Andre Bovee-Begun

Presenting a “lost” Fred Gitelman article: Improving 2/1 auctions — the sequel

Back in 1993, in the pages of Canadian Master Point Magazine, Bridge Base founder Fred Gitelman began a three-part series on improving 2/1 bidding. BBO fans should recognize that system as the specialty of BBO’s bridge “robot,” GIB, and so they might be very interested to hear Fred’s thoughts on the subject.

However, to their dismay, only the issues containing Part 1 and Part 3 of the series are available as free downloads. Part 2 of the series simply vanished down the digital memory hole for 17 long years. But, just in time for Bridge Base Online’s upcoming 10th anniversary, I was going through the archives and I came across the missing “long-lost” second installment of the series. So here it is, republished for the first time in nearly two decades. As much a historical curiosity as an insightful technical article, this piece has Fred plunging his readers into the details of complex bidding structures and wrinkles in the system. It’s not for the faint of heart, but you may find it well worth a careful reading.

One word of warning: rescuing this article from obscurity required a fair amount of digital archaeology, and it’s entirely possible that I’ve introduced errors into it. If you do come across any mistakes a player of Fred Gitelman’s caliber is unlikely to make, let me know so I can repair any unintended damage!

Improving 2/1 Auctions — The Sequel

By Fred Gitelman

I have written an article for each and every issue of Canadian Master Point since it began, but it was only in the last issue (November 1993) that I wrote my first article about bidding, specifically on improving the way that most people play 2/1 game force. Much to my surprise, I received far more fan-mail than usual, and many people requested a follow-up article. Well, readers, you asked for it! I recommend that you (re-)read the November 1993 article (and make some coffee) before reading this one. I have tried to keep things as simple as possible, but unfortunately, the subject is complex. As a result, what follows is at times technical in the extreme.

“Last Train to Clarksville”

“Last Train to Clarksville” (LTTC) is a convention I mentioned at the end of my last article, claiming that it was necessary to make the method of cue-bidding that I recommend effective. The definition is simple:

The bid by either partner of the step immediately below 4 of our agreed major (4 if hearts agreed, 4♥ if spades agreed) is LTTC, asking partner for more information.

Despite its apparent simplicity, LTTC is not an easy convention to understand, not least because it carries different meanings depending on exactly how the auction has gone. However, before I attempt to tell you how LTTC is used, I first want to define what I mean when I use the term “Blackwood” in this discussion.

It is assumed that we play some sort of Roman Keycard Blackwood. This means that the king of the agreed trump suit counts as a fifth ace and that it is also possible to find out about the trump queen. However, in this structure, by bidding Blackwood, we are committing the hand to the six level unless more than one of these six cards is missing. You cannot use Blackwood and sign off when you discover that only one is missing. Since people seem to do this all the time against me, perhaps it is an acceptable practice in some schools of bidding theory. It is not an acceptable practice in the methods I am discussing. I think you will gain some insight into why this is so as you read on.

I shall also refer to a convention called “Lackwood”. As you will realize, if you are playing LTTC, you may no longer be able to cue-bid the LTTC suit (diamonds if hearts is agreed, hearts if spades is agreed). Lackwood is a bid of 5 of the agreed major, and bidding Lackwood always denies control of the LTTC suit. It is either bid immediately after LTTC or as a direct raise of 4 of the agreed major. Bidding Lackwood is a last resort. It is a convention you should go out of your way not to use. Most of the time you can infer the presence or absence of a control in the LTTC suit and simply bid Blackwood. Lackwood can, however, be used to resolve any problems of missing controls in the LTTC suit while retaining the possibility of bidding grand slams.

The responses to Lackwood are:

Pass No control in LTTC suit
1st step 1st round control of LTTC suit & 0/3 kc
2nd step 1st round control of LTTC suit & 1/4 kc
3rd step 1st round control of LTTC suit, 2 kc, no Q
4th step 1st round control of LTTC suit, 2 kc & Q
6 of our major     2nd round control of LTTC suit

(If you prefer to play 1430 RKCB feel free to invert the 1st and 2nd steps.)

LTTC in action — basic sequences

  • When is a bid LTTC and not a cue-bid? There are a number of simple rules:
  • We have an agreed 8+ card major suit fit at the 3-level and the bidding is forced to game.
  • We have embarked upon a cue-bidding auction of the type discussed in the last article.
  • One hand has shown serious slam interest. There are two ways to show serious slam interest. One way is by bidding Serious 3NT; the other way is by continuing to try for slam despite the fact that partner has denied serious slam interest by bypassing Serious 3NT.

