Source: Jan. 11, 2012

“Advanced players know the rules. Experts know when to break the rules.” – Anonymous

Joshua Donn
Joshua Donn

Slam bidding is one of the most exciting parts of the game. Not only are lots of points on the line, but slams also lead to swings because the other table frequently plays at a different level. Slam bidding is also interesting as an area that gives you a lot of freedom in the auction. Since your side invariably holds most of the strength in slam auctions, you will typically have several options of how to proceed.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is also a measure of inherent safety in tactically mis-describing your hand on the way to slam. If you cue-bid a suit with no control, there is obvious danger in the sense that you might reach slam with an uncontrolled suit, but you knew that when you risked the bid. At least there is no danger of reaching the wrong strain or level. Contrast that with far riskier psychic bids, such as an immediate response in a short major on a bad hand.

Following are some of my favorite deceptive strategies in slam bidding that I think are underutilized. A common theme will be weighing the risk of the chosen action against the information provided by a different auction. I will then diverge and use the opportunity to express some thoughts about a common slam bidding convention – Last Train.

Jumping to Slam

I have long believed that the most underused slam bidding technique is simply jumping to slam. If your values tell you that’s where you belong, then you should bid it. From time to time I see people instinctively bid Blackwood and I think to myself they are going to bid the exact same contract no matter what response they get.

If you hold a balanced 20-count, respond in a major suit to partner’s minor suit opening bid, and he raises, consider whether exploring is really worth it. The odds of being off two keycards when holding those values are typically slim, and if you ask the opponents will gain information and be able to double for the lead (or infer what to lead from the lack of such a double). You can almost always think of a hand that will make a grand slam in these situations, but exploring for it might also reach bad grand slams. Maybe you need partner to hold AKQxx of his minor but it will be hard to distinguish from AKQx. Or perhaps you need the right jack opposite your AKQx but you just can’t find it.

There is also a deceptive advantage in occasionally jumping to slam in these situations. If you jump to slam in a suit, the opponents will tend to read you for a more distributional and freakish hand than you actually hold. I have even seen the opening leader holding two aces on this auction assume that they couldn’t both be cashing and lead a trump, giving me the opportunity to discard all of my losers in one suit. Of course no one reading this article would do such a thing, but as I’ve said many times, you gain in unpredictable ways by reaching the normal contract via an abnormal route.

Keycard Blackwood

Interestingly enough, Keycard Blackwood is the convention that I think ranges most from wildly underused to overused. I briefly covered when I think a number of players bid Blackwood too often, which is when they could jump directly to slam. One situation in which I think players could stand to bid Blackwood more often is after a strong raise from partner.

I recently held a hand like Spade SuitAKJ Heart SuitQxxxx Diamond SuitJxx club suitAK, opened 1Heart Suit, and saw partner respond with a 3Spade Suit splinter bid. Many players would cue bid 4club suithere to make sure partner has a diamond control. However, he probably does, and even if not we will make slam if we avoid a diamond lead by discarding losers on the black suits. Also, If I cue bid and partner bids 4Diamond Suit then RHO might double, which is a disaster. I could use the prior strategy and jump to slam but I don’t want to give up on a grand slam. If partner holds all the missing keycards then I want to ask about third-round club control. I’m willing to accept the combined chances of partner holding club suitQJxx or club suitQxxxx or better of clubs, or the queen of clubs with either the singleton queen of spades or spade finesse. So at the table I just bid Blackwood immediately. I happened to break even when we were off one keycard, which was the expected outcome, but I still feel my action was right.

Last Train

I am going to cheat a little and talk about the Last Train convention a little bit, rather than any more uncommon tactics. Last Train is a convention that, as it pertains to cue-bidding auctions, refers to the last cue-bid below the trump suit. It doesn’t promise a control in the suit, but rather says the player has further interest in slam, but only one step below the trump suit to express it. In my opinion, Last Train is a convention imperative for good slam bidding, but I also think it may be the most misused convention in all of expert bridge. Many players seem to bid Last Train almost all of the time without even realizing that they do so.

Let’s suppose you hold Spade SuitKQxxxx Heart Suitxxx Diamond SuitKx club suitAx. You open 1Spade Suit, partner responds a game forcing 2Diamond Suit, you bid 2Spade Suit (not promising 6), and partner bids 3Spade Suit. You cuebid 4club suit and partner bids 4Diamond Suit. This is exactly the situation that Last Train was created for. Your sixth trump and nice honors mean slam is well in the picture, but due to the possibility of heart losers you don’t have safety beyond 4Spade Suit. You should bid 4Heart Suit and let partner take it from there. However, change your hand to Spade SuitKQxxx Heart Suitxx Diamond Suitxxx club suitAKJ on the exact same auction through 4Diamond Suit. There are plenty of players who would bid 4Heart Suit here because… well, because it’s there? The shape is bad, the diamond holding is the worst, and the slam interest and club honors have already been shown. This hand is not worth any more than 4Spade Suit at this point. Bidding last train would be a “blame transfer”, allowing you to blame partner for doing the wrong thing.

I didn’t cover every idea in detail. There are many more ways to deceive the opponents in slam auctions. Among them are fake cue-bids, bidding  Blackwood with a void , and asking for the queen of trumps when you really hold it, but most of these are well-covered in existing literature. Do any other readers have a favorite?

Josh Donn is the reigning Blue Ribbon Pairs champion. He also has a junior world and another 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.

Bridge Accomplishments: World Junior Team champion 2006, 3x NABC champion

Regular Bridge Partners Roger Lee, Sally Meckstroth, Drew Casen, Sheri Winestock, Barbara Kasle, Brenda Jacobus, many others.