Dan Romm

Systems On After A Direct 1NT Overcall

It is fashionable among experts these days to play systems on after a direct 1NT overcall; I suspect most have not really thought about it. If they had, I believe that they would have concluded (as have I) that systems off is better. Two clubs as Stayman and Jacoby transfers are essential after your side opens 1NT, but there are four major differences between opening 1NT and directly overcalling 1NT. Let’s explore how these differences affect playing systems on after a direct 1NT overcall:

  1. Opening lead considerations.

    It is a disadvantage to have the lead coming up to a 1NT overcaller (as opposed to a 1NT opener) since opener’s partner will lead opener’s suit unless he has an even better lead (which opener probably won’t find)! If he does lead opener’s suit it will be through any card or cards that dummy may have in the suit, rather than the opener leading up to it or them if he is on lead (as in systems off). So, w.r.t. opening leads, it is clearly better to simply have the 1NT overcaller’s partner bid his suit naturally and have the lead come from the opener rather than his partner. Also, if you transfer (as in systems on) then opener can double to show a second suit and/or suggest an alternate lead, which he can’t do if you play systems off unless he is willing to risk bidding the suit at the three-level.

  1. There is a cue-bid available.

    The 1NT overcaller’s partner now has a cue-bid available for Stayman, unlike the partner of a 1NT opener. In addition to probing for a 4-4 major suit fit, the cue-bid can be used to handle strong one-suited or two-suited hands (see below for invitational hands) by starting with a cue-bid and then bidding a suit (rather than transferring into the suit), which is a forcing sequence. With a weak two-suited hand you would ignore your second suit (as you also would in systems on) and merely bid your best suit at the two-level.

  1. A 1NT overcaller’s partner is more likely to have a bust than a 1NT opener’s partner, so you are more likely to be doubled for penalty.

    If the opener’s partner doubles 1NT for penalty (or even if he merely passes), it is a serious disadvantage to be unable to run to two clubs or two diamonds (both of which are forcing in systems on).

  1. Your side is less likely to have game-going or slam-going values.

    So the importance of any advantages (if any) that playing systems on confers towards finding the best contract is lessened (especially at IMP’s), since usually only a part score is involved.

    You can handle invitational bids in systems off by jumping in your suit rather than by transferring and then bidding 2NT or then bidding your suit (with six), as you would in systems on. A possible disadvantage to this is that, if you only have a five-card suit, you will play a 5-2 fit if partner declines your invitation and has a doubleton in your suit, whereas you are able to play 2NT using systems on. But, when this is the case, playing your 5-2 fit often works out better than playing 2NT.

There are several other popular conventions that have been insufficiently analyzed (or they would have become unpopular!). Examples: fast arrival, support doubles, requiring support for partner’s suit when using Drury or an immediate cue-bid, two-way new minor forcing, systems on after a 1NT opener is doubled for penalty, negative doubles after a 1NT opener, bidding a suit to show two of the top three honors after your partner has opened two clubs, and fourth suit forcing to game (as opposed to merely forcing to either 3NT or the four level). I cover these in detail in the section on conventions in my book, “Things Your Bridge Teacher Won’t Tell You” (Master Point Press).

An Important Detail

Consider the following deal:


Bidding: you open 1NT (12-14), partner bids 5NT and you decide to bid seven based on the fact that you have two four card suits, the 10 of diamonds and an optimistic nature.

Opening lead: 4 of clubs. You play the 6 from dummy, RHO plays the 10 and you win the Jack.

Analysis: the contract has a good chance. You need a 3-3 heart split, a successful guess as to the location of the spade Queen, or a defensive mistake. The play seems straightforward: begin by running clubs so as to force a discard (or discards) that may be helpful; cash three rounds of hearts hoping your long heart sets up; and, if not, decide which way to finesse the spade (the distribution of hearts and clubs in the opponents’ hands may provide a clue). But, there is more to the hand! What is it?

Solution: the key detail to the correct play of the hand is the order in which you cash your clubs! You must win the second club in dummy (in order to preserve a choice as to where to win the third club) and carefully observe what club LHO plays. Noting whether it’s higher or lower than the 4 will tell you if he started with two clubs or more than two. If two, you must win the third club in your hand; otherwise you must win the third club in dummy! Why? So that on the fourth club the hand short in clubs is forced to discard before his partner.

