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Bridge: Opening/defending 1NT

There is plenty on the Web about constructive bidding over 1NT and this page focuses on 1NT tactical aspects. It mainly reflects my own experience in a 10-12 and 12-14 environment although the principles discussed are universal.

The 1NT complex is a pivotal battle ground at pairs. Optimum strategy will depend on the strength of your own, or opponents opening, and quite critically on both side's vulnerability.

In North America and the Latin parts of Europe 1NT opening is commonly 15-17 or more whereas Northern Europeans prefer 12-14, or even less. Although it doesn't much affect the tactics, I'll start by looking at these three common styles of no trump opening. Assume that all players' points are mid range and see what that expectation from partner means in terms of tricks. We shall look back to this later

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Trick expectations playing various ranges

style 15-17
Strong 1NT
Weak 1NT
Mini 1NT
old card
Average points 16 points 13 points 11 points
Partner's points 8 points 9 points 9.6 points
Combined points 24 points! 22 points 20+
  eight+ seven seven - if you're lucky!

Observations on average trick expectation

We'll come back to style decisions later, but let's carry this line of logic through. We'll find that a non-vulnerable 1NT contract is nearly always a good bet, curiously only losing out when your opponents are vulnerable but chose to open 1NT, and then go down. Whereas your own undoubled nv 1NT gains most if it fails! Here's the score matrix when nobody doubles

Our tricks: four five six seven eight scenario
old card -150 -100 -50 +90 +120 We declare 1NT nov-vul
-300 -200 -100 +90 +120 We declare 1NT vulnerable
-180/-400 -120 -90 +50 +100 Opps. declare 1NT nov-vul
-180/-600 -120 -90 +100 +200 Opps. declare 1NT vulnerable
Their tricks: nine eight seven six five

Now look a the same matrix when 1NT is doubled. I'll highlight the clear "tops" against undoubled contracts by the other side, and leave blank some sillier results as we are still looking for general principles.

Our tricks: four five six seven eight scenario
old card -500 -300 -100 +180   We declare 1NT nov-vul doubled (recall that -500 may still beat -600's)
-800 -500 -200 +180   We declare 1NT vulnerable doubled
    -180 +100 +300 Opps. declare 1NT nov-vul doubled
    -180 +200 +500 Opps. declare 1NT vulnerable doubled
Their tricks: nine eight seven six five

A strategy emerges

As might be expected - the counter to opponents stealing your 1NT contract is a simple double, although we saw above that doubling isn't always necessary when they are vulnerable. 1NTx made is always good and opponents may therefore fail to double if things seem close to them.

all this suggests the following strategy at match points bridge

three dogs fighting
1NT ... starting a dog fight!

Of course all this applies equally to 1NT rebids. To take these situations in in order


1. Declare 1NT whenever possible when not vulnerable

link: note Technically you can do slightly better if your trick expectation is 7-8 by allowing vulnerable opponents to declare 1NT and defeating them. But as you cannot ordain this happy outcome yourself - let's examine your own strategy. As we have seen you are always OK when not doubled, and you will preempt their major opening. The main considerations are frequency, and escaping when you get doubled.
  • Frequency A range centred on 10 points is most frequent and I like to play 9-12 when this is legal. Essentially every point added to the range knocks about 15% off the frequency. 12-14 is only 66% as common and 15-17 half so. Up to you.
    A nice side effect of a mini 10-12) range in that partner's pass is limited to 9 points (unless unbalanced). So it's safe to open 1NT on 10-15 in 3rd hand doubling the frequency. Playing 9+ NT an incredible 9-16 3rd hand range will not miss games!
  • Escapes are a matter of taste and practice. I use my own Halmic variant which I term "dig-out" as it uses spades to bully my poor opponents. You can make your own choice here
    • Pass = forcing "partner will redouble"
      The redouble may (rarely) be passed. More commonly we'll scramble a fit of sorts, opener
      knowing that his partner does not have 4 spades Note that Halmic users cannot play in 1NT doubled (only redoubled)
    • Redouble = "puppet into 2C - I will pass or convert to another 5+ suit"
      There's a nice opportunity for some Paradox mischief here! A 1NT holding 4 clubs should call 2D!
      If partner's suit is clubs the 3 level will be perfectly safe. 1NT with 4-4 minors should call 2H using the same logic.
    • Immediate Suit = natural "with 4 spades as well". Bully your opponents when you have spade fit!
      opener can call an assertive 2S with 4 spades and 3S holding five. When in trouble try 2S only three!
    • 2NT as "5-5 in the minors" - go for it!
    • Three of a suit also as "preemptive" with a 6-7 card suit
    See below for bidding up advice.


