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Opening Bids

By Ralph Welton

Opening bids tell partner about your hand, especially how many points you have and how many cards you have in a particular suit. Similarly, partner's responding bids tell about his points and suit length. Combining these two messages allows the partnership to find trump fits and avoid bidding too high.

The search for a major suit fit

We try to pick trump suits where we have lots of trumps while our opponents have comparatively few. Eight trumps to your opponents' five meets this requirement, though it's even better to have 9 or 10 trumps.

Contracts in major suits score more points than in minors, so we design our bidding system to find major suit fits.

If we open the bidding in a major suit, we promise at least 5 cards in the suit. Partner then checks his hand to see if he has 3+ cards in the same suit. If so, partner will make a bid confirming that we have found an 8 card major suit fit.

We can also have an 8 card major suit fit with 4 cards in each hand. To find such fits, we bid something else for our opening bid and use subsequent major suit bids to uncover the 4-4 fit.

One-level opening bids

Major suit openings

An opening bid of 1 or 1 promises five or more cards in the suit and 12-21 high-card points.

J 6 5 3 2
A 9

15 hcp. Open 1. Your spades are far weaker than your diamonds, but we give preference to five card or longer majors.

6 5 4 3 2
K Q 9
Q 5
A K 7

14 hcp. Open 1, even with the awful suit. Partner could easily hold three spades, and if you don't bid your five card suit, you could miss the 8 card major suit fit. Finding major suit fits is our top priority.

K Q 5
A Q 9 7 6
A K J 3

19 hcp. Open 1. This kind of suit, where you have some of the top honors, is far more common than the previous two example hands with rotten suits.

K J 9 7 6
A K J T 8 7 6

12 hcp. Open 1. Your diamonds are a longer and stronger suit, but we give preference to majors over minors. Always open your major if you have five or more of them.

Some bidding systems have complicated rules for deciding when to open your five card major and when to open something else.

The Bridge Bears system is simple and clear – if you have a 5+ major, and enough points to open the bidding, you open the major suit.

Follow-up bidding divides major suit opening hands into three groups:

  • minimum – 12-15 hcp
  • medium – 16-17 hcp
  • maximum – 18-21 hcp

In the section on opener's rebids, we will learn how our rebids show partner which strength group our opening bid fits into.

Practice opening major suits

example 1

K Q T 8 2  
A 6
Q J T 8
6 3

How many points?

12 points
This hand is a bare minimum for an opening bid.
Minimum = 12-15 points

What do you bid?

Open the bidding with 1, promising at least a five card suit.

example 2

4 2
A K Q 4 2  
T 9 8
J 5 2

How many points?

10. You have a very nice heart suit.

What do you bid?

10 points are not enough for a 1 opening bid. You need 12+ points.

example 3

A K J 9 8 7  
A 2
K Q T 5

How many points?

18 points.
19 hcp
-1 for a the stiff club honor
= 18 total

If you thought this was a 19, 20, or 21 point hand, perhaps you should review how to count points.

What do you bid?

Open 1.
This hand is at the low end of maximum for an opening 1 bid (maximum = 18-21).

example 4

K 7
Q 8 7 3 2  
A J T 5

How many points?

15 points
16 hcp
-1 for a the club honors with no spot card
= 15 points

What do you bid?

Open 1.

Despite the weak heart suit, you have a very good minimum for an opening bid of 1.

Minimum = 12-15 points.

example 5

A Q J 7 4  
J T 9 8

How many points?

16 points
18 hcp
-1 for the heart honors with no spot card
-1 for the diamond honor with no spot card
= 16 points

What do you bid?

Open 1.

You have a very good medium strength hand for an opening bid of 1.

Medium = 16-17 points

Notrump type hands

Notrump bids describe both the high-card strength and the distribution of the hand. They promise balanced distribution – no short suits (singleton or void) and no long suits (6 or more cards).

They are among the most desirable bids because they make future bidding decisions easy for partner.

  • With a balanced hand of 15-17 hcp, open 1NT.
  • With a balanced hand of 20-21 hcp, open 2NT.

