the majors to make an opening of one no-trump palatable. Conversely, where you have reversing pattern and 15-16 points (four diamonds and five clubs, or four hearts and a five-card minor) opening one no-trump may be the least lie.

If you were second to speak with: ♠ —,  J-9-3,  A-K-Q-J-9-5-3-2, ♣ A-10 how would you best describe it? I can see a case for opening the hand with a one-level call, a pre-empt or even a strong two.

Scatterbrain, Selma, Ala.

Few of us have a strong two diamond call in our armory any more. I would strongly vote against two clubs and a high preempt seems self-defeating. So put me down as a one diamond opener — I’ll be surprised if everyone passes…

My question revolves around bidding conventions. A local bridge instructor (but also many opponents at local bridge clubs) reacts with shock if a bid has an unusual conventional meaning. I am often told that a specific call “always means…” This invariably gets into a heated debate about conventions which sometimes drives me to want to give up bridge. Should bids always mean the same thing or can you play what you want?

Free Bird, Danville, Ill.

I'm sorry to hear this. But in constructive or unopposed auctions, and especially on the later rounds of bidding, you should be allowed to play anything you like; you are not imposing on your opponents if you do this. I will deal with the rest of your question later this month.

I was fourth to speak with: ♠ A-Q-7-4-3,  J-3,  A-Q-9, ♣ A-J-10, and opened one spade. I heard my partner respond two spades and wanted to decide which game to get to. Should I jump to three no-trump and rely on my partner to convert back to four spades if appropriate?

Fred Flintstone, Holland, Mich.

Better is to make a game-try of three clubs, planning to pass a three-spade or three no-trump response, or to bid three no-trump over a three heart call from your partner. Over a three diamond response it feels right to bid four spades.

I know it may be hard to generalize, but in a no-trump contract, when would it be right for a partner not to return partner's opening lead suit and instead to switch to another suit? I find when in doubt it is better to continue the suit led.

Robert the Robot, Harrisburg, Pa.

Sometimes the evidence tells us that a shift is likely to be right. You might have a very strong suit of your own, or a good suit with an outside entry. Alternatively, dummy may have a strong holding in partner's suit. Equally, the rule of 11 may tell you that declarer is either strong or long in the suit led. For example, say partner leads a two (fourth highest) and both you and dummy hold a doubleton. Now you know continuing this suit, will establish declarer's five-card suit.

For details of Bobby Wolff’s autobiography, The Lone Wolff, contact If you would like to contact Bobby Wolff, please leave a comment at this blog. Reproduced with permission of United Feature Syndicate, Inc., Copyright 2014. If you are interested in reprinting The Aces on Bridge column, contact


ClarksburgMay 18th, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Good Morning Mr. Wolff,
Some months back, you provided comment / advice on method of scoring for a monthly teams-of-four league game we were starting up. You said , in part:

“…BAM scoring, in some ways, is the truest form of scoring because every hand, whether part score, game or slam hand, takes on equal importance and experience dictates that overall all encompassing bridge skill itself usually will separate the teams rather than some luck involved with bidding and making slams (for example) which large number will overrate that achievement in the final result…”
Our league is up and running, and most enjoyable.
Can you offer some comment on whether, and how, the strategy and tactics in BAM format may differ from say Pairs?

bobby wolffMay 18th, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Hi Clarksburg,

A BAM format, particularly when all (or mostly and taken in proper context) requires, IMO, the most recognized bridge qualities which, in turn, causes it to be the purest way of recognizing which team played the best for the entire length of the tournament.

Attributes of BAM:

1. Requires the most consistent play by all of its players by having every board the same value instead of like rubber bridge or IMPs when the slams become much more important than the games, and the games more important than the part scores with an analogy coming to mind, in baseball, a home run hitter being compared with a singles specialist. This, in turn, results in more attention turned to the play of the hand, defense, painfully accurate part score situations (NT over majors and majors over minors) and all of the sometimes lesser valued situations (overtricks and undertricks) which are not so important in non BAM events.

2. Because of #1 (above) the intensity required to play BAM (particularly the Reisinger at the Fall Nationals) is off-the-charts, making the final day of the Reisinger (always the last Sunday) by everyone’s standards the absolute toughest day in bridge exceeding even the finals of the World Championships, which has always, ever since the late 1950’s been conducted at IMPs, because of no letup in concentration from the 1st board through the last when every trick has now become so vitally important (including the blind opening lead which sometimes is involved with only the luck of the deal).