If all the above apply, then a bid of 4 of the suit immediately below the trump suit is LTTC

However, there is no simple rule for what the LTTC bid itself means, since it doesn’t always mean the same thing. Assuming that we have agreed a major suit at the 3-level, there are sixteen possible LTTC sequences. In four of these sequences, which are shown below, LTTC has a very specific meaning. In each case, the first couple of rounds of the auction have been omitted, the first bid in each case being assumed to set the trump suit.

Auction 1     3♠     3NT
4 4♥ (LTTC)

In Auction 1, 3NT is Serious. 4 shows a control in diamonds and denies a control in clubs (see last article); 4♥ is LTTC. In this example LTTC means:

“Partner, I have forced you to cue-bid and I do not know how good your hand is. If I were to bid 4♠ it would be an absolute signoff, a statement that we have at least two club losers. I have the club control that you are lacking, but my hand is flawed in some way so that I cannot bid Blackwood. Perhaps you have sufficient strength to move towards slam (by bidding Blackwood or Lackwood depending on the heart situation).”

Auction 2     3♥     3NT
4 (LTTC)

In Auction 2, 3NT is Serious but it denies a spade control (else 3♠ would have been bid); 4 is LTTC (denying a club control). In this example LTTC means:

“Partner, you have shown a strong hand with no control in spades. If I also had no spade control, I would bid 4♥ as an absolute signoff. I cannot bid 4♣ (showing both spades and clubs controlled), nor can I bid above 4♥ because I do not have a club control; therefore, I am bidding LTTC. Since my hand is still unlimited, you are expected to continue (Blackwood or Lackwood, depending on the diamond situation) any time you have a club control.”

Auction 3      3♠     3NT
4♣ 4♥ (LTTC)

In Auction 3, 3NT is serious and 4♣ is a cue-bid; 4♥ is LTTC, denying a diamond control. In this example, LTTC means:

“Partner, I have taken control of the auction, but I am lacking a diamond control. If you do not have a diamond control either, please sign off. Otherwise, please bid Blackwood (or Lackwood, depending on the heart situation).”

The message conveyed by bidding 4♠ instead of 4♥ (LTTC) in this sequence would be:

“Partner, I have shown extra values, but I am lacking a diamond control. If you have a diamond control, please use your own judgement as to whether you should pass or bid Blackwood (or Lackwood, depending on the heart situation).”

Auction 4      3♠     4♣
4♥ (LTTC)    

In Auction 4, 4♣ is a cue-bid denying serious slam interest (else 3NT); 4♥ is LTTC. In this example, LTTC means:

“Partner, you have told me that you have a minimum hand, but I am still interested in slam; however, I am lacking a diamond control. If you also have no control of diamonds, please sign off; otherwise, please bid Blackwood (or Lackwood, depending on the heart situation).”

In the first two auctions, LTTC is a statement that a control exists in a particular suit. In the last two auctions, LTTC is a question that asks for a control in a particular suit. In all of these auctions, LTTC is completely artificial, saying nothing about the suit mentioned.

LTTC in action — complex sequences

These four LTTC auctions are straightforward enough, if complex. However, there are twelve more LTTC auctions in which there are several possible meanings for the LTTC bid, and you must establish partnership agreements. Here are some examples:3

Auction 5     3♠     4

4 is a cue-bid denying serious slam interest and denying a club control. What does 4♥ mean? It must show extra values and a club control, since without either of these, you would signoff in 4♠. What else does it show or ask? There are three possibilities, from which you and your partner must select one:

  1. It shows a heart control, but in a hand with not quite enough strength to bid Blackwood. The message is that the other hand should use its judgement as to whether or not to bid Blackwood.
  2. It denies a heart control. The message is that the other hand must bid Blackwood with a heart control and bid 4♠ otherwise.
  3. It says nothing about a heart control: the message here is that the 4♥ bidder is still interested in slam, but needs help somewhere. Partner can choose to bid Blackwood with a heart control (or Lackwood without one).
Auction 6      3♥     4?

4 clearly denies spade and club controls as well as serious slam interest. This time there are only two possible additional messages to choose from:

  1. It shows a diamond control; bidding 4 instead would deny a diamond control.
  2. It says nothing about a diamond control but shows a good hand given what has been denied already (you should have a good minimum with no control in spades or clubs – chances are you do have a diamond control if you still have slam interest). This interpretation implies that you could sometimes bid 4♥ with a really bad hand even if it includes a diamond control. With a really good hand with controls in spades and clubs, the 3♥ bidder can still choose to bid either Blackwood (or Lackwood, depending on the diamond situation).