K 7
A J 9 6  
J T 7 2
A Q 5

You have a balanced hand of 15 hcp. Open 1NT.

Notice that it's OK to have a four card major when you open with a NT bid.

K 7
A J 9 6 2  
J T 7
A Q 5

This hand is almost the same as the previous hand. I've moved one card from diamonds into hearts. You still have a balanced hand of 15 hcp. But we give priority to five card majors. Open 1.

K 7
J T 7
A J 9 6 2  
A Q 5

This time I've reversed your red suits. Five card minors are OK for opening NT bids. Open 1NT.

A J 7
K T 8 5
A Q 6 5  

Nice hand. 21 hcp - 1 for club honors with no spot card = 20 points. Open 2NT.

K J 7
K 7 3
Q 6 5  
A K 9 7

16 hcp - 1 for bad shape (4-3-3-3) = 15 points. Open 1NT. Your hand is minimum for 1NT.

plush toy bear

Little Bear says, "Hey, wait a minute. You left out some numbers. What about notrumpy hands with 12-14 hcp or 18-19 points? Do I just pass those hands?"

Good questions, Little Bear. No you don't pass those hands. It takes two bids to show notrumpy hands with those point ranges.

  • With a balanced hand of 12-14 hcp, open your longer minor and rebid 1NT.
  • With a balanced hand of 18-19 hcp, open your longer minor and rebid 2NT.

We'll talk more about opener's rebids after we learn about other opening bids and responses to opening bids.

Practice with opening bids for balanced hands

example 6

Q 9 8 2  
A J 9
K 4
K Q 6 3

How many points?

15 points

What is your opening bid?

Open the bidding with 1NT, promising at a balanced hand of 15-17 points.

example 7

8 2
A K T 6  
Q J 4
K 8 6 3

How many points?

13 points

What is your opening bid?

plush toy bear Open the bidding with 1.

You plan to rebid 1NT, showing a balanced hand of 12-14 points.

But don't forget about the search for a major suit fit. If Partner bids 1, you show your hearts on the way to 1NT.

And if Partner responds 1, you will raise to 2, confirming the fit and showing a minimum 12-15.

example 8

A Q 3
A K Q J 4  
6 3

How many points?

22 hcp
-1 for hearts honors without a spot card
= 21 points

What is your opening bid?

plush toy bear Open the bidding with 2NT.

Don't worry about the weak doubleton. You are showing a balanced hand of 20-21 points, and that's exactly what you've got.
Partner will know what to do next.

example 9

A J T 8
K Q 5 4  
A Q 9

How many points?

19 points

What is your opening bid?

plush toy bear Open the bidding with 1, your longer minor.

You plan to jump to 2NT for your rebid.

If Responder bids 1NT, you will jump to 3NT. You must jump in NT to show 18-19 points and a balanced hand.

example 10

K 8 4
K Q 8 2  
J 6 3
K 4 2

How many points?

12 hcp
-1 for 4-3-3-3 shape
= 11 points

What is your opening bid?

Pass. 11 points is not enough to open.

Minor suit openings

Minor suit openings have the same 12 to 21 hcp range as the major suits. But they do not have the same suit length requirement. This is because we use minor suit bids as a catch-all for hands that don't have a 5+ major and don't qualify for a no-trump opening.

For example:

K Q 8 3
A T 3 2  
6 5
K J 5

This hand doesn't have a 5+ major, and it isn't within the 15-17 or 20-21 hcp ranges for a no-trump opening. So we open in a minor suit. 1 is the correct opening bid. When we open in a minor suit we usually choose the longer minor, even if it's only 3 cards in length.

You might think that any opening bid is an attempt to find a trump fit in the suit bid. With major suits, that's correct.

But with minor suits, we often use the bid as the beginning of a two-bid sequence where the second bid is more important than the suit opened. Minor suits are well named – they have only minor importance. Majors and no-trump are both higher priority for final contracts.

Q T 9 6 5  
A Q 5

No 5+ major, so we don't open in hearts or spades. 16 hcp fits right into the 15-17 range for a 1NT opening, but this isn't a balanced hand. The singleton heart disqualifies the hand for a NT opening.

