By Fred Gitelman
This article first appeared in the November 1993 issue of Canadian Master Point. Reproduced with permission from Fred Gitelman.


A great many club and tournament players these days write "Two Over One Game Force" in the General Approach area of their convention cards. The main advantage of playing 2/1 is that the early establishment of a game force allows for extra bidding space to explore for slam or choose the right game contract.

There are two main weaknesses inherent in the 2/1 system:

  1. You cannot play in 1NT if your partner opens the bidding with one of a major. The 1NT response is forcing.
  2. Responder often has a rebid problem after his forcing 1NT when opener rebids 2 of a minor (possibly a 3-card suit) due to the wide high card ranges and many possible distributions of both hands.

If you are going to play 2/1 you’d better get used to these particular problems since there isn't much you can do about them. However, the way that most partnerships play 2/1 creates other problems that are not inherent to the system. The purpose of this article is to discuss some of these and to suggest some solutions.


Problem 1: Lack of definition of the 2/1 suit

Since a 2/1 response to a major suit opening is a game force, many pairs use a 2/1 simply to establish a force without regard to the fact that they may be misdescribing their hands. They as¬sume that all of the room that they save will allow them to "catch up later". They are wrong. Imagine, for example, that you hold:

SAQxxxx Hx DAxx CQxx

You open 1S and your partner bids 2C, forcing to game. You rebid 2S and partner raises to 3S. Do you like your hand? You should. Despite your minimum point count you have good trumps, good controls and a good fit for partner's suit. Unfortunately, partner's "suit" may not really be a suit. Partner could have:

SKJx HAKxx DKx CJxxx

where even the five level is not safe. On the other hand, if you reverse partner's hearts and clubs slam is laydown. If you reverse your hearts and clubs, slam is also laydown. Would you like your hand as much if you had a singleton in your partner's suit? You shouldn't, but when a 2/1 can show just about any balanced hand it is difficult to make sensible decisions.

There are several popular solutions to this sort of problem, most of which involve making some bid other than a 2/1 when responder has a balanced game force with 3-card support for opener's major. Some players bid 1NT forcing followed by a jump to four of opener's major to show a balanced 13-15 with 3-card support; others use a 3NT response or a variant of Swiss (4C or 4D) to show variations of this type of hand. All of these methods have the problem that they take up too much room and make it very difficult to find out how well the hands fit without getting past a safe level.

The solution that I suggest is to use a 2NT response to a major suit opening just like Goren did - as a game-forcing balanced hand with 13-15 HCP (you can play that it could also show 19+ with a 3NT response showing 16-18). The 2NT response can (and frequently does) contain 3-card support for opener's major, but usually should not contain a side 5-card suit (make a 2/1 with that), although if you have a really bad five card suit (like Qxxxx) in an otherwise suitable hand, it may be best to bid 2NT rather than make a 2/1. Opener's rebids after the 2NT bid are natural: bid another 4-card or longer suit if he has one, giving responder a chance to take preference with three cards in opener's major; rebid his major when he has six or more, or bid 3NT or 4NT (quantitative) with 5332. Over opener's 3NT rebid, responder can elect to pass with 3-card support for opener's major, especially if he is 4333.

As a consequence, a 2/1 response will almost always show a good 5-card or longer suit -- a source of tricks. Having this information will frequently help opener decide how well the hands fit and if a slam try is warranted. It will also allow opener to feel more comfortable with raising the 2/1 suit with 3-card support.

If you currently play Jacoby 2NT, you will have to find another way to make a forcing raise of opener's major. I suggest using the cheapest jump shift (1H-2S and 1S-3C) as a forcing raise. Hands for strong jump shifts are very uncommon and modern methods like 2/1 and fourth-suit-forcing are usually effective for dealing with them. If you play Bergen raises, the 3C response to 1S may already have a use. In this case, I suggest that you make 3D and 3H your Bergen raises over 1S. I will not get into my suggested responses to the 2S and 3C forcing raises here - perhaps in another article.


