We present here the first in an occasional series on Roman Keycard Blackwood (RKC). A number of questions immediately present themselves:

1) What is it? In its most basic formulation RKC allows you to find out all sorts of useful things about your partner’s hand when you’re considering bidding a slam. Two of the most useful are whether or not partner has the king and queen of trump.

2) Is that all that you can find out? Not even close! If you play the complete convention you may also be able to find out what kings (and sometimes what queens) partner has outside of the agreed trump suit, what partner’s holding in a specific outside suit is, and how many aces partner has not counting the ace of a suit in which you are void.

3) Sounds complicated; is it? Yes. As far as we know, this is the only convention about which a book has been written.

4) Should you play it? Yes. RKC is undoubtedly a VAST improvement on ordinary Blackwood, and most players today do play at least part of the convention.

Let’s start with a necessary bit of terminology: A keycard is either an ace or the king of trump. When playing RKC you ask for keycards, not for aces (you probably guessed that from the name of the convention). Thus, there are at least five keycards - the four aces and the king of trump. And why do we say “at least” five? Because sometimes there are six - we’ll eventually talk about “double RKC” - and sometimes there are only four - when you ask partner how many keycards he has not counting the ace of a suit you are void in. We’ll eventually talk about Exclusion RKC as well.

So we are here speaking of plain vanilla RKC - a simple auction such as 1S-3S-4N. Everyone who plays RKC agrees on what the responses of 5H and 5S mean: 5H says that you have two keycards but do not have the queen of trump; 5S says that you have two keycards with the queen of  trump. So what do you do if you have none, one, three, or four keycards? The answer is: it depends on what you and your partner have agreed to play. Some people play 1430 - this means that if they have one or four keycards they bid 5C, the first step above the 4N ask, and if they have three or zero they bid the second step, 5D. Others play 3014 - if they have three or zero they bid the first step, and if they have one or four they bid the second step. And no, we’re not just being pedantic when we speak about steps above the ask instead of just saying what suit we bid - sometimes the keycard ask is something other than 4N; but more on that later. We play 1430, despite the view expressed to us by a good friend who’s a multiple-time World Champion and member of the Hall of Fame that anyone who plays 1430 doesn’t understand the first thing about bidding! (And, no, we haven’t discussed what to do if partner asks for keycards and you have five; we’re trying to keep this simple for now.)

And here’s a useful tip: Whatever you and your partner decide to play - 1430 or 3014 - play it in response to any and all keycard asks. Some people play that in situation A they play 1430 but in situation B they play 3014 - indeed, Kitty and I used to play that. After about our fifth disaster caused by one of us forgetting that agreement we decided to abandon this theoretically superior but practically too dangerous method. As S.J. Simon taught, we strive for the best possible result, not for the best result possible.

So, to review: When partner bids 4N as RKC you count the number of aces you have and add one if you have the king of trump. If you have two keycards you bid 5H if you don’t have the queen of trump and 5S if you do; if you have one or four keycard(s) you bid either the first step, if you’re playing 1430, or the second step, if you’re playing 3014. We leave as an exercise for the interested student what you bid with three or zero keycards playing either 1430 or 3014.

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