Bridge Bears logo

Competing to the 3 Level

By Ralph Welton

A young Bridge Bear asked his friends if he should have "bid one more." The auction was...

West North East South
1 2 2 3
P P ?

"I passed," said the young bear, "and I got a bad matchpoint score. How many points do I need to bid at the three level?"

A wise old Bridge Bear was listening, and said, "Watch Out For the Three Level!"

The young bear said, "Yes, I often make mistakes at the three level. I pass when I should bid, and I bid when I should pass. I just don't know how many points I need to compete. I know I don't need game invitational strength. But... How many?"

The old Bridge Bear hesitated, then continued, "When you learn to play bridge, you pay too much attention to hcp. HCP don't tell you when to bid more and when to play defense. You see, high cards take tricks on defense as well as on offense."

"But..." the young bear said, "if high cards don't tell us when to pass, bid or double, what does?"

"Ah, what indeed!"

  1. Extra Trumps. You can take more tricks as declarer when you have more trumps.
  2. Short Suits. You can take more tricks when you can trump their high cards.
  3. Working Honors. You can take more tricks declaring when your honors don't get squished by their honors.
  4. The Scoring Table. Compare points you expect to score, and not just tricks you expect to take.

We'll be looking at each of these in turn. But first we need a baseline of how many tricks we can expect to take as declarer with an ordinary hand having none of the first three items on our list.

Find the correct level by Counting Points

High Card Points are a good guide to the number of tricks we can expect to take with an ordinary hand, assuming we find an eight-card trump fit.

  • With 16-18 combined hcp you can expect to take 7 tricks.
  • With 19-21 combined hcp you can expect to take 8 tricks.
  • With 22-24 combined hcp you can expect to take 9 tricks.
  • With 25-27 combined hcp you can expect to take 10 tricks.

These numbers are very good on average. The trouble is, any individual hand may turn out to be either better or worse than average.

In an unopposed auction, a single raise (1 → 2) will end the bidding unless Opener has at least the strength to make a game-invitational bid. With less strength, you don't bid to the three level.

But when the opponents compete, it may be correct to bid to the 3 level with less than invitational strength. There are two ways this can be a winning choice.

Two ways to be right about bidding one more...

  • You might make the contract.
  • You might go set but lose fewer points than if you allow them to declare.

The young Bridge Bear said, "Fine, I get it. Sometimes I can go set and still get a good result. But you still haven't told me when those times are..."

You're right, Little Bear. Let's start looking at guidelines for when to bid one more than your hcp suggest.

Find the correct level by Counting Trumps

When your partnership has about half the hcp, the number of tricks you can profitably contract for depends on how many trumps you have.

  • 8 trumps = 8 tricks
  • 9 trumps = 9 tricks
  • 10 trumps = 10 tricks

A very simple formula, isn't it? Let's look at a few examples.

K 9 6 4
Q 9 2
8 6
Q T 5 3

Partner opens 1. You raise to 2. With 8 trumps and about half the points, you expect to take 8 tricks.

If your opponents bid 3, you do not have enough trumps to bid 3. Maybe Partner will have an extra heart, and she'll "take the push" to 3.

K 9 6 4
Q 9 2
8 6
Q T 5 3

This is the same hand. This time Partner opens 1, and you raise to 2. With 9 trumps and about half the points, you expect to take 9 tricks, though your hand isn't good enough to invite game.

If the opponents bid over 2, you should "take the push" to 3.

If you can't make 3 with 9 trumps, then they were probably making their bid and you'll come out ahead on the scoresheet by bidding 3.

K 9 6 4
Q 9 2
8 6
Q T 5 3

A third look at the same hand. Your opponents open 1, Partner overcalls 2, and Responder bids 2.

Partner could have as few as 10 points, so your partnership hcp total could be only 17. Nevertheless, you should bid 3 based on your 9+ trumps.

If Partner has only 10 hcp, she has at least two "plus values" in the hand, making 3 a good contract. You cannot wait for partner to bid one more, because she doesn't know about the 9+ club fit. (Do you want to review our guidelines for overcalls?)

OK, Little Bear, now let's take a look at another way to figure out if you should bid more than your hcp suggest.

A short suit is an extra trick

Half the hcp (19-21) and an 8 card fit normally produces 8 tricks. But with a short suit, you can often take an extra trick.

How short is "short"? A singleton or void.

Let's look at two hands that are almost the same.

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

Partner opens 1, and raises your 1 response to 2.

With the first hand, you expect to take 8 tricks because you have half the points and an 8 card fit. But with the second hand your singleton means you can expect to take 9 tricks.

Are all short suits equally valuable?

No.