Problem 2: The (misguided) principle of fast arrival

You hold this hand:

Sxxx HAQJxx DAx CKJx

You open 1H, partner forces to game with 2C. You raise to 3C (isn't it nice to know partner has a good five card suit?) and partner jumps to 4H. What should you do now? If you play 2/1 the way that most pairs do, partner's unnecessary jump in a forcing auction shows a minimum hand (the “principle of fast arrival”). That information is not very useful here. Opposite this minimum:

SAx HKxx Dxx CAQxxxx

you have a laydown grand slam. Opposite this minimum:

SQxx HKxx DKx CAQxxx

the five level is not safe. The problem here is the jump to 4H. This bid prevents your finding out at a safe level whether or not a spade control exists. The theory, of course, is that without “fast arrival”, neither partner ever gets to express whether or not they have extra values. Standard 2/1 places such a large emphasis on bidding out your pattern and finding out how well the hands fit that the bidding is often at a high level before either partner has been able to limit his hand. Using fast arrival gives responder a chance to say that he has a minimum 2/1.

Unfortunately, the price that must be paid for limiting responder's hand is too high. There are simply too many times that you need the four level for cue-bidding, especially when opener's hand is virtually unlimited (as is usually the case in 2/1 auctions). Even if both opener and responder are minimum, twelve tricks can easily exist if the hands fit well. Here is the solution that I propose:

In the above auction (1H-2C-3C) and in all similar 2/1 auctions in which responder can raise opener's major for the first time at the three level:

- A jump to four of opener's major, instead of a raise at the three level, is a picture jump. A picture jump shows good trump support, a good suit of your own (promised by the 2/1) and no first or second round control in any unbid suit. Opener usually has such a good picture of responder's hand that he can place the contract (sometimes after using Keycard Blackwood). Here is an example of a hand for a jump to 4H by responder in the auction we have been discussing:

SQx HKxxx Dxx CAQJxx

- A jump in a new suit is a splinter (a singleton in the suit bid) but it is very well defined. Like the picture jump it shows good trumps and a good 5-card 2/1 suit. The splinter bid denies first or second round control in the unbid suit. Also, do not splinter with a singleton ace or with a void. Here is an example of a splinter bid of DA in the above auction:

Sxxx HKxxx Dx CAQJxx

Once again, responder's hand is so well-defined that opener will frequently be able to place the contract. In the above example, opener will know that:

Sxxx HKxxx Dx CAQJxx

produces slam while the same hand with the DA instead of the SA belongs at the four level. Notice that in the auction that we have been discussing, responder never mentions the word "hearts": the raise is implicit. It is certainly not obvious that the splinter should be in support of hearts (as opposed to clubs) and you should have an explicit partnership understanding before making this kind of bid.

- With all other hands with 3-card or more support for opener's major, raise at the 3-level (auctions in which you can raise at the two level are different - perhaps I shall discuss those in another article). Since both opener's and responder's hands are virtually unlimited at this point, it is necessary to have a way for either partner to show genuine slam interest. The answer is a convention called "Serious 3NT" (John Gowdy discussed this in the September 1993 Canadian Master Point). This is the definition of Serious 3NT:

When an 8 card or longer major suit fit is agreed at the 3-level and the bidding is forced to game, a bid of 3NT by either partner is completely artificial. It says: "Partner, I have serious slam interest, please cue-bid for me."

If you fail to bid Serious 3NT when you have the opportunity and cue bid instead, that carries the following message: "Partner, I do not have serious slam interest, but I am cue-bidding in case you do."

What should you cue-bid? In my partnerships with Geoff Hampson and Sheri Winestock we have found the following approach very successful: a cue-bid in partner's 2/1 suit shows one of the top three honours; a cue-bid of your own 2/1 suit shows two of the top three honours; a cue bid in an unbid suit shows any first or second round control (A, K, singleton, or void). Cue-bidding is always up the line: by skipping a suit, you deny a control in that suit. 4NT by either partner is always Roman Keycard Blackwood.

Some consequences of this approach to slam bidding:

  • It is impossible to get to the five level off two quick tricks in any suit.
  • It is almost never necessary to cue-bid at the five level. In case you haven't noticed, cue-bidding at the five level is usually a sign of desperation - you don't know what to do so you cue-bid at the five level to transfer the decision to your partner.
  • You will never get too high when neither partner has the extra values or knowledge of a good fit needed for a serious slam try.
  • You can never play in 3NT when you have an eight-card major suit fit after a 2/1 auction. Some players would find this a serious problem and would not consider playing this method. In my view, playing in 3NT in these sorts of auctions is the least of your problems. This is especially true when responder is known to have at least a five card 2/1 suit and the odds are high that at least one person has an unbalanced hand and/or has extra values.

