Game Tries

Jeff Goldsmith
October, 2012

1. The In-Out Principle

Which is better, a king or a queen? It seems obvious that kings are better than queens, but if your partner holds  S:AKJxx H:x D:AKJxx C:Ax, would you rather hold  S:xxx H:Kxxx D:xxx C:Kxx or  S:Qxx H:xxxx D:Qxx C:xxx? The queens let you make an easy slam; with the kings, even game isn't cold.

When partner opens 1S:, which hand is better?

  1.  S:Qxx H:Axx D:xxx C:xxxx
  2.  S:Axx H:Qxx D:xxx C:xxxx?

The ace of trumps is the best card in the game, so most would guess (b), but the answer is (a). If you hold Hand (a), you are pretty sure the S:Q will be useful to partner. It's real likely that the H:A is also useful. So you have two good cards. If you have Hand (b), you have one great card, but you have no idea if the H:Q is good or garbage. Having two good cards is better than one great card.

The general rule is that aces are usually useful no matter what partner holds. Kings are probably useful. Queens and jacks could be great, but could easily be worthless.

2. Evaluating after partner has opened 1M

Once we know partner has a five-card suit, we know a fair bit about how our cards fit. The more cards in his suit we have, the better. In particular, the value of our shortness can be evaluated much better evaluated. When we open a hand, we normally count 1, 2, 3 for doubletons, singletons, voids. But a void in partner's suit isn't worth three points. It's a negative feature. If you have a singleton or void in partner's major, subtract one from your count; discount a doubleton to nothing.

Side shortness also changes. If you have three cards in partner's suit, the 1-2-3 count still applies. A void is usually worth about a full trick if we have three trumps, so that makes sense. If you have two cards in partner's suit, subtract one from each shortness value; so count 0-1-2 instead. If you have fewer than two cards in partner's suit, your side shortness is worth nothing until you find a fit. For example, let's say partner opens 1S: and you hold  S:x H:KJxxxx D:KQJxx C:x. This could be a great hand if partner fits one of your red suits. But if partner's hand looks like yours only with black suits, you probably won't make anything. For now, take the low road and if a misfit looms, be prepared to bail out.

If you have four or more cards in partner's suit, not only has finding a fit been accomplished, your side shortness goes up in value. Instead of 1-2-3, count 1-3-5 points for side shortness. A void and four trumps is hugely valuable, usually worth a couple of tricks, even if they lead trump. For example, if partner opens 1S: and you hold  S:Axxx H:D:Axxxx C:xxxx, force to game.

To summarize:

SuitIn Partner's Suit 0-1  2  3  4+ 

Lower honors are also affected substantially. The queen in partner's major is usually worth most of a trick. Add one point for holding it. Queens and jacks outside of partner's suit may or may not be worth anything. Consider their value dubious. We can't discount them entirely, but we need to find out if they are useful. Aces and kings are still likely to be good.

3. Basic Game Tries after 1M-2M

New suits are "help suit" game tries. They are suits in which partner's queens and jacks should be valuable. A10x is perfect. Most four-card suits are good. But not really strong suits: if you have KQJx, a help suit try in that suit isn't helpful, because partner already knows his ace is a good card, and he has no lower honors to evaluate there. AKxxx is fine, though if you have a side suit of AKxxx and partner supports your major, you are not making a game try. You are either bidding game or making a slam try.

Is three small a good help suit? No. Partner will think Qxx is useful. It's not very. Even QJx is not necessarily a trick, since the opponents could maneuver a ruff, or it might be too slow.

When should you accept a help suit try? Assume partner has Axx or Kxx. A singleton is pretty good even opposite Kxx; partner was worried about two or three losers in the suit, and that's not going to happen. Yes, his king is not pulling its full weight, but it's hard to distinguish between those two holdings. Qx is good—your dubious value is now known to be working.

Remember that partner is still just inviting game. Even if you have all your cards in trumps and his help suit, if you have a really bad hand, don't accept. For example, after 1S:-2S:; 3D:, if you hold  S:KJx H:xxx D:Qxx C:xxxx, you know all your cards are working, but you still have junk. Partner won't be as good as  S:AQxxx H:xx D:AKxxx C:x, and even then, game isn't cold (though we want to be there, and will get there, since partner will already have bid it). If you have a great hand that isn't devalued, say two aces and four trumps, you accept, of course. It's the in-between hands which have to judge. If your dubious cards are in partner's help suit, accept. If they are in a lower suit, one which he could have asked for help in, reject. If they are in a higher suit, you can make a counter-try by bidding where your questionable values lie. For example, after 1S:-2S:; 3D:, you hold  S:AJx H:QJxx D:xx C:xxxx. You bid 3H: and partner can decide.