2. Make your own 1NT contract when vulnerable

link: note Well that's not a difficult concept!. A mini NT is now however a bad bet. The expectation opposite an average dummy is only 20.6 points, and of course you might get doubled. In my view the rational choice is between either a weak or a strong range. In the latter case you can expect at least a couple of honours in dumnmy when you rebid 1NT after opening a suit, with the added safeguard that partner may have raised you. FWIW I've personally chosen strong 1NT vulnerable (14-16 suiting my other system parameters best).


3. When opponents are vulnerable - why not simply defend?

link: note
Your vulnerable
right hand opp
opens 1NT ...
S Qx
D Axx
C Jxx
S Jx
H K10xxxx
D Ax
S KQ10xx
H x
D Axx
C KJxx

All the hands above count the same 13 points but with a good lead and an entry I'd prefer to pass on the first example and take my chance defending. The two hands to the right are in my view better overcalled. The second hand's thin heart suit are better in offence than defence, and the spade hand has a nice side suit. If we adjust one last parameter and make opponents non-vulnerable would personally overcall the first hand at 'green' and might be tempted at unfavourable vulnerability.


4. When opponents open or rebid 1NT nv - take risks!

link: note This is the really fun part. In ACBL-land famous defences are DONT and Cappelletti. Both are illegal here as regulations require at least one suit specified. However I feel these 1/2 suited styles are optimised against strong NT and prefer the fluidity of Jonathon Cansino's defence against our prevalent UK 12-14 range.
  • 2H or 2S as simply "natural"
  • 2D as "both majors" - 4+4 is a safe venture, the odds of 8-card fit are then about 2:1
    It is important to have some sort of "both majors" bid - particularly at teams!
  • 2C as "playable in 3 suits including clubs"
    I have to say that Cansino 2C at the table has been simply fantastic! The governing EBU (level 2) regulation is
    12.13.1 (b) (iii) three suits, at least 4-4-3-2, of which at least one is specified.
    Suggesting 4432 with three clubs is legal. My experience is that 4 clubs works better. Note that from April 2005 "any defence" will be permitted in most competition.

I like a simple and universal 2NT "bid again" opposite all these. The main consideration for partner's advance is opponent's vulnerability. When they are at "green" you may be really quite light. He mustn't punish your courage by raising.

The more both sides are vulnerable, the more likely that you are constructive. You will miss occasional games with this approach, but gain far more often jsut by winkling them out of their comfortable nv 1NT contract.


The Majors

link: note As in the rest of bridge those major suits are important. Say you are playing natural defence to their 1NT and overcall a minor. Good opponents a will compete a major, and eventually outbid you. Your only gain has been to get them out of 1NT - and they may have found a nice major fit.

But if you have major fit - you will win the part score battle and might even reach game.

For this reason most players like a way to show both majors over 1NT. I'd go further and personally always insist on some such convention when playing say pivot teams. If you are timid you may make this a 5-4 shape but I have to say I have generally not come unstuck overcalling to show 4-4 or bettter. When discussing with partner bear the following in mind.

  • At teams you don't want to miss your major games
    This is particularly true when defending weak or mini 1NT
  • Your chance of safe 8 card fit overcalling to show 5-4 are about 78%
  • Your chance of safe 8 card fit overcalling to show 4-4 are about 66%
    I personally think this is a pretty good bet even at IMPs

The most common bids used to show both majors are 2C and 2D. In the RIPSTRA method both are used, calling "the better minor". I like to play my "both major" overcall as "semi-constructive" at pairs. The other three bids are much more focussed on "getting them out of 1NT" - tending to more constructive as vulnerability (of both sides) increases. However - if you need to bid - you need to bid. Be brave.