I prefer to play interpretation c) in Auction 5 and interpretation b) in Auction 6, even though these interpretations cause there to be a little bit of murkiness in an otherwise highly structured cue-bidding style. In my experience, however, the partner of the LTTC bidder can almost always figure out when to go on. Therefore, I am going to propose the following interpretation of LTTC for auctions other than the first four examples:

Bidding LTTC means that you are still interested in slam, but do not have sufficient values or controls to bid Blackwood. You would like to involve your partner’s judgement.

If your hand is suitable for Blackwood, but you lack a control in the LTTC suit, then bid LTTC, not Lackwood. You hope that partner will take over and bid Blackwood, but if partner signs off you can still judge to use Lackwood if you want.

Bidding 4 of the agreed major instead of LTTC is an absolute signoff when:

  1. Partner is known to be missing a control.
  2. Partner has denied serious slam interest and you have not yet limited your hand.

Bidding 4 of the agreed major instead of LTTC shows a lesser hand than bidding LTTC but does not preclude slam when:

You or your partner have made a serious slam try and there are no suits (besides the LTTC suit) with unresolved control problems.

Slam bidding summary

Here is a summary of the slam-bidding structure I have described in these two articles:

When an 8+ card major suit fit is agreed at the three-level and the bidding is forced to game (as in 2/1 auctions):

  • Cue-bidding starts one step above 3 of the agreed major. Cue-bidding is done “up-the-line”. Bypassing a suit denies that control.
  • A cue-bid in an unbid suit shows any first- or second-round control (ace, king, singleton, or void).
  • A cue-bid in the first suit you have bid shows two of the top three honours. A cue-bid in a suit your partner has bid shows one of the top three honours.
  • 4NT is always some form of Roman Keycard Blackwood. RKCB is forcing to slam if only one keycard or the trump queen is absent.
  • 3NT shows “serious slam interest”. A better description is that it assumes the captaincy, forcing partner to cue-bid. By bidding Serious 3NT you also force yourself to show your (unlimited) partner any controls he has denied (possibly via LTTC — see Auction 1 above).
  • Bypassing 3NT to cue-bid denies “serious slam interest”. A better description is that such a bid relinquishes captaincy; that is, you will respect your partner’s signoff, but respond appropriately to his slam try having already got the minimum nature of your hand off your chest.
  • Bidding the last step below 4 of our major (4 for Hearts, 4♥ for Spades) is Last Train to Clarksville. Bidding LTTC versus bidding 4 of our major can carry different messages; depending on the exact auction, LTTC means either:
  1. I have a specific control that you denied.
  2. Please tell me if you have a specific control.
  3. I want you to use your judgement.
  4. Some combination of 1, 2, and 3.

Other wrinkles

There are a few other aspects of these methods that I recommend:

1. Play 1430 RKCB instead of 0314.

I shall not go into the rationale for this here.

2. If hearts is the agreed suit, play that a bid of 4♠ is a “transfer to Blackwood”.

This is an especially useful bid if you want to bid RKCB but fear a response of 5♠ (2 kc with the queen) will get you too high; having your partner bid Blackwood will solve the problem. You should also bid 4♠ instead of 4NT if your own RKCB response would be 5♣ and you lack the trump queen (you can figure out why).

3. Whenever a major suit is agreed, a bid of five of any other suit is “Exclusion RKCB”.

This means that you have a void in the bid suit and you want to know how many keycards your partner has, not counting the ace of your void. Before you make this sort of bid, make sure none of the possible responses will get you too high if you are off two keycards.

Note that suggestions 2. and 3. are agreements that have serious disaster potential, so use them with care. Always remember we never cue-bid at the five level.

In conclusion

If you and your partner feel that you thoroughly understand this both article and my last one, you are probably ready to try these methods. However, I suggest that you practice bidding with computer-generated hands (I sell them) before you actually try playing the structure I have described.

One final point: the rules are not clear in this area, but I think it is best not to alert Serious 3NT, LTTC, or your cue-bids, since it will probably help you more than your opponents to do so. Instead, inform the opponents of the nature of your auction before the opening lead is made.


[…] ← Presenting a “lost” Fred Gitelman article: Improving 2/1 auctions — the sequel    […]

[…] Anyway, after having played exclusion without it coming up for years, I finally read an article by Fred Gitelman where he proposed a simple agreement: After agreeing trumps play kickback, and all other bids […]

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