Source:  Bridge Winners 

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

Support doubles are one of my favorite conventions. The basic support double applies after an opening bid and response at the 1-level, and non-jump interference by the fourth hand: double (or redouble) by the opening bidder shows 3 cards in responder’s suit. I like this convention because it conveys valuable information on a wide range of hands at the lowest-possible level. It also comes up frequently and creates useful inferences about other bids. However, I believe many players hurt their results by being too religious about making support doubles. They will always make a support double with 3-card support, to the point that they will explain a pass or any other bid by opener as denying 3 cards in responder’s suit.  Just as with any call, support doubles work best when applied with sound judgment. Here are some guidelines to use when considering whether or not to make a support double.

Poor offense

It is wise to consider passing instead of making a support double when the offensive strength of your hand is extremely subpar. Examples of poor offense include: holding a minimum hand, poor shape, lack of honors in partner’s suit, and slow values (queens and jacks) in the enemy suit, but just as important is knowing the level of the auction. This concept of the “level of the auction” is best shown with an example. Suppose you hold  xxx QJx QJxx AQx and the auction goes 1 P 1 2. There are all sorts of reasons to pass rather than make a support double. You barely have an opening bid to begin with. Your shape is the dreaded 3-3-4-3. You have nothing at all in partner’s suit. And perhaps most importantly, you are going to put partner in a difficult 4-3 fit on many of his minimum hands since he will often have no alternative but to retreat to 2. In contrast, suppose on the same hand the auction begins 1 P 1 1. Now I would have no qualms about making a support double despite the minimum hand and bad shape, because the level of the auction is lower, giving partner many more options after the double.  If he has just four hearts, he can retreat to 1NT or 2, making the auction a lot safer. Also note that on this second auction the QJx is in partner’s suit rather than the opponent’s suit, a big plus for offense.

A more descriptive rebid

Another reason to not make a support double is because you have a more descriptive rebid. Let’s say you hold Ax Jxx KQJTxxx and the auction goes 1 P 1 1. I would rebid 2 rather than make a support double. The outstanding feature of this hand is the good 7-card club suit, rather than the heart support. 2 also makes it clear that you hold a minimum hand, which is crucial as you will want to compete to the 3-level in clubs after a likely 2 raise on your left. In essence, 2 communicates two aspects of your hand: the minimum values and the good club suit, which will leave your partner much better placed in the auction. If you were to make a support double, that would not limit your strength at all, so a subsequent bid of 3 would suggest a stronger hand than this one. The same hand but with the hearts changed to Axx would be a perfect candidate for making a support double and bidding 3 on the following round. It’s easy to imagine partner wanting to look for 3NT opposite the second hand but not the first if he holds xxx Qxxx QJxx Ax.

A light third-seat opening bid

This bears just a quick mention, but if you open in third seat and then make a support double, that should promise something akin to a normal opening hand. So if you hold xxx Qxx xx AQJxx and make the tactical decision to open 1 in third seat to get partner off to a good lead, and the opportunity to make a support double arises on the next round of bidding, don’t do it! Partner may already have to guess what to do at his next turn in the competitive auction, so after your original risky action your most important goal becomes slowing down partner as best you can. The time has come to find out how your judgment stacks up. Try the following quiz:
  1. Kxx xxx AKQ xxxx – 1 P 1 2 ?
  2. KQTx Jxx AKQ KJx – 1 P 1 1 ?
  3. Jxxx KQx Jxx KQJ – 1 P 1 2 ?
1) Make a support double. Your hand may be nothing to write home about, but it’s not nearly so terrible as to hide your support from partner. If the next player raises to 3 partner will be able to compete to 3 holding QJxxxx xx xx Axx, and turning -140 into +140 on a normal hand like this is the kind of good result that makes support doubles so valuable. 2) Bid 2NT. This is another example of having a more important feature to show than the 3-card support. You have little reason to expect a 5-3 heart fit to play better than notrump even if partner has spade shortness, but partner will have trouble reaching that conclusion if you double and then bid 2NT.  However, be careful not to take this principle too far. If you hold AKx Qxx AKx Kxxx, I would recommend making your support double and then bidding 2NT on the next round. Despite holding two stoppers, your hand doesn’t scream notrump over hearts nearly as much as the problem hand. 3) Make a support double. This may look a bit bizarre to some, but it’s an extension of not making a support double with bad offense and 3-card support. You want to encourage partner as little as possible on a hand like this, but allowing the opponents to play in 2 when your side holds half the deck and 8 or 9 spades is like a crime against bridge.  Making a support double is a good compromise, slowing partner down without giving up completely. An added bonus is that the opponents won’t know you have a fit for sure, which may make it more difficult for them to judge whether to compete further. I hope this discussion of when to “break the rules” of making a support double has been enlightening and opened your eyes to some new ideas. However, my ideas are certainly not intended to be either comprehensive or absolute. What are some situations where you feel it’s wrong to make a support double? Do you agree with ever making a support double with 4-card support, or even possibly a doubleton? How about raising with 3-card support even if playing support doubles? Please share your thoughts below.
Josh Donn
Josh Donn
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.