4th hand considerations

link: note If all have passed it's simple - only open 1NT if you expect to go plus! That means passing poor 12 counts. If parner's 1NT woul be mini it's all the easier. However if oponents have got in first with 1NT, passed round to you there are some inferences to be made.

This first issue to consider is - where are all the points? With enough points to reach 25 opposite partner's maximum most 3rd hands will have made a game try. Assumning a 2 point range for 1NT this means they don't have as much as 23. So assume maximum 22. Add your points and subtract from 40. This is partner's minimum count, unless opps are very devious!

So you are already considering action on hands that you might have passed out last week!

In essence your points don't much matter - partner will have the cards you don't. You just have to follow the principle above - both side's vulnerability matters. The more "nv" that is visible on the board - the more you should take risks. As in all protective decisions you should also count your spades and be careful with shortage. You might merely push opponents into a nice 8 card fit.

The flip side of this coin is that having agreed such a strategy partner must not over-heat with a 12 count merely because you have overcalled. You have already bid his points. Yes - you will miss occasional games, but this is a pairs calculation. He should still consider raising your major with four as the LAW of total trick will protect you. With both sides vulnerable he can safely assume you have value for your bid.

What partner didn't bid ..

Curiously your chosen 2nd hand defence to 1NT will affect your optimum tactics here too.This is due to suit length/frequency considerations.

For example playing Cansino (see above) my partner may already have acted on major or club rich hands, and simulations show typical 4th hands are short in diamonds, mainly because the Cansino 'fix' hand has length in that suit. I therefore keep 2D as both majors ether then "natural"

So consider carefully how own your 1NT defence will affect the 4th hand Common sense suggests you will be short in suits that partner cannot express. My simulations say short by about ¾ card on average.

I've been using 4th hand double to show the Cansino type - ie takeout! I lose the penalty double, but franky this is more useful when I have the lead. I keep this double to "within 2 points of an opening" getting occasional nice +500's when partner has say 13 points. The spade centred Lionel defence allows the same approach and I'm using it now that EBU restractions are relaxed.


5th (passed) hand considerations

link: note Yes really! Your situation is now conditioned by both partner's inaction,and you own failure to open 4 bids ago. You won't have a weak two for example. In my own methods I never have both majors - as my own partnership would already have have opened this shape as 2H (assumed fit pre-empt). Now for me 2D is best is best played as "natural" (albeit it's not all that common)! Work out what your partnership cannot hold before agreeing your tactics. If you play 5 card weak twos - play 2H/S as four card wit ha longer minor. Or maybe 2H as both majors.


2005 changes to doubling in second hand

link: note In UK EBU general regulations had for many years mandated (1NT) second hand's double as penalty! I understand this was forced on the L&E committee by the good ladies of the Surrey, but I was properly grateful that my opening lead was not specified too! From April 2005 this has been relaxed in line with general World standards. In most games (level 3) "any defence" will be permitted. At level 2 (quite basic) a double may be non-penalty, but as such must show a specific suit of 3 cards if "three suited", otherwise a specific 4 card suit.
What should you double on?
  1. Penalties: I hope I've demonstrated that you won't get rich doubling strong no trumps for simple penalty. The opportunity is uncommon as it's designed to make a safe 8 tricks, Even if you have a long suit to run they should exit anyway and find their own fit.

    While it is important to keep a penalty option open against the mini, you won't get to defend 1NTx. Such pairs always have well rehearsed run-outs.

    Backgammon doubling cube

    However "penalty" is a pretty good defence against a 1NT nestling somewhere in that "so English" 11-15 range. General opinion is that having at least one more point than their maximum to make will a good bet. At IMPs or rubber you should bear in mind that your double is somewhat like passing the Cube at Backgammon. It's now their choice to redouble for blood -and that's worth something in the calculation.

    Your lead should also influence your decision. With a good semi-solid suit to lead and a sure entry - you can double on less. A solid suit to the ace is particularly nice, and on the 25 December will attract a suicidal re-double. But more often they'll run.