So we're stuck with a minor suit opening. Open 1.

Opening bid practice

example 11

K J T 6 5  
8 7 2
A K 9
8 5

What's your opening bid?

Correct. With only 11 hcp, this hand is a point shy of a 1 opening.
plush toy bear You will never open 1 when you have a five card major.

And besides, 11 hcp isn't enough.
plush toy bear Close, but no... You have enough spades (5), but you don't have enough points.

You need at least 12 points.

example 12

T 7 2
A Q T 8 5 3  
A Q 5

Can you open 1?

plush toy bear Indeed. 5 cards is the minimum suit length. With an extra heart, and 12 hcp, the hand easily qualifies for a 1 opening.
plush toy bear Actually, 1 is correct.

You have 12 hcp, and an extra heart beyond the minimum 5 required.

example 13

Q 7
A K Q 4  
J T 5 2
K T 6

What's your bid?

Sorry... not 1
Count your hcp and check your distribution.
Ouch. Don't open 4 card majors.
Yes. Well done. Open 1NT, showing a balanced hand with 15-17 hcp.

example 14

A J 6 4
K Q 3
A Q 8 7 2  

Try this one.

plush toy bear A bear who climbs the wrong tree finds no honey.

If you can't open a major suit or NT, a minor might be better than passing, but never a three-card minor in preference to a five-card minor.
plush toy bear The singleton heart makes this an unbalanced hand.

Don't open NT with an unbalanced hand, even with 15-17 hcp.
Correct. 16 hcp; no 5+ major; unbalanced hand.

example 15

Q 8 6 4
K Q J 9  
J 9 3

Be careful...

plush toy bear Yes. Well done!

Your hand is only worth 14 points (15-1), so you can't open 1NT. And you don't have a 5 card major.

Open your longer minor, even if it's a bad suit. Your rebid will be more important than the suit opened.
plush toy bear Oops.. you forgot to subtract a point for no spot card with your club honors.

A 14 point hand is not strong enough for a 1NT opening.
plush toy bear No, not clubs...

We choose a minor suit by the number of cards, not by honors.

Open 1

example 16

K J 6 4  
A T 9  
K Q 3
J 9 6

We don't really like opening the bidding in a three-card suit. It's not an accurate description of our hand. When we have to do it, we'd like Partner to respond even on a marginal hand, so we can make a descriptive rebid.

Which minor gives Partner the greatest chance of finding something to bid?

plush toy bear If you bid diamonds, Partner won't be able to bid clubs on a bare-bones minimum. She would need 10 points to bid 2

You want to make a 1NT rebid to accurately describe your hand, so you want to make it as easy as possible for Partner to keep the bidding open.
plush toy bear Yikes! Not even close...

Your hand is only worth 13 points (14-1). Don't make a bid that promises 15-17 points.
plush toy bear Yes. With 3-3 in the minors, we bid the lowest ranking suit on our way to a NT rebid.

That gives Partner the best chance to bid something... anything... to keep the bidding open so we will have the chance to make a rebid.

example 17

K J 8
A 9
K Q 4 3  
Q J 8 6

What about when our minor suits are 4-4? We don't want to treat such hands the same way we do when we are 3-3 in the minors. We open diamonds with 4-4, and clubs with 3-3.

What do you open?

plush toy bear You fell into the Bear pit! Always count your points before bidding.

You have 16 points and a balanced hand. Open 1NT.

If you had 12-14 points, or 18-19 points, 1 would be correct.
plush toy bear I'm impressed!

I was trying to fool you, but you didn't get fooled.

1NT = 15-17 with a balanced hand
plush toy bear I hope you're just fooling around with this answer.

Clubs is doubly wrong. We open diamonds in preference to clubs when 4-4.

And besides, this is a 16 point balanced hand. So the correct opening bid is 1NT (15-17).

Two level opening bids

Big hands (opening 2 = 22+ hcp)

Sometimes you are lucky enough to be dealt an exceptionally strong hand. For example:

A K 4
A Q 5
A K Q 3  
K Q 6

Wow! 27 hcp. This doesn't fit any of the opening bids we've learned so far. We have a special bid for such "monsters."