3. Probably because of numbers 1 and 2 above, BAM tournaments are the best way for talented hopeful younger players to get the right mindset of what high-level bridge should be and is, all about. The sad feature is that lesser players at that time (whose mindset does not aspire to become better, much less world class) might very well not appreciate the seriousness needed to climb quickly up the ladder of bridge ability to heretofore unknown heights.

Having said the above and cutting to the chase, the major differences between BAM and Pairs or for that matter IMPs is the concentration on every card and the testing of how well a bridge partnership plays under the pressure of what BAM scoring demands.

One thing is clear, since my career goes way back to even the late 1940’s when BAM events occurred at Sectionals, Regionals and Nationals, when teaming up with the best players in the community the results, much unlike pairs tournaments, almost always (90%+) featured a finishing order of who was thought to be the best players around since the results almost always showed the favored team, certainly no worse than an overall 2nd place and perhaps (75%) the winner.

Very simply, the best players always preferred the BAM format and the lesser players began boycotting it, forcing (not in my opinion) the ACBL to cut down on BAM events in order to please the majority of its players. This mindset will eventually kill what was meant to be the great game of bridge (no mind game can compare with it, even though chess is even more cerebral, but without including so many other mind qualities, which involve versatility in thought, quick witted creative mindsets and always in addition, the experience of being there before and do not overlook ever present iron discipline which is necessary to keep a partnership together).

Finally a BAM format incorporates everything good about bridge, but sometimes (as said and implied above) becomes just too difficult for players not yet ready for it.

jim2May 18th, 2014 at 2:08 pm

I defer to Our Host on tactics (as well I should!), but a bit of history might be relevant.

IIRC, the early team matches were Total Points scoring. In that format, slam hands were usually match deciders, games were relevant, and part score deals were relatively meaningless. Going down one versus going down two, or making an overtrick were basically not relevant.

IMP scoring was developed, at least in part, to create relevance for lower scoring hands while reducing the effects of disasters.

BAM – by making every deal of equal value – takes that trend to the other extreme, which might be best, as Our Host suggested.

OTOH, some bidding systems are essentially built around optimizing game decisions or perhaps slam bidding. In a Total Points contest, optimizing for slam bidding makes a bit less sense than in IMP scoring and even less sense in BAM. More subtle arguments might be made for pre-emption bidding.

Anyway, food for thought, perhaps.

bobby wolffMay 18th, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Hi Jim2,

Even though we both basically are saying the same thing, you brought up what preceded IMPs, total point scoring, which later was thought to put too great an emphasis on slam bidding and IMPs were then created which, at least to me, has succeeded in no trump to now having been done.

In my analogy, noted above, I mention baseball and compared home run hitters (sluggers) compared to singles hitters which in many ways are worth comparing with bridge.

In baseball however, sluggers are paid more money and consequently are in greater demand by teams who are dedicated to provide winning franchises. So, if I am correct in suggesting that analogy, IMPs (and before that, total points) baseball is closer to a sluggers league than is bridge, especially since I sing the praises of BAM.

The conclusion, however, is slightly different from that in bridge since IMO, BAM is a better judge of overall skill in bridge, but perhaps IMPs is more fun, less intense, and includes the X factor, which I would define as psychology (poker element) which is at its highest point in bridge when competitiveness at the above game levels in bridge force incredibly important huge IMP differences by decisions based only on judgment as to the competitive mindsets of the opponents.

In brief, BAM is based on the highest technical bridge components while IMPs involve mano vs mano psychology.

Bill CubleyMay 18th, 2014 at 2:52 pm

I liked your answer to the Alabaman about not opening a strong two bid. My feeling is that opening these hands with two clubs makes strong bidding mix with better preemptive bids – really bad bidding. You mentioned the auction is very unlikely to die at the one level. There are lots of HCP and shape still to be bid.

BTW, congrats he asked you and not fellow Alabaman Fred Stewart 😉

bobby wolffMay 18th, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Hi Bill,

Thanks for your agreement (and reason) in choosing when to open or not a GF strong two bid with only a highly distributional hand.

I appreciate your congratulations about him asking me and not Fred. In truth Fred is one of the most likeable writers and players in the bridge world and has been all of his adult life and also in the business of bridge columns all syndicated writers are often in many if not all states and so the reader of a particular bridge column can unknowingly live next door to another writer but still only respond to what is in his particular local newspaper.