    With a mere balanced 15 you might pick the wrong suit and live to regret your temerity. I never double before I have selected my lead. For the same reason I favour a 'takeout' double in 4th seat as partner never seems to fine my suit. But then I keep this up to a minimum strength in case partner chooses to convert for blood!

  2. Non-penalty doubles This may be a novel concept if you are British!

    You will have gathered by now that you are usually headed into a fairly standard dog-eat-dog pairs part-score scrap. So make your double lighter, but more informative with respect to your hand type. Partner is allowed to convert with points and poor fit, so nottoo light!

    I'm attracted by the concept behind Lionel Wright's defence, which is well tried and popular in the Antipodes. It works against any range of no trump, and in any position: "Lionel" defence ..

    three dogs fighting
    • You want to penalise whenever you can (generally when holding 21+ points)
    • Perming those 21 presumed points: 11:10 divisions are more common than 15:6 by a factor of about six!
    • You are triggering a part score scrap, where spades will be boss suit
    • Therefore a light double strategy should logically assert spades
    • Partner 'supports' spades with fit, passes with points and no fit, otherwise scrambles (and hopes)
    • In that scramble: opponents are deterred from calling spades (now that's wicked!)

    Converted into standard bridge system terms this suggests

    • Double = 11+ points with some shape and including 4-5 spades (I prefer S with six)
    • 2H and S= natural
    • 2C = takeout, denying 4 spades. 3+ or 4+ clubs at your choice
    • 2D = either both reds; or both majors if preferred

    A common Lionel extention is to play 3 level responses in a new suit as splinters, supporting spades. And that's it. Any type NT and any position. A passed hand's Lionel double can safely be reduced to 8-9 points if limited by your failure to mini-NT.

note Defending non-penalty doubles: Mark my words: these are coming, and will be more difficult to deal with than traditional business doubles. As a "Brit" I've had little experience, but have knocked about ideas on r.g.b to try and tap into that of the Americans. We need to compete that part score, explore games, and swing the axe when appropriate. The following ideas are mainly those of myself and Andrew Gumperz.

Experimentally I'd plan 3rd hand's redouble as a "competitive values" takeout of the anchor suit, with simple bids bids natural non-forcing. Lebensohl will be "on" showing invitational+ values. Direct three bids remain natural and non-forcing with a long suit. Cue bid of "their" suit Staymanic.

3rd hand's pass will be either weak, or wanting to penalise, with opener making takeout doubles as usual. Should 4th hand pass (converting to penalty) opener will make our usual wriggle with "full system on". Another approach, favoured by Bob park over an unanchored (eg DONT) double is 3rd hand's xx=takeout their suit with suggestion that its our hand; otherwise full system on. Watch this space.


Auctions when they run from 1NTx

link: note In pairs competition "Natural" run outs are uncommon and most pairs have something practiced. Mysteriously a lot fewer have discussed defence to this defence. Here's what I like
  • Over majors there is not much space to mess about. I play the standard methods I'd have used had they overcalled our 1NT. This includes lebensohl and a reopening double. 4t hand double is takeout. You could play this as business, but the juicy penalties come with long trumps and that means partner is short.
  • Over minors they may be psychic, and we want to compete the two level in all cases. I like the method in Sally Hansen's "Double trouble" book.
    • Double says "our hand" (7+ in standard methods) and 2-3 in the suit
    • With 4+ trumps and points you make a forcing pass and await partner's double
    • ther is a mandatory bid of a suit with weakness (occasionally embarassing). Note that with both majors it is safe to pass and then pull into 2H
    • Exactly the same applies over their forcing pass or forcing redouble
    • "Exit transfers" are becoming popular. You now have a simple cue bid available in their suit. Double should surely stay as 2-3 trumps and points. Should we keep a mandatory bid if the transfer is into a minor? I don't know. Discuss with partner!
  • All 2 level doubles for takeout unless we have found fit or can count trumps
  • Preempt with long weak suits
  • Keep an eye on vulnerability as our 3NT might be best


Auctions when your 1NT is doubled

link: note Once you find fit - bid up! Here using "Dig-out" (so called as immediate bids show spades too)
1NT (x) 2D* (x) *=diamonds and spades
.. openers 1NT had concealed 5 spades!