Illustration: if either opponent holds three spades including the Queen, four hearts without the Jack, four diamonds without the Jack and two clubs, then his partner can hold at most one Jack (if he holds none the hand is cold unless declarer has three or more spades). A spade pitch on the third club can’t hurt. But the only pitch on the fourth club that is certain not to cost a trick, no matter what declarer’s distribution is, is from the red suit in which partner does not hold the Jack! – an unsolvable dilemma unless the clubs have been played in the wrong order, in which case his partner can reveal that the safe pitch is a diamond by discarding his lowest diamond. The recommended line of play gives the defender a 50% chance of guessing wrong as opposed to a 100% chance of guessing right. This is a significant increase in your odds of making the contract and should not be squandered – especially in a grand slam!

Which Card Do You Play?

You are east playing with a new partner in an IMP match and the opponents are not vulnerable. The bidding has gone: South 1NT (11-14): West pass: North 2NT: all pass. Your partner leads the King of clubs (assume he has KQx, his most likely holding).

North (dummy) tables  : KJ  : QJ10  : QJ1083  : J104

East (you) hold  : AQ109  : K63  : 765  : A972

Declarer plays the 4 of clubs. Which club do you play?

There is no clearly correct answer to this question without a firm partnership agreement, which you don’t have. If you play the 9 or 7, partner may read this as encouraging (especially since you are marked with the Ace when he holds the first trick) and continue with the Queen. If you play the 2, partner may play you for five clubs since many players play it this way, and again continue with the Queen.

Now, when you play your highest remaining club (other than the Ace) on his Queen, partner may read this as a suit preference for spades and shift. If so, you will collect +150 on the deal. But, on the other hand, partner (who can have at most an additional Jack based on the bidding) can’t be positive that your card is a suit preference since you may have started with only three clubs, and he may reason as follows:

Partner must have at least one outside Ace or the contract can’t be set unless declarer has specifically Ax of diamonds, at most four hearts, and a spade holding weaker than 10xx (or 10xx or 10xxx and he guesses wrong). If partner has four clubs and two outside Aces or five clubs and one outside Ace, then if I continue clubs he will cash out and set the contract. On the other hand, if I switch to a spade and his only outside Ace is the diamond Ace or the heart Ace then (barring declarer’s unlikely holding mentioned above) we won’t set the contract unless he holds five clubs (in which case we will also set it if I continue clubs). Furthermore, if he does hold the spade Ace, but not the Queen, I only break even (unless he started with Ax of clubs, in which case I must switch to have any chance to set the contract).

So, partner has a dilemma and may go wrong. If so, declarer will make and you will be -120 on the deal. I recommend that you eliminate partner’s dilemma. How?

Overtake his lead of the club King with your Ace and return the 9! If you do this, partner is forced to shift. Not only does your 9 suggest a spade switch but, looking at the dummy, nothing else makes any sense. So, you will collect +50. True, you have cost your side two tricks or 100 points if partner would have guessed right without this play. But if he doesn’t, then you will have cost your side 220 points. At IMP’s, the raw score difference between +50 (two IMP’s) and +150 (four IMP’s) is two IMP’s whereas the raw score difference between +50 and -170 (five IMP’s) is seven IMP’s. However, the actual cost to your side will depend upon the result at the other table (among other possible scenarios, if your teammates play a strong 1NT opener they may get to 3NT from the North side and make with a heart lead).

Personally, I think the odds that partner (even if an expert) will switch unless forced to do so are less than even money, in which case you are taking much the worst of it in any scenario. But then, you know your partner better than I do!

A Very Amusing Hand

                  Playing in a home game with friends of intermediate strength I pick up the following remarkable hand (I have never been dealt a thirteen card suit):

                                                      S: void; H: void; D: AKQJ109876542; C: 6

                  While ruing the fact that I wasn’t playing in a high-stakes rubber bridge game, my partner opens 1S and my RHO passes. I bid 3D (strong), my LHO passes, and partner bids 3NT. I bid 4NT (I am glad to be playing with a partner who always takes 4NT as Blackwood) planning to bid 7D if partner holds two (or three) Aces since, in addition to being a 2-1 favorite that he holds the Ace of clubs, I will also make seven if even he doesn’t whenever LHO doesn’t lead a club (or an unlikely trump). Partner responds 5D (one Ace) so I reluctantly decide to settle for 6D (even though 7D still has a reasonable chance, namely if either partner’s Ace is in clubs or the wrong lead is made). This is promptly doubled by LHO which (I assume) causes partner to retreat to 6NT. Since this can’t be the right spot, I return to 7D and LHO doubles again, this time more promptly. Partner now bids 7NT! Naturally my LHO doubles furiously with his two Aces.

