By Kitty and Steve Cooper

Annoying, isn’t it? You had just decided that you were going to open the bidding 1D, when your opponent opens 1S in front of you. What to do?

When both sides are bidding (the term for this is a competitive auction), game is unlikely unless there is a good distributional fit. Finding an eight card major suit fit is, as always, very important, since playing in a major will usually produce the best score.

Just because you have a hand you would have opened is not a sufficient reason to bid now. Your strategy has changed. There are only four reasons to bid once the opponents have opened:

  1. Balance of Power. Our side might have most of the strength.
  2. Lead Direction. It could be important to tell partner what to lead.
  3. Sacrifice. We may have a good sacrifice versus their game, slam, or partscore.
  4. Obstruction. Our bidding may make it hard for them to get to the right spot.

The tools at our disposal for competing once the opponents have bid a suit are:

  1. The notrump overcall.
  2. The simple suit overcall.
  3. The takeout double.
  4. The jump overcall.
  5. Various two suited bids.

Hand Evaluation in a Competitive Auction

Never forget to keep reevaluating your hand during the auction when both sides are bidding. Particularly important is your holding in the opponent’s suit. Tend to discount queens and jacks in their suit completely unless you have higher honors or length with a notrump bid. Either devalue or upgrade the king of the opponents’s suit, depending on who you think has the ace. 
Shortness in the opponents’ suit is a useful value, particularly once your side has a trump fit. If they have bid and raised a suit which you are long in, your partner will be short in it. Therefore length in the opponents’s suit is good, when both opponents also have length.

Overcalling in Notrump

The reason to overcall 1NT is to let partner know that your side probably has the balance of power. Since the opponents have opened there is less room for accuracy, therefore the range of the notrump overcall is stretched to include as much as 18 HCP. Also a hand with a bad 15 HCP does not have to make this bid. Respond to a NT overcall just as if partner had opened 1NT -  in other words 2C is still Stayman, transfers are still on (if you play them), and so forth. There is one new bid, a cue bid of the opponents’ suit (or the transfer to it). Most players use this for a good hand with shortness in the opponents’ suit but no five card major, therefore it is looking for the right game to play.

There is one big difference between opening 1NT and overcalling 1NT - when you overcall you promise a stopper in the opponents’ suit. In other words, you guarantee that they cannot cash the first five tricks in that suit.

When you overcall 1NT, partner often knows immediately how high your side can compete and whether or not game is possible. Therefore make this bid whenever you can, with the proviso that bidding a decent five card major is more important.

The downside of overcalling 1NT is that your LHO is well situated to double for penalties with 10+ points. It is much easier to double when there is no trump suit to ruff away long suit winners. Your partner has the job of running for safety when this happens; this means bidding a five card or longer suit with a weak hand. Stayman and other conventions no longer apply, 2C may be a long suit or may just be a weak hand that will redouble on the next round if doubled to look for a better place to play. There are a number of fancier escape mechanisms people play here. The simplest one is to play your normal methods of transfers and Stayman but use redouble to force two clubs when you have five or more clubs or diamonds; if you have diamonds you bid 2D next. With no long suit to show you pass, expecting partner to rescue himself by either bidding his long suit or redoubling to ask you to bid four card suits up the line.

The Simple Overcall

The simple overcall is made on a hand with a five card or longer suit that would have opened the bidding, or a hand which is just a few points below that strength with a good suit. The reason you prefer to have a hand that would have opened is to tell partner that your side may still have the balance of power. The reason to shade this with a good suit is to tell partner what to lead. If partner has already passed then you might overcall with an understrength hand to look for a sacrifice or be obstructive. 
Having an opening bid is not an adequate reason to overcall. A good guideline is that with 15 or more points you should find a bid unless the opponents have opened your best suit. With fewer points, you can pass if there is no call that fits your hand.

When is your suit good enough to overcall even though it is understrength in points? Usually with two of the top three honors plus some intermediates. Imagine how you would feel if LHO responds 1NT and RHO raises to 3NT. If you would be very unhappy because you did not tell partner what to lead, then bid your suit now.

The Takeout Double

Not all hands that wish to compete after the opponents open have a five card or longer suit to bid, and still fewer hands meet the requirements for a 1NT overcall. The most frequent hand type which wants to get involved is one with a minimum of three cards in each of the unbid suits, wanting partner to pick one of them for a trump suit. This hand makes a takeout double. How does partner know that double is takeout? When double is the first bid made by our side and the opponents have opened in a suit below game level, then the double is takeout.

The perfect hand pattern to make a takeout double is 4441 with a singleton in the opponents’ suit, but more often you are 5431, 4432, or even 4333. Note that it is fine to have a five card minor, but with a five card major you usually prefer an overcall to a takeout double unless the major is very weak. Only make a takeout double on a 4333 hand pattern with too much strength to pass and a hand unsuitable for 1NT.

The takeout double is also used if you have 19+ points - you start by making a takeout double no matter what your hand pattern is. Then on the next round of bidding you bid a new suit or notrump to indicate that you have the strong hand type.

The Jump Overcall

The jump overcall is a preemptive bid showing length and strength in the suit bid but not much else. Preempting was covered in “Basic Bidding 8,” which is reprinted at - on the district website along with all the other regular columns.

Two Suited Bids

With two five card or longer suits and preemptive values there are several bids you can use. A jump to 2NT over the opponent’s opening bid shows the two lower unbid suits, thus the minors when they have opened a major and the other minor and hearts when they open a minor. This is called the Unusual NT. Cuebidding the opponents’ suit when they have opened a minor shows both majors. Cuebidding the opponents’ suit when they have opened a major shows the other major and an unknown minor. This cuebid is called Michaels. Partner can ask which minor you have by bidding 2NT.

When Both Sides are Bidding

When both sides are bidding, the best score available will not always be a plus score. Sometimes you have to aim for a small minus. For example, going down one for a loss of 50 or 100 points is an improvement over letting the opponents make 110 or 140.

The Law of Total Tricks (see the book “To Bid or Not to Bid” by Larry Cohen) gives a good guideline for when to keep bidding and when to pass in a competitive auction. A simple rule of thumb based on the Law is that your level of safety is to contract for the number of tricks equal to your partnership’s total number of trumps. So, for example, if you think your side has nine trumps you should be able to safely bid to the three level and thus contract for nine tricks

Here are a couple of simple guidelines for competitive bidding:

  1. Never let the opponents play in two of a major when they have an eight card fit.
  2. Think twice about bidding three over three. Often both sides are going down at the three level.

Next month we will discuss responding to takeout doubles and overcalls.

Previous page: Basic Bidding 11, Opening and Responding to Two Clubs Strong, Artificial, and Forcing   Next page: Basic Bidding 13, Responding when Partner Intervenes