Note we don't count points at all. I particularly savoured a deal in the UK National Masters where we opened a 10-12 mini (doubled), discovered a 5-5 heart fit, and reached 4H (undoubled!) rapidly, with 4S cold the other way!

Then the auction 1NT (x) 2C* (x) playing Gold Cup against the legendary John Colling's team. My 9+ 1NT included six clubs. So I bounced into 5C, which made doubled (could go off)! Of course they still beat us - that's why John was a legend, and I'm not.


Takeout doubles by your side

link: note Yes, I mean this quite seriously! The takeout double is extremely useful after you have opened 1NT. My own preference is that 1st round double is takeout up to 3H level. Note that this includes opener!
1NT (2H) double
1NT (3D) double
1NT (2S) pass pass
1NT pass pass (2H)

All these doubles are takeout. While you lose the immediate penalty double and opener is expected to reopen double with any doubledon holding other than perhaps a minimum that he is ashamed of. You should put such an understanding on your card to protect against "3rd hand hestitated before passing" complaints). The penalty type responder then converts. Once I passed the overcall out with three cards. Partner had been "lurking" with five! We'd missed out on a 4-figure penalty, but got a fine board anyway for their 5-0 fit. smile

I like to similarly harrass and bully opponents after my Cansino 2C takeouts of their 1NT. We apply our general rule "all doubles are takeout up to 3S level unless we have found fit".


Popular N American actions over strong no trump

note Playing in Britain we are used to no trump ranges in the 10-15 spectrum. I hope that I have proven that the strong no trump convention is basically an insurance against penalties, and so suit takeouts become very important. A further design constraint in defending such a 1NT is that your points maximum is only 25 - you don't have to worry too much about missing game! The two most popular gadgets in ACBL territory seem to be DONT and Cappelletti, with the latter preserving a penalty option:
  double 2C 2D 2H 2S 2NT
Cappelletti penalty puppets 2D majors hearts+other spades+other minors
D.O.N.T puppets 2C clubs+other diamonds+major both majors spades(weakish) undefined

After the puppet bid overcaller either passes or names his suit. Responder can pass Cappelletti 2C holding weak long clubs and there are. These gadgets are now legal under EBU regulation - level 3 "any defence" is OK.


Defending a mini no trump

link: note In contrast opponents' mini no trump is designed to make you miss games! At pairs this is isn't so important as the common auction will be a part score scramble. You might choose for your defence to focus on this aspect: playing say a Lionel type double (or DONT), and accepting the odd missed game. However at teams you really must retain a strength showing call, which might as well be double for obvious reasons. If you simply drop your threshold for this to 13 - you should never be out of the auction when holding a combined 25 points  smile


Miscellaneous auctions.

link: note The range of auctions after aggressive 1NT's is incredible. Don't get caught out. As examples I think you should profitably discuss with regular partners ..
1NT pass 2C* 2S *=Stayman
... the meanings of pass, double, Stayman bidder's double
1NT pass 2D* (double) *=transfer
... the meanings of pass, 2H, three level bids
(1NT) double 2D
... the meanings of pass, double, two level bid, 2NT, three level bids
(1NT) double pass* *=forcing
... the meanings of pass, double, two level bid, 2NT, three level bids
(1NT) double redouble* *=puppet into a suit
... the meanings of pass, two level bid, 2NT, three level bids

For what it's worth - I like to always complete transfers with three, and break to the 3 level with 4 trumps. So pass shows two. I play takeout doubles when Stayman is overcalled. Having doubled 1NT I use lebensohl 2NT over majors (double is penalty). However over minors (often psyched), redoubles and forcing pass I expect 4th hand to bid with a poor hand, double with 2-3 cards in a suit and 7+, or pass (forcing 7+). But it's up to you ...


Your partner doubles

link: note The auctions where RHO starts a run-out or makes a forcing pass are pretty complex and depend as much on opponents methods as yours. Too complex for this page, but I'll consider (1NT) double (natural pass) ...

