Improving the 2-over-1 Bidding System – Part 1

By Karen Walker

Courtesy of Karen’s Bridge Library:

When I learned bridge, my aunt taught me old-fashioned Goren, which was played by most everyone in the casual games on my college campus. Then I discovered duplicate and a host of “revolutionary” ideas — limit raises, negative doubles, weak two-bids — that were relatively simple improvements.

The next big change was the 2-over-1 system, which gained popularity so fast that it became difficult to find a partner who wanted to play any other system. That was fine with me, as I thought 2-over-1 was even easier to adopt than “duplicate standard”.

I soon learned that although the basic premise of 2-over-1 is simple enough, the auctions can become quite complicated and some types of hands are almost impossible to describe. Those flaws — and the superiority of standard methods — were the focus of an article by Frank Stewart in the ACBL Bridge Bulletin. Arguing the other side was Larry Cohen, who made the case that 2-over-1 is the more accessible, effective choice for players of all skill levels.

Whichever view you support, there’s no question that 2-over-1 is the dominant system in club and tournament bridge. Its fans believe its has clear advantages over standard bidding, but most recognize that the system is far from perfect.

Can it be improved? The first step is understanding the source of the problems, which fall into three categories: System definition, user error and design weaknesses.


System definition

A common misconception is that 2-over-1 has a universal set of clearly defined meanings for early responses and rebids. It would be convenient if you could say “2-over-1?” to a new partner and be confident that you’re playing the same system, but you can’t.

Lawrence or Hardy or … ?

There are several ways to structure 2-over-1 systems and it’s helpful to be aware of the variations. A number of authors — including Mike Lawrence, Max Hardy, Marty Bergen, Paul Thurston and Eric Rodwell/Audrey Grant — have published books and software that outline their versions of the system.

The two most widely used approaches are from Lawrence and Hardy, who differ in their recommendations for some of opener’s rebids. In general, Lawrence emphasizes value rebids that define opener’s strength. Hardy includes more rebids that show distribution, but do not pinpoint strength.

Even simple sequences can be misinterpreted if you’re playing one style and your partner is playing the other. After the auction 1S-2C, for example, does opener promise stoppers in both unbid suits if he rebids 2NT? He does if he’s a Lawrence player, but not if he learned the system from the Rodwell/Grant books.

Misunderstandings about “game level”

Your partnership can agree that “forcing to game” means any game, including minors, but most 2-over-1 pairs believe that’s taking the system name too seriously.

Since responder will consider any good 12-point hand a game force, the partnership’s combined strength may be only 24-25 high-card points when opener holds a minimum. That’s (barely) enough to make 3NT, 4H or 4S. A minor-suit game requires considerably more power, and when you don’t have it, you need to be able to stop below the five-level. That’s why the practical definition of “forcing to game” is “forcing to 3NT or the four-level”.

This can be an issue in auctions where you don’t have a major-suit fit and you’ve been unsuccessful in finding stoppers for notrump. Unless one of you has shown extra values earlier in the auction, a bid of four of a previously bid minor suit may be just a retreat that can be passed.


User error

Saving too much space

One of the big benefits of 2-over-1 auctions is that neither partner has to jump to show forcing values. The bidding can stay low, allowing more room to exchange information below game level and evaluate slam possibilities.

That benefit can become a pitfall if an auction has what Bridge World magazine calls “two temporizers and zero describers”. This happens when one or both partners are so intent on conserving space that they make every rebid at the lowest level possible, no matter what their strength. The result is that they learn a lot about each other’s distribution, but very little about suit quality and high-card strength.

Bridge Bulletin columnist Frank Stewart called this problem his “biggest gripe” about 2-over-1 and cites it as proof that the basis of the system is flawed. Most of these failures, though, can be blamed on the bidders, not the system itself.

Two-over-one bidding is most accurate if you agree that responder does not jump with extra values, but opener may. In most 2-over-1 auctions, responder is the “asker” (temporizer) and opener is the “teller” (describer). When responder has slam aspirations, he uses forcing, low-level rebids to give opener room to provide more information. This is the principle of fast arrival — responder’s fast rebids (jumps to game) show minimums; slow (low-level) raises and notrump rebids tend to show extras.

Opener, however, makes value bids whenever possible — he bids higher with stronger hands, lower with minimums. Rebids that show extra values include jumps in his suit or notrump and (in Lawrence style) reverse rebids. The sooner opener can make one of these bids, the easier it is for responder to determine the partnership’s combined strength.

Suppose you open 1 with A74 AQJ1097 6 KQ3 and partner responds 2. Those who have fallen in love with the space-saving features of 2-over-1 will rebid just 2, which conceals their strength and suit quality. They’ve also increased their chances of scoring +680 when the field is making +1430. It’s worth using up an extra level of bidding if it gives partner extra information, so the value bid of 3 is perfect.

It won’t always be possible for opener to show his exact strength with his first rebid. After 1 by you, 2 by partner, you have to settle for a minimum rebid with hands such as

AJ8643 42 AKQ K4

KQJ65 AQ854 Q2 A

Neither hand has a strong message to send about where to play, so don’t waste a level by over-emphasizing a weak suit or jumping in a new suit. Make your rebid at the two-level and plan to show your extra strength later.

Overuse of the Forcing Notrump

Many players dislike responding 2 to a 1 opening with

♠Q4 AJ43 A62 Q764

but the alternative — a Forcing Notrump — can leave you with awkward choices later in the auction.

If you respond 1NT with this hand and partner rebids 2, 2 or 2, you have no forcing bid available. Your only option is a unilateral jump to game, which prevents you from learning anything more about partner’s hand. You’ll also have trouble communicating your strength if partner makes a jump shift or if the opponents enter the auction.

You can avoid these problems by limiting your Forcing Notrump range to a maximum of a bad 12 points. When you hold game values, establish the force right away by choosing a 2-over-1 response, even with a weak suit.

“Auto” cuebidding

Some 2-over-1 auctions will be so efficient that you’ll be left with bidding space you don’t need, and there’s often a temptation to fill it just because it’s there. Here’s an auction that causes problems for many pairs:


You hold KJ1082 KJ85 A72 6

Partner’s raise to 3 is slow arrival, suggesting at least moderate extra values. You have room to make a “free” control cuebid on the way to game, so you could try 4, just in case partner was planning to head for 6.

To partner, though, 4 will sound like a serious move toward slam. He’ll cooperate by cuebidding 4 or 5 and you’ll be propelled to 5 – if you can stop there – with what may be an ordinary fit and only 26 high-card points.

The first partner to offer a cuebid in this type of auction should be promising something extra (a strong 14+ points). With a dead minimum, just raise to game and let partner decide if his hand warrants a try. If he has enough to make 6 opposite the hand above, he’ll bid again.