An opening bid of 2 doesn't say anything about the club suit. In theory, you could even be void clubs.

2 is opened on all hands of 22+ hcp.

We'll talk about follow-up bidding after we've finished with opening bids.

Weak two bids

Some hands don't have the hcp strength for a one-level opening bid, but with six or seven cards in a suit they can take tricks with extra trumps instead of taking them with high cards.

A Q J 9 7 4  
Q 8 3
T 7 2

This hand has only 9 hcp, but if spades become trump you will be able to trump some of your opponents' honor cards. This may seem mean, but it makes partner happy. Smile!

Taking up bidding space by opening at the two level makes it more difficult for your opponents to uncover their best trump fit and judge how high to bid. Smile again!

What are the requirements for a weak two bid?

  • 6 cards in your suit
  • two of the top three honors in the suit
  • 5-11 hcp

These hands qualify for weak two opening bids:

974   K52   KQJ432   6   — Open 2

AQT974   52   83   T72   — Open 2

J65   KQT752   83   A4   — Open 2

How about this one?

T4   K3   872   KQJT82

Do NOT open 2. We do not have a weak two available in clubs. Remember, 2 is a special bid reserved for big hands of 22+ hcp.

Three and four level opening bids

Preemptive opening bids

Opening bids at the three level and higher, preemptive opening bids, show weak hands with long suits. After you preempt, your opponents don't have enough bidding space to describe their hands before choosing a contract. They will be guessing, which leads to good scores for your side when they guess poorly.

Q J T 9 7 4 2  
J T 3
6 4

With a seven card suit, you can open 3. Your bid may seem wildly unsafe, but it isn't. If partner doesn't have enough winners for you to make this contract, then your side cannot stop your opponents from making a game or even a slam.

Consider this complete deal:

T 9 6 2
K 8
7 6 5 2
T 7 2
K Q 4 3
A K Q 9 8
Q 8 5
A J 8 5
A 5 3
A K J 9 3
Q J T 9 7 4 2
J T 3
6 4

With hearts as trump, you can take 6 tricks. If you are vulnerable and you get doubled in 3, the worst possible situation, you will lose 800 points.

But look at what they can make. They have 13 top winners. They're "supposed" to bid and make a slam. They get a poor result, and you get a good result, if they allow you to name hearts as trump.

That's why preempts with weak hands and longs suits are part of every bidding system.

What are the guidelines for preempts? With weak hands, the length of your trump suit tells you how high to bid.

  • with a seven card suit, bid at the three level
  • with an eight or nine card suit, bid at the four level
Summary of opening bids

We base our opening bids on a system of counting points for honor cards, then adjusting the count for distribution.

A = 4 points
K = 3 points
Q = 2 points
J = 1 point

subtract 1 point for 4-3-3-3 distribution
subtract 1 point for each suit with honors but no spot card

First priority: Open the bidding in a major suit with 12-21 points and 5+ cards in the suit.

Second priority: Bid NT with balanced hands of 12-21 points.

  • 12-14 points – open in a minor, look for a 4-4 major suit fit, then rebid 1NT
  • 15-17 points – open 1NT
  • 18-19 points – open in a minor, then rebid 2NT
  • 20-21 points – open 2NT
  • With 3-3 minors, open 1
  • With 4-4 minors, open 1

Third Priority: Open your longer minor on unbalanced hands of 12-21 points that don't have a 5+ major.

Other opening bids:

Open 2 on any hand of 22+ points.

Open 2, 2 or 2 with 5-11 points, and a good suit of 6 or more cards.

Open a 3 level preempt with a weak hand and a 7 card suit.

Open a 4 level preempt with a weak hand and an 8+ card suit.

plush toy bearGo to the next topic:

Responses to opening bids

Ralph Welton with BuffyBridge Bears is run by a retired teacher and ACBL life master who has 35 years teaching experience and who's been playing bridge for over 50 years. I don't claim to be one of the top players, but I do understand how slowly beginners need to go when they are trying to learn how to play bridge.