Here are some examples of using Serious 3NT and the cue-bidding style that I recommend in 2/1 auctions:


Example 1

SKJxxx
HAxx
DQx
CQxx

SAQx
Hx
DAKJ10xx
CAxx

1S
2S
4D
5H
2D
3S
4NT
7NT

Opener's 4D denies serious slam interest (else 3NT) and denies first or second round club control (else 4C), but shows one of the top three honours in diamonds. Responder can count thirteen tricks.


Example 2

SAQJxx
HAx
DKxxx
CQx

SKxxx
HKQ
DAQJxx
CJx

1S
3D
3NT
4S
2D
3S
4D
Pass

Opener's 3NT shows serious slam interest. Responder's 4D shows good diamonds but denies a club control. Opener's 4S is an absolute sign-off - a statement that no club control exists. Responder, despite holding extra values, must pass.


Example 3

SAJ10xx
HKJx
Dx
CQxxx

SKQx
Hxxx
DAKQJxx
CA

1S
2S
4H
5D
2D
3S
4NT
6S

4H denies serious slam interest, a club control, and a top honour in diamonds (do not cue-bid shortness in partner's suit). A heart control is all responder needs to know about. What would happen if you exchanged opener's honours in hearts and clubs?


Example 4

SAJ10xx
HQxx
Dx
CKJxx

SKQx
Hxxx
DAKQJxx
CA

1S
2S
4C
5S
2D
3S
4D
Pass

When responder bids 4D, he announces serious slam interest. Since opener has denied serious slam interest by not bidding 3NT, responder would sign off over 4C if he did not have serious slam interest of his own. Opener is now obligated to show a heart control, so when opener bids 4S responder knows that the defence can take at least the first two heart tricks.


Example 5

SKxx
HAJxxxx
Dxx
CKx

SQx
HKxx
DAQxxxx
CAQ

1H
2H
3S
4C
4H
2D
3H
3NT
4D
Pass

When hearts is agreed at the 3-level, opener must bid 3S if he has a spade control; any other bid would deny spade control (3NT would be Serious with no spade control). Responder has extra values and shows this by bidding 3NT; 4C shows a control and 4D shows two of the top three honours. When opener does not take charge (by bidding Blackwood) despite the fact that all suits are known to be controlled, responder knows that opener must be minimum. Responder has bid out his hand and should pass 4H.


Example 6

SAxx
HAKJxxx
DAJ
Cxx

SQx
HQxx
DKQxxx
CKQx

1H
2H
3S
4NT
6S
2D
3H
4C
5C

Responder, despite having a terrible hand, must bid 4C because opener is still unlimited (remember, Serious 3NT by opener would deny a spade control). Responder can take some comfort in the fact that his 4C cue-bid denies serious slam interest. In this example, opener can take over once he learns that responder can stop clubs.

As you can see, the approach to cue-bidding that I recommend is quite a bit different from the fast arrival methods that most 2/1ers play. If you decide to adopt this approach, you and your partner should discuss it thoroughly first. Serious 3NT is a convention for serious players; It is not something that you can casually adopt. You might ask me about a convention called Last Train to Clarksville, which fills some of the holes in the cue-bidding style that I recommend (holes that my carefully constructed examples avoid!).

If there is one lesson to be learned from this article it is that good partnership agreements are much more important than which system you play. If you and your partner decide to play a complex non-standard system, put in the time to do it right. When you truly understand your system, you will start to see the benefits in your results.

See also

  • Improving 2/1 Auctions: Part 2
    By Fred Gitelman
    A method for slam exploration at the 4-level after a partnership has already committed to a major-suit game.

  • Improving 2/1 Auctions: Part 3
    By Fred Gitelman
    An alternative approach to Jacoby 2NT, as well as improvements to the Forcing 1NT in the 2/1 bidding system.

  • Serious 3NT
    By Marc Smith
    Serious 3NT enables a partnership both to discover extra values (or the lack of them) below game, whilst also taking advantage of the extra space bidding afforded by 2/1.