  • The best singleton is in your opponents' suit. It's usually worth at least one extra trick. If you have 4+ trumps to support Partner's suit, it may well be worth two or (rarely) three extra tricks.
  • The worst singleton is in Partner's first bid suit. If Partner has honor-card winners in this suit, you may gain nothing by trumping. This singleton is still good, just not as good as if it were in another suit.
  • Voids are usually better than singletons, though more unpredictable. They follow the same general pattern as singletons – best in your opponents' suit; worst in Partner's suit. As with singletons, the more trump you have the better the void becomes.
  • Short suits are more valuable in the hand with fewer trumps, usually the dummy.

plush toy bear "Hey, wait a minute. Didn't you say that it's better to have MORE trumps? How can it be good to have fewer?"

Yes, Little Bear, it's better to have more trumps. More total trumps in the partnership.

But if you don't have the same number of trumps as partner, a singleton in the hand with fewer trumps is more valuable than a singleton in the other hand with more trumps.

Let's look at an example hand with two singletons: a good one and a not-so-good one.

Dummy
J T 5
2
T 8 3 2
A J 9 5 2  

South
A K Q 9 4  
J 7 6 5
9
T 6 5

In a spade contract, South can lead out all her trumps, and make five trump tricks. (This is not good declarer play, I'm just showing how to count tricks.)

If she trumps the second round of diamonds in the South hand, she wins that trick, but she can then lead out her remaining trumps for only four additional tricks. Her total is still 5 trump tricks.

She does not gain a trick by trumping in the hand with more trumps.

The result is quite different if she trumps the second round of hearts in dummy. She wins that trick and she can still lead out all her trumps for five more tricks. That's an extra trump trick.

If she trumps twice in the dummy, she gets two extra tricks to go with her five trumps in hand. Trumping three times in the dummy is three extra tricks.

As you can see, a short suit is more valuable in the hand with fewer trump. It's important to appreciate why the heart singleton is worth an extra trick or two. But the diamond singleton isn't. (Trumping hearts leaves the longer suit intact. But trumping diamonds shortens the longer trump suit.)

Now let's see how short suits help us in the bidding:

Q T 4 3
A 9 8 2
3
8 7 6 4
West North East South
1 P 1
2 2 3 ?

You have a 4-4 heart fit.

Partner promises 12-15 points for her 2 raise.

Do you have half the hcp? Maybe – maybe not. If Partner has a minimum 12, the partnership total would be only 18, while your opponents would have 22.

How many tricks can you expect to take with only 18 hcp? The strength expectation is 7 tricks. In that case, "one extra trick" for the singleton only makes 8 tricks. Not enough to bid to the three level. Furthermore, your singleton is in Partner's first bid suit, which suggests modest caution.

Now consider what happens if you take a pessimistic view and pass.

Partner will make the same kind of analysis when it's her turn to bid. All she needs is a 13 count to come to the conclusion that the partnership has "half the hcp." Then she'll look for an extra trump or a short suit.

You know she's short in the opponents' clubs because the opponents have shown an 8+ fit and you have 4 clubs yourself. So you fully expect Partner to take the push to 3.

Warning! If you can figure out that Partner has the hand to bid one more, that is not a reason for you to do it for her.

Think of it from her point of view. If she hears you bid "one more" and she also has the hand to bid one more, she might think that's "two more" and bid an impossible game.

No, you must bid your own hand, and trust Partner to bid hers.

Q T 4 3
A 9 8 2
3
8 7 6 4
West North East South
1 P 1
2 2 3 ?

This is the same hand, but I've switched the bidding of the minor suits.

You now have the best singleton, and support for Partner's first bid suit, as well as the heart fit. So...

Bid 3. Even if the Partnership total is only 18, you may make two extra tricks by trumping their diamonds.

And besides, Partner may have more than a bare minimum, but be unable to bid 3 herself because she doesn't have a short suit. It would be a shame to let them play 3 when you can make 3.

We've covered two ways to figure out that you should bid one more than your hcp suggest. Now let's look at a third...

Bid "One More" with Working Honors

Little Bear wants to know, "What are 'Working Honors'?"

Good question. Working Honors are honors that...

  • take tricks for your side. They don't get squished by your opponents' honors.

    or
  • they contribute to establishing skaters in your long suits.

Like this...

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

Partner opens 1 and rebids 1 after your 1 response.

You should assume all your honors are working because they are in suits partner has length in. The two hands might be...

Dummy
Q T 9 6
8 7 5 4
K J 3
5 2  

South
A K 8 4  
6 3
A Q 9 4 2
6 3

You have only 19 hcp, with no extra trump and no short suit.

Yet it's easy to take 9 tricks with spades as trump because all your honors are working. Not a single honor gets squished by your opponents' higher honor.