                  Partner’s hand:

                                                      S: KQJ42; H: KJ75; D: void; C: AQ83

                  After a long pause, RHO reasonably decides that his partner must have a diamond trick (or tricks) and selects the unfortunate lead of the 3 of diamonds! Partner claims and, after the ensuing hubbub subsides, I restrict the discussion to my partner’s misguided bidding.  Although also tempted to admonish LHO for his unwise double of 6D, I refrain from doing so since he has already been punished for his indiscretion far more than anybody deserves!

Test Your Play

Having recently decided to significantly reduce my duplicate appearances, I have fewer live hands to analyze. So, I again must turn to Steve Becker’s outstanding column for an example (his column is usually quite thorough, so I am lucky to occasionally find something to add). This hand appears in the July 4 issue of the Seattle Times and is entitled ‘A Duplicate Disaster’.




Bidding: (South) 1H – pass – 2C – pass – 3D – pass – 3NT – pass – 6NT.

Lead: Jack of spades.

The article notes that 6NT is cold by knocking out the Queen of hearts but an overtrick may be in the offing, which is important at duplicate. So declarer won the spade in his hand and took a heart finesse, which East ducked. Declarer next cashed the King of clubs, crossed to the Queen of diamonds, cashed his two high clubs, repeated the heart finesse and went down one when East won the Queen and cashed the Jack of clubs. Becker uses this hand to illustrate the treacherous nature of duplicate bridge. But, the same fact that this is a duplicate hand should enable South to avoid the trap while still trying for an overtrick, since he will get a bottom if he goes down, and how many he goes down is immaterial. Do you see his error?

The correct play is to win the first trick in dummy, cash the King of clubs, cross to the Queen of diamonds and take a heart finesse. Now, East can’t afford to duck since if he does declarer will make seven for a top board! He will merely test the diamonds and claim seven when they break, having no need to repeat the finesse.  If diamonds don’t split, he can then return to his hand with the king of spades, cash two clubs and repeat the finesse thereby again making an overtrick if the Queen of hearts is onside. True, he might go down a bunch with this line if the finesse loses but, as previously stated, this is of no consequence at duplicate.

Test Your Play

For this article, I am again indebted to a (rare) minor oversight in Steve Becker’s outstanding column. The hand appears in the May 4 issue of the Seattle Times and is entitled ‘An Unusual Safety Play’.



Bidding: (South) 1H – pass – 1S – pass – 4H.

Lead: Jack of clubs.

The column correctly states that you can ensure the contract by winning the Ace of clubs, leading a trump, and playing the Jack when East follows (on the actual hand, if you play a high trump you will go down). Becker’s line provides a sure trump entry to the dummy should West hold the Queen (if he doesn’t, you make because you won’t lose a trump trick), so that you can later pitch a diamond on the Queen of spades – and admittedly this safety play is the main point of his article (and an excellent one at that!). However there is a better line of play that is worth mentioning (perhaps he didn’t have enough room in his column to do so). Do you see it?

The solution is a subtle play and its advantage is not easy to spot (plays like these separate the experts from the rest of the field) – you should duck the first trick! Why? Because if you do, a good East will overtake and switch to a diamond since this would be the best chance to beat the contract; you will go down off the top if you happen to hold AK, AKJ7543, K2, 54, whereas otherwise you will again make by taking the safety play. Note that if you did hold this hand you would also duck the first trick (there is nothing to lose) in the hope that, if West has the Ace of diamonds, East will fail to overtake and switch. Now, even though with your actual hand you always make if East follows to the first heart, you will always make an overtrick (but not if you take the column’s line of play unless East has the Queen of trumps and they split 2-1) since, after winning the diamond, you have time to test the hearts by cashing the Ace. This allows you to make an overtrick whenever trumps are 2-1 no matter who has the Queen by merely pulling the last trump and leading the King of spades, and if West shows out on the Ace of hearts (as in this case) you also make an overtrick by now leading the King of spades since you can later cross to dummy with the Ace of clubs, pitch a diamond on the Queen of spades (unless West ducked the King of spades in which case you lose no spade tricks) and take the marked trump finesse. An overtrick may seem like a nit, but many a match has been lost by a single IMP!

More importantly, with your actual hand, if East overtakes and shifts you will make (instead of going down) whenever East is void in trumps because you can now lead the King of spades before the Ace of clubs is gone. Although it is true that East shouldn’t do this with a trump void if he thinks you have the hand you actually hold, but he should do it if he thinks you hold either: (a) K, AKQJ10875, K2, 54, which gives you two trump entries so you can pitch a diamond by taking a ruffing finesse against East’s Jack of spades (the percentage play when he has no hearts), no matter how many additional spades he may now hold; or (b) K2, AKQJ1085, K2, 54 (your 4H bid would be marginal, but still reasonable), which gives you one trump entry with which to set up a pitch even if East now has one more spade. In either case East has quite a dilemma and should be given the opportunity to make the wrong choice.


