Thursday, December 01, 2005


4- and 5-card majors

This post is a try to give an overview of natural systems with 4- and 5-card majors. Where are the advantages and disadvantages. First let me define a string of minimum opening length. This is the minimum number of cards required for the opening bids 1♠, 1♥, 1♦ and 1♣. For example Standard American would have the code "5533". As a check, these numbers should always add up to 16.

Let's start on one end of the spectrum.

English Acol - 4444
All opening bids on the 1-level promise a minimum of 4 cards. With 4M + 4m usually open the major. There is some freedom here. This system has the advantages that 1M can preempt the opponents and that 1m are well defined, however the disadvantages are that 1m are less frequent and 1M have more bidding problems, esp. after interference.

Dutch Acol - 4444
In Dutch Acol you bid 4-card suits bottom up. This may seem silly and frankly, I think it is. The biggest problem is 1♠, which is either 4♠333 or 5 cards. You want to know which variation is the actual one, especially in competition! Although the string of opening length did not change this is in fact the biggest step between systems! All the others just revolve around one or two distributions.

Swiss Acol - 5443
This is like Dutch Acol but 4M333 hands are opened 1♣. You have the advantage of 1♠ showing 5 cards but not for 1♥, which may have 4 cards if it also has 4 cards in ♠. This makes it harder to find fits in ♥ as partners have no certainty.

SEF, SAYC, 2/1 - 5533
This is like Swiss Acol only the 4♠4♥32 hands are opened with the 3-card minor. Now 1♥ promises 5 cards, making life easier for responder. This means that 1♦ is only 3 cards if 4♠4♥3♦2♣. This gives the same problems as 1♠ in Dutch Acol and 1♥ in Swiss Acol, we keep moving the problem down. Here it is again:

1♦ (2♥) ?

You have 4♦ 2♥ and want to find a bid. Your length in ♦ increases the chance that partner is short, and if he is you know that he has 4♥. So either we have a 4 - 4 fit and they probably have a fit somewhere too, OR we have only 7 cards in ♦ and the same is true for their ♥. Your guess!

Italian 2/1 - 5542
This is like SEF but hands with 4♠4♥3♦2♣ are opened with 1♣. I prefer this method by far over any of the above. Note that we have moved our problem down another step now. However, it is best faced in 1♣, the most shaded of the opening bids even before this problem. Also by opening 1♣ we are least in the way of partner when we have hands that could play in at least 2 or 3 strains.

Let me notice some trends from one side to the other:

From English Acol to 2/1, the minimum strength of auctions like 1♥ - 2♦ increases. This is no doubt caused by the opening structure. The lack of definition for the 2/1s in English Acol is a big problem, but without them you have to respond 1NT to 1M too often. With them, slam bidding becomes much harder than in 2/1. Not my cup of tea (and tea is without milk!)

The opening bid of 1♦ makes a transformation from well-defined for Acol to vague and then back to well-defined. This is the main flaw of the systems in the middle, I think.

1♣ gets to include more and more hands from up to down. I think every step (except the first which is not helpful at all) is an improvement in this case as it helps define the other opening bids more than that it hurts 1♣.

In his 2/1 book, Mike Lawrence writes:

There are several reasons why you might choose one system over another.

1. You might choose one system because it is accurate.

2. You might choose a system because it is easy to learn.

3. You might choose a system because it is more fun to use than the other systems.

In terms of being easy to learn, and in terms of being fun, I think the system to play is a basic four card major system.

After this he compares 5-card-major and
4-card systems in several areas, and
concludes that in part-score or game
bidding the pros and cons cancel each
other. It is in the slam bidding area
that he considers 5-card superior.

I play bridge mainly for amusement,
winning is nice but not necessary to
have a good time. I mostly play online
bridge and I don't care much if people
turn out to cheat by using MSN besides
their online bridge program, or
whatever. If their game gets too
unrealistic I may make a joke about it.
Even more fun to beat those peeps. For
my kind of player it is VERY important
that a system is easy to learn and fun.
Avoid misunderstanding at all costs.
So, according to Mike Lawrence then,
four card major systems are superior for
I agree with your assessment until the last step. Playing Better Minor, you can usually assume that partner has 4 diamonds for a 1D opener and 3 or 4 clubs for a 1C opener. It can turn out badly, but will rarely be a disaster. Putting th 4=4=3=2s into 1C gives you slightly more safety after a 1D opener, but significantly hurts your competitive bidding after a 1C opener IMO.

To look at it another way - a 1D opening is frequently precisely 4 cards, so the occasional 3 card holding will usually survive. A 1C opening is fairly unlikely to be on 3 cards, so the optimal strategy with Better Minor is to support more aggressively than you would if you knew that partner had exactly three - if you do that and he turns out to have two, you have problems.

There is also another step that you didn't mention - opening 1C on all balanced hands (this is also 5542, but again is a much more significant development than any since English Acol->Dutch Acol). The merit of this method is that you opening 1D and rebidding 1NT is now free - I open 1D on 4DlongerC, which helps you compete on those hands and knowing that partner won't have 4 diamonds in an unbalanced hand after opening 1C is very useful.
Although I agree with my friend Mike, the short club has a serious advantage in constructive auctions when you play 1NT=14-16. Whether you play that 1C-1D-1NT=17-19, or transfer responses to 1C, you will often be able to show the strong balanced hand at a lower level. This avoids being overboard with the 17-count when the field is in 1NT, and it frees up the 2NT response. If I could play with myself then I'd play short club with transfer responses.

I am finding it more and more interesting that the European style is far more tolerant of a short club opening than here in North America. I also am starting to see the benefits of transfer responses and rebids.

I don't think that 5 card majors are significantly superior at slam bidding versus 4 card majors. Often with five card majors you're forced to find your fit at the three level, and the room lost dooms many to the 3NT making 4 or 5 versus 6 of the minor.

Frankly, I'm starting to want to play with more Euro-based players.
Rubensohl was of course invented by Bruce Neill of Australia, not Ira Rubin.
Hi Gerber

I was wondering if you could tell me which is the most used bidding system in Germany. I am currently learning the 5-card major, and was hoping to play next time I'm in Germany. Many thanks

guayanna a*t gmail
And what about canape style? Not too much popular now, but very powerful. You start with shorter suit. If you don't find support, now you have great probability to find support in second longest suit. Don't be afraid, that you will not have occasion to show second suit. Vice versa, SAYC, ACOL and others don't show second suit much oftenly.
I'm learning how to play bridge using the UK Acol system. I guess for beginners the best thing is to stick to one system and keep practising until it becomes almost automatic. Then, when your understanding has developed you can move on and try some different systems. I didn't realise there were different version of Acol. I obviously have a lot to learn still!
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