In summary: After 1S:-2S:; 3D::

 S:AJx H:xx D:xxxx C:QJxxreject3S:
 S:AJx H:QJxx D:xx C:xxxxtry3H:
 S:AJx H:xxxx D:QJxx C:xxaccept4S:

2NT is also a game try. It's forcing and natural and shows 16+ high card points and usually 5332 shape. Note that it is unlimited; you could have 19 points and be interested in 3NT. In response, if you have junk, sign off in three of our major. Otherwise, bid where your stoppers are. Maybe that will allow partner to bid 3NT. If you open all these hands 1NT or 2NT, then you won't have much opportunity to use this. I'll suggest sort of repurposing it anyway.

Norman Kay's Rule: at matchpoints (or board-a-match), with 5332 and 16 HCP, generally pass when partner raises your major to two. It is more likely that you'll go minus than find a making game.

4. Kokish Game Tries

The idea here is that when opener makes a help suit try and gets rejected, the defense knows where declarer's weakness lies. It's not automatic to lead the suit (particularly from the ace), but it's a good start, and third hand will often shift to it. So to avoid telling where declarer's help suit is, he just asks the future dummy in which suit he'd accept a help suit try. It works like this:

1S:-2S:; 2NT = where's your stuff?
1S:-2S:; 2NT-?
          3C:: I have honors in clubs
          3D:: I have stuff in diamonds, but not clubs
          3H:: All my questionable values are in hearts
          3S:: I have crap.
          More: I have enough to accept your game try, wherever it is.
          3NT: I have spread out values and a balanced hand. How about 3NT?
          4x: I have an ace or king here and a great hand
          4S:: I have a max, but no real slam interest.

After 1H:-2H:, the structure is similar, but 2S: takes the place of 2NT, and 2NT takes the place of spades, so 1H:-2H:; 2S: asks "where's your stuff," and a 2NT reply is spade stuff.

If responder bids a suit below your intended help suit try, if that works anyway, then you can bid game. But if you really need help, you just bid your real help suit. So 1S:-2S:; 2NT-3C:; 3D: is a help suit game try in diamonds. Oh, well, we let the cat out of the bag, but at least partner will be able to evaluate his hand well.

You'll note that this has used up 2NT (the bid to suggest getting to 3NT). But we can try 2NT anyway with those hands. If partner shows stuff where we don't have great stoppers, we can try 3NT. He'll bid 4 of our major with four trumps (or maybe not with 4333) or shortness somewhere, and he'll pass 3NT with a balanced hand.

On the other hand, it frees up three help suit tries. In the original version of this convention, these show shortness. Partner is supposed to accept this try only with no wastage in the short suit. They tend to be lighter tries than 2NT, something like  S:AKxxxx H:Kxx D:x C:Kxx. If partner has a non-garbage raise with nothing in diamonds, game should be pretty good. Even the D:A isn't a great card—give partner  S:QJxx H:xx D:Axxx C:xxx, and game is on two finesses. Move the D:A anywhere else, however, and game is good enough to bid.

Some theorists have noticed that these short-suit tries don't come up very often and much of the time when they do, we can just use the asking bid anyway. If partner shows stuff in our shortness, we stop; otherwise we go or re-ask in a higher suit. One improvement is to use the other major not as shortness, but as a check for a 4-4 fit in that suit. Usually, a 4-4 fit plays about a trick better than a 5-3, so if we are going to bid game anyway, finding the 4-4 is worth doing, and if we find a 4-4 fit, our game try succeeds automatically. So using this approach, 1S:-2S:; 3H: shows four hearts. Responder bids 3S: with junk (it's still a game try, though it may be better), bids 4H: with four hearts (finding the 4-4 fit is usually good enough to accept the try), and bids 4S: if he's accepting a game try (note that queens and jacks in the minors are probably worth very little) and does not have four hearts. In hearts, 1H:-2H:; 2NT replaces spades and shows four spades. We still have short suit game tries in the minors.

Marshall Miles thinks so little of short suit tries that he plays that all the bids which may have been short suit tries are four-card suits and slam tries. Usually, finding a 4-4 fit will make a slam try into a slam accept, because the 4-4 fit is worth an extra trick, so this makes some sense.