“Advanced players know the rules. Experts know when to break the rules.” – Anonymous
Opening in third seat is a special situation because it is the only opening bid decision where you can know LHO has an opening hand, and that the opponents are likely to have game values. You also know partner has less than an opening hand. Those considerations have led to such well-known third-seat tactics as opening light, preempting aggressively, and even out-and-out psyching.
I will discuss some of those tactics, as well as some others that I will classify as ‘tactical psychs’. What I mean by that term is bids that, though technically not matching the partnership agreement, are relatively close to the promised hand and contain approximately the expected amount of playing strength. For example, opening 1NT with just 13 points but a decent 6-card minor is a mild form of a tactical psych, since your hand doesn’t contain the promised 15-17 points, but you can reasonably hope that the long minor will make up for the missing strength. A tactical psych is a safer tactic than a blatant psych, such as opening a very weak hand in a 3-card major, but it still contains much of the same upside.
Many bridge players love to open light hands in third seat, and almost everyone has come across the tactic. The two main reasons to open light in third seat are to preempt the opponents (or at least get them bidding defensively) and to direct the lead. Both are worthwhile goals, but it is important to keep those goals in mind and not open the bidding simply because you can.
One example is KTxxx Axx QJx xx. You can open 1 to take the 1-level away from the opponents, and playing Drury gives you a measure of safety. However, if you reverse the black suits then there is not much point to opening the bidding. Opening 1 on a moderately weak hand can actually make it easier for the opponents to enter the auction, since LHO may have a hand worth an overcall but would not have opened the bidding. If you pass, then the hand might be a passout since you hold 10 points, and with your shortness in the majors you can live with that result. A better light opening bid in clubs is Kxx xx xxxx KJTx. While opening such a poor hand is risky, your weakness virtually ensures that the player in fourth seat was going to open the bidding anyway, and you badly want to suggest a club lead.
Opening a four-card major suit on a light hand in third seat is a popular tactic, mostly for the extra preemption. While I wouldn’t discourage this, there are some disadvantages. One is that it puts partner under a great deal of pressure in competition. When the next player passes, partner can bid Drury and you stop on the 2 level with a 3-card limit raise. But, if your LHO overcalls (or makes a jump-overcall), then partner may feel compelled to cue-bid or raise at a higher level. If you open 1 and there is a 2 overcall, partner will force to 3 with a limit raise, which will usually be too high when you hold a light hand with a four-card suit. Another disadvantage to opening a four-card major suit in third seat is that you may keep the opponents from playing in that suit. When you hold five cards in your major, the odds are slim that the opponents will play there, but when you hold four in the suit then the odds of the opponents having an 8-card fit there are much higher. You would welcome defending with a trump suit that is not breaking.
Aggressive preemption is another popular strategy in third seat. There is a measure of safety because partner holds a hand not worth opening. That means partner is unlikely to have game interest. Therefore you can preempt on hands that are either lighter or heavier than normal. A 3 opening bid in third seat may look like xx xx QJTxxx Jxx, or like Kx Jxx KT9xxxx A. Since the next player will usually want to bid, it is desirable to apply a lot of pressure. When to preempt with the stronger hand type depends on factors such as vulnerability and table feel. This can work well since the next player often stretches to overcall and then reaches too high a level. Moreover, declarer may misplace the cards as well.
One common decision in third seat is whether to open a light hand with a 5-card major at the 1-level or the 2-level. This has a lot to do with style, but as with all preempting decisions you should be heavily influenced by how suitable your hand is for other strains. Qxx AQxxx Jxx xx would make a fine dummy for any suit, and if you feel it should be opened in third seat then 1 looks like your best bet. xxx KQJxx Axx xx looks much more like it will belong in hearts than in the other suits, so 2 may be the winning bid due to the extra preemption.
In third seat, there are ways to keep the opponents out of the auction other than preempting. It’s wise to open 1NT as often as possible. 1NT is more preemptive than opening any suit on the 1-level. It puts your side on solid systemic footing and creates the impression of strength. Even if your opponents have the ability to show their strength with a penalty double, they are almost always on shaky ground after you run. For example, finding a 4-4 fit in a major suit may prove difficult.
Consider Qxx Qxx AKJTxx x. Opening a hand like this 1NT in third seat has a lot going for it. If partner transfers to a major then you don’t have to worry much, since you hold a fit and useful singleton. If you end up playing in notrump then your diamond suit could provide a great source of tricks. There is also a deceptive element. Each opponent may credit you with high cards held by his partner, and misdefense can occur. It’s common to take more tricks than you are entitled to after opening a hand like this 1NT.
Another way to keep the opponents out of the auction is to open in a short minor suit. If you hold KQx Jxxx Ax Qxxx then you may want to open 1 in third seat. LHO may have difficulty entering the auction if he holds a long diamond suit. He is also unlikely to have a good shape for a takeout double if you open a short suit. You are planning on passing partner’s response anyway, so the risk of opening a short minor suit is not all that high. And if partner responds in notrump then you may avoid a diamond lead. Although you can’t be certain, you probably don’t want a diamond lead against notrump since it’s your shortest suit.
This week’s quizzes won’t have absolute right or wrong answers, but see if your judgment matches mine. All bidding problems are in third seat with nobody vulnerable after two passes.1: Pass. I think this is exactly the wrong type of hand to open in third seat. Opening 1does almost nothing to keep the opponents out of the auction, it doesn’t direct a lead, and you don’t want to compete in that suit. If you do open then 1 is a better choice since it makes life harder for the opponents, but you can easily end in a poor spade fit, and your hand is useless for offense.
2: 2. Although you have a great dummy if your side has a club fit, your shortness in the pointed suits and general weakness make it relatively fruitless to worry about other strains. Preempting may actually be safer than opening 1 since you don’t have to worry about partner responding in one of your short suits after preempting.
3: 1NT. This bid may steal the pot. It would be nice to open hearts to get the lead, but you have great playing strength for notrump. You can keep the opponents from bidding spades easily, and also steal a light game. You might even be able to compete in hearts later. There is a great surprise factor from opening 1NT with a long major that can work to your advantage.
One final note: I intentionally did not bring up any legal aspects of these bids, or issues surrounding partnership agreements. Nor did I discuss vulnerability much. These are all important, but I wanted to focus more on the ideas and general concepts about opening in third seat. Almost every strategy I suggested comes with risks attached, but if you are selectively creative and keep in mind what your goals are, then you can have third seat adventures that are both fun and successful.
Josh Donn is a former junior internationalist for the United States. He has a junior world and open national championship to his credit as well as several other top-ten finishes on each stage. His main interests lie in bidding theory and issues of bidding judgment. Outside of bridge, Josh is a Casino Accounting Manager. He has worked at some of the largest casinos in the world and is an expert in casino operations, regulations, and software. He grew up in Syracuse, NY and currently resides in Las Vegas, NV.