Test Your Play

Vulnerable at IMP’s, how do you play the following hand?

Dummy (N):  Q1054, 3, A74, K8654

Declarer (S): void, AK9854, 96, J10932

Contract – five clubs

Lead – Q of D’s.


If hearts split no worse than 4-2 then by merely finessing west for the Queen of clubs you will make unless east has either (a) both the Ace and Queen of clubs or (b) the singleton Queen of clubs. But at no additional risk you can protect against case b whenever east has more than two hearts by taking the following line:

Win the Ace of diamonds, cash the Ace and King of hearts pitching a diamond and ruff a heart with the 8 of clubs (to guard against an over-ruff by East with the 7). Then,

  1. If the hearts split, ruff a spade and pitch dummy’s other diamond on a heart. Then win whatever is returned by whichever opponent ruffs the heart and lead the Jack of clubs (if a diamond is returned, ruff a spade to get to your hand).
  2. If west shows out on the third heart, ruff it (if west ruffs then over-ruff unless he ruffs with the Ace in which case you pitch a diamond and are home), ruff a spade, ruff another heart (or over-ruff or pitch as before), return to your hand by ruffing another spade and pitch dummy’s last diamond on a heart. Then win whatever is returned by whichever opponent ruffs the heart and lead the Jack of clubs (if a diamond is returned, ruff a spade to get to your hand).


Test Your Defense

IMPs. NS Vul. N deals.

Auction: 2C – P – 2S – P – 2NT – P – 3S (sign-off) – P – P – P.

                                                                        N: A73, AKJ, AKJ6, Q86

W (you): 54, Q2, Q97, AK10953

You lead the Ace of clubs, P plays the Jack and declarer plays the 4. Now what?

Solution: Your only chance is to get five tricks in the black suits so P must have the King and Queen of spades and declarer must have three clubs. If you continue with the King of clubs and give P a ruff then declarer will make since, having no hand entries, he will cash the spade Ace and drop one of P’s honors. If you discontinue clubs, again declarer will cash the spade Ace and lead a spade after which your P will have to lead a red card and declarer will again make.  So, your only chance is to lead the 10 of clubs at trick two.  Declarer may very well play east for the doubleton King-Jack and duck! If not, it only costs an overtrick.  

A Grain Of Salt

I authored a book entitled A Grain Of Salt (available from Amazon.com and other outlets) in which I caution people to always do their own analyses no matter how authoritative the source might be. This caveat also applies to bridge. Steve Becker’s syndicated column is routinely published in the Seattle Times. Although it is outstanding and contains many useful tips, once in a blue moon the analysis could be better. To wit, the article entitled “rescuing a lost cause” that appeared on August 3, 2012 included the following hand (both vul):




South is declarer at 4H. Opening lead – Jack of spades.

The article goes on to say that when win the opening lead in dummy and lead a trump to your Queen, west shows out. How should you proceed?

 Becker’s solution is to cash the Ace and King of spades, pitching a CLUB from the dummy, cash the two remaining clubs, return to your hand with a trump, and ruff your 10. This protects against a doubleton club in West’s hand (almost always – the exception is given below), works on the actual layout given in the column, and is a very good line: but it is not best! Do you see how it can be improved?


Answer – Becker’s line fails if West started with 2-5-4-2 distribution (the article gives West 4-5-2-2 distribution), in which case he will pitch a club on the third spade and you will still go down. To guard against this you must cash two rounds of clubs BEFORE playing the third spade. This renders West helpless and you will score five trump tricks plus either two spades and three clubs or three spades and two clubs depending on whether or not East ruffs the third spade.

Test Your Play

North (dummy): A54, J43, KJ1098, A4

South (you): 2, 2, AQ765, KQ10543

Contract: 6 by South.

West leads the Ace of hearts and continues with the King, which you ruff; East follows twice. You are cold if trump are 2-1, so you test trumps by drawing one round and West shows out. Now what?

Solution: You are cold if clubs are no worse than 4-1, but if you tested trump by cashing your Ace you have made a critical error if West started with five clubs. Had you correctly led a trump to the dummy at trick three you are still cold provided you don’t now lead more trump. Merely ruff another heart, lead a spade to the Ace, ruff a spade with the Ace of trump, return to dummy by overtaking the Q of trump, draw trump and claim. Note that had you played the Ace of trump at trick three you would have squandered a necessary entry to the dummy. This again illustrates the importance of not playing hastily as declarer.