Such is the life all of us are living in this sometimes wonderful, but often not, world.

At times it is fun to discuss philosophy instead of just bridge.

jim2May 18th, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Well, maybe I need to expand on my point a bit.

One estimate of slam, game, part score frequency:

– 37 points – 0.02%
– 33 points – 0.70%
– 26 points – 25.3%

Yes, these are somewhat low, as distribution often means more tricks can be taken than simple HCP-based estimates. Still, look at the implications!

For example, let’s arbitrarily increase the above to 2% slams and 40% games. That still means that part score bidding should be the focus of BAM-centric bidding systems and that slam bidding is essentially worthless system-wise.

So, which systems are most BAM-centric? Weak notrumps? Four card majors? Precision? Light openers? Kamikaze NT? Woodson two-way NT?

jim2May 18th, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Using Our Host’s baseball analogy, if there is no gain in a home run over a single, then hitting strategies would probably focus a lot more on bunts than they do. After all, a long out is an out and a long hit would be just another single.

In such a baseball league, you would have zero heavy hitters on the roster. Instead, you would maximize based solely on batting averages.

Similarly, in BAM leagues, one would want a system that focused on part score hands, less on game bidding, and not at all on slam bidding (beyond the rudimentary).

ClarksburgMay 18th, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Many thanks! (and to Jim2 also!).
In my initial question I forgot to mention that we are indeed using BAM scoring, carried forward all year, in the inter-Club Teams league.
I also use BAM scoring in a single-event monthly small game when I have an odd number of Teams, i.e.5, 7, 9; with 4, 6 or 8 Teams we have a full Round Robin IMPs. With 10, and sometimes with 8, we’ll run a Swiss VPs.
The Players are just intermediate / advanced club level re skill, with maybe 20% strongish. They really like “Teams” !, and there haven’t been many significant complaints about the BAM scoring.

bobby wolffMay 18th, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Hi Jim2,

I enjoyed your arithmetical conclusion which was certainly more a direct reference to Clarksburg’s question than I was able to furnish.

Upon my quiet consideration of trying to assess my gut reaction, surprisingly my remembered feelings give much respect to your numerate assessment. Ready to do battle at the two and three level especially against the quality teams in the event, keeping in mind that (especially after the first qualification) no poor teams were left in.

If ever there was justification of low level doubling when the opponents were probably competing aggressively, B-A-M was the time. Of course, the quality of their declarer play, sometimes made close doubles look like poor strategy (-670 for an example) but common sense dictated that at least at that time, the old rationalization of “if you never bring back such a score it just proves that your partnership is not doubling enough” even makes sense.

Anyway, I do not believe that even today, partnerships discuss such tactics, rather just play, but individually are certainly conscious of the unwritten right of passage to the winner’s circle.

bobby wolffMay 18th, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Hi Clarksburg,

Your experience with your experiment of BAM scoring is mostly encouraging.

At some point in time, I would suggest hand records with as many scorecards present, (refreshing the player’s recollection of what happened) and a relaxed analysis (along King Arthur’s roundtable idea) of how the bidding and play went. The idea is to suggest to all the different attitudes concerning strategy with conclusions, always trying not to be based on results, but rather what one would do when confronted in the future.

With that process as a backdrop (which it could and is done when and where worldwide, bridge is in the schools) bridge logic will take a sudden surge upward and everyone will find out that bridge mirrors life in making percentage decisions which work out most of the time.

Perhaps that dream will die, but in the meantime, the Western Hemisphere will suffer by being the last to adopt such a key step in general education.

ClarksburgMay 18th, 2014 at 9:10 pm

More Thanks!!
Actually I do provide hand records, and individual team summaries, for the games I run, because I like to provide a learning opportunity every time. And we do have some post mortem discussions via E-mail.
We had a couple of beauties last game. Two of us “stole” a NT game when the opponents had 6 Club tricks off the top, opening leader holding Axx. I heard Bobby Wolff whispering in my ear “go for it, they may not find their suit”.
On another, one Declarer bid to 6 Hearts. Because of blockages in the two Black Suits, her only route to Dummy for discards was to cash two Diamonds then ruff into Dummy with Dummy’s lowly 4 of trumps. We didn’t find the trump lead to kill that entry.
Great learning stuff.
And by the way Bobby, my Partner, who was a School teacher, is on track to start something in local Schools in our area.