Notice that your opponents have (almost) all their honors working too. You cannot squish any of their club or heart honors (just their J is not working), so they can take at least 9 tricks with clubs as trump – more if they have a short suit in diamonds or spades.

One of the Young Bears has been silent until now, "What if South doesn't have a five card diamond suit? Then you can only take 8 tricks."

The Wise Old Bear answers, "True, but they are still likely to take 9 tricks in clubs, so you still come out ahead by bidding 3 instead of letting them play 3."

That uncovers a basic truth about bidding "one more."

plush toy bear

You will often know that bidding "one more" is the correct action, even though you won't know if you're going to make your contract.

That's true when bidding "one more" with 9+ trumps, with a short suit, or with working honors.

If you don't make your contract, you expect to come out ahead in the scoring.


Practice hands

practice 1

Q 6 3
A 9 8 6
J 8
Q T 5 2
West North East South
1 P 1
1 2 2 ?

Do you take the push to 3?

plush toy bear Oops... PASS.

You have no extra trump, no short suit, and half your hcp are outside of partner's suits.
Partner still has the chance to take the push when it's her turn to bid.
plush toy bear Correct. Well done.

You have no extra trump, no short suit, and half your hcp are outside of partner's suits.

Partner still has the chance to take the push when it's her turn to bid.

practice 2

T 6 3
A Q 9 6
T 8
T 7 5 2
West North East South
1 1 2
2 P P ?

Do you pass or bid 3?

plush toy bear Partner isn't going to be happy if you pass.

Every hcp you have is working. And you have an extra trump.

This hand isn't even close to a pass.
plush toy bear Yes, bid 3

You have two reasons to bid. You have an extra trump, and all your points are working.

practice 3

A Q 8 4
3 2
Q 8 3 2
9 7 6
West North East South
1 1 1
2 2 3 ?

Do you take the push to 3?

plush toy bear No, you should pass.

You don't have any extra trump, or a short suit. And your hcp are not all working for offense.

In fact, your diamond holding is very good for defense.
plush toy bear Correct. You should pass.

No extra trump. No short suit. And a good diamond holding for defense.

Incidentally, you fully expect partner to take the push to 3, because she is known to be short in diamonds. If your spade honors were in hearts instead of in partner's suit, you could double 3 (at matchpoints, but not at IMPs) to strongly suggest that Partner not bid 3.

practice 4

A Q 8 4
3 2
9 7 6
Q 8 3 2
West North East South
1 1 1
2 2 3 ?

This example is almost the same as the last hand. The only difference is I've switched the minor suits. Do you take the push to 3?

plush toy bear Yes, take the push to 3.

All your honors are working. If you can't make 3, then you expect them to make 3. And you'll get a good score for going down one.
plush toy bear Partner has bid clubs and spades, and all your hcp are in those two suits.

You should bid 3, and expect to make it.

practice 5

K J 5 4 2
Q 8 6
T
9 7 3 2
West North East South
1 2 2
P P 3 ?

Do you pass or bid 3?

plush toy bear Actually, you should bid 3.

You have only 6 hcp, but hcp is not the deciding factor. You should take the push to 3 based on your singleton.
plush toy bear Can you hear the Bridge Bears clapping?

You have only 6 hcp, but your singleton is enough to compete to the three level.

practice 6

A Q J 5 4 2
J 6
K T 4
Q 9
West North East South
P 1
2 2 3 ?

What's your call?

You have an extra trump, so you should compete to the three level. Bid 3
Correct. An extra trump can be in either hand.

We've looked at three of our four reasons to compete to the three level – extra trumps, short suits, and working honors. The fourth reason, comparing scores, is a little different because it's not based on the cards in your hand. Let's take a look...

Find the correct level by Comparing Scores

Suppose you have an ordinary hand with half the HCP and an 8 card heart fit.

How many tricks do you expect to take?

You expect to take 8 tricks.

With half the hcp, 8 trumps = 8 tricks.

How many points do you score for making 2?

+110 points (duplicate scoring)

When you have half the points, your opponents also have half the points. So they too can make 8 tricks with an 8 card fit.

If you let your opponents play 2 after your 2 bid, they will make it and you will you score -110 points. It would be better for you to go set one trick in 3, losing fewer than 110 points.

But if your opponents are the first to bid on the three level, you have less assurance that they can make their contract. So you should avoid bidding more unless you think you might make 9 tricks.

As the Wise Old Bridge Bear said, "Watch Out For the Three Level!"

plush toy bearThis is the last article in the Bidding folder. If you haven't already read the previous articles in this folder, I recommend doing so now. Otherwise you can move on to Bridge Defense or Declarer Play or the most basic folder, How To Win Tricks.


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.