Vulnerability and scoring method matter now, and with 9+ you must always consider 3NT etc vul/nv at pairs. At IMPs +500 v our game won't upset team mates too much. Do bear in mind that a trick occasionally goes astray when defending -- whereas knowledge of that opening bid is often worth a trick to declarer. So it isn't always a matter of partitioning thirteen

Bad hands? Personally I just sit it without much shape. Running invites a double back, and sometimes partner has a nice suit to lead out .. ... ....

Bad hands and shape? For the reasons above I tend to sit the double with 5332 and only pull with 6. But it's a guess. Definitely worth checking routinely what RHO's bale-out options were to get a feel of what distributions are not possible. Surprising how much you can infer in these brief auctions.

7-baggers sometimes get a 3x bid from me. Partners usually manage to read that as length but few points, and wanting to play only in that strain.


Does this work out at the table?

link: note Correspondent "tcyk" on bridge took the complete records for the years 1999-2001 (representing 20,509,662 play records over 311,168 boards - phew)! Averaging all hands opened as 1NT he found these were associated (in ways not analysed) to generally positive scores. The effect of opening one of a suit was much less. Here's the average IMP gain seen at teams scoring:
graph of MP result v HCP shows 59% in 9-10 range and 52% above this

What do we make of these figures? Be careful. You must bear in mind that this was deepest ACBL-land, with about 90% of pairs playing (and used to) a strong no trump. Openings outside a 12-18 points range were rare, and some 90% were in the 15-17 range. Were the rare 8's 9's and 20's psychs, or misclicks? Here the IMP results

graph of IMP result v HCP shows +0.5 IMP in 10-14 range and +0.2 above this

There is no allowance for vulnerability, nor information as to quality of player. And it's entirely possible that pairs employing the few mini no trumps were more skilled, or that their good results reflect muddled defence. Nevertheless it seems evident that opening 1NT is generally a good thing.

Range 9-12 9-11 10-12 11-13 12-14 13-15 14-16 15-17 16-18 17-19
Frequency 3.46 2.68 2.55 2.31 2.00 1.66 1.32 1.00 0.73 0.51

I'd go further, and say that there's no obvious downside to the lower ranges, and it pays to open 1NT whenever you reasonably can. The relative frequencies of strong: weak: mini are about 1: 2: 2¾. It's up to you!

Punting 3NT

The scope of this page is about one and two level bidding. There is a lot to be said about the decision to go for game, and amongst experts the fashion is to punt 3NT rather than invite with 2NT when you know that at least 24 HCP are held. They argue that the extra precision is balanced by warning the opp on lead that the game is tight - allowing him to go passive and make you work for those tricks. Of course with an obvious honour combination or 5 card major he won't have that problem - but it seems to work.

Adjusting your hand valuation

This page isn't about hand evaluation. Milton Work's seminal allowances of 4321 was based on actual trick taking calculations in all possible layouts at no trumps. That's why the Work count keeps failing you when there are trumps about. "4321" undervalues aces, but is amazingly useful and has stood the test of time. But don't be its slave (unless you live in ACBLland).

There are twelve counts ... and there are twelve counts. Subtract for that AQ bare, and add value for 4432 shape or a long suit. A 4333 shape is paticularly sterile, and may be painfully so if you use the methods above (which assume you often end in a suit). One nice online essay is Robert Frick's half point adjustment page, particularly clear on utility of queens, jacks and tens. Thomas Andrew's pages on hand evaluation are more mathematical - based on millions of double dummy simulations. He shaves 0.2 points off king and queen - boosting tens to 0.4HCP. He doesn't look at nines at all.

I think the issue is to read such articles and develop your own judgement as to which way to nudge the particular balanced hand facing you at the table. You've got it right when you pass your first "horrid 13 count" (downgraded viciously to a mere 11½) for a top! Good luck

Further reading

This is all very much what I like to play, together with the logic behind my choices.

If you want more variations then David Stevenson claims to have a complete set of 1NT defences on his site as well as a large number of escapes from 1NT doubled listed on his site. Certainly more than you'd ever need. I can also recommend Tony Melucci's site for further philosophy on preempting 1NT.

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