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Slam Bidding I

Toby Kenney

Hopefully you know how to decide whether or not to bid game in uncontested auctions, and are ready to worry about what to do when you have a very good hand - good enough that it may be worth playing in a slam contract. In this article I hope to explain how to bid good slams and stay out of bad ones.

A small slam is good if it has over 50% chance of making. A grand slam is good if it has over about 70% chance (it's more difficult to quantify this one as its possible opponents might not have bid the small slam) [also, it depends on the scoring methods used. Toby is writing from the point of view of teams play (like cuppers) – Ed]. To make a slam you need:

  1. 12 tricks (or 13 for a grand slam). This amounts to about 33 points for balanced hands, or about 37 for a grand slam. With distribution you might have other sources of tricks, such as long side suits, or ruffs, and so need fewer high card points to make the tricks.
  2. At most one loser (and none in a grand slam). This means that the partnership can't have two aces missing unless one of you has a void, and can't be missing both ace and king of a suit unless one of you has a singleton in it.
The first condition is largely a matter of judgement and counting points, but how can you find out about the second one?

The basic tool you should be using to investigate slams is a conventional bid called a cue-bid. A cue-bid is a bid of a new suit once you have definitely agreed a suit, that is high enough that returning to your suit will be game or higher. So for a bid to be a cue-bid, the partnership must be committed to game and you must both know which game that will be.

For the purposes of this article, I shall only talk about uncontested auctions.
Examples

1H – 3H – 4C
Once you have a major fit, it is not possible that you will want to play in a different suit, so there is no sensible natural meaning for the bid.

1D – 1S – 3S – 4H
Again, you definitely have a spade fit, so there is no need for partner to look for a new fit. 4H should not be natural.

1C – 4C – 4H
4C bypasses 3NT, and quite clearly says "we do not want to play anywhere but clubs"; a new suit should be a cue-bid.

1H – 4H – 4S
Again, you can only want to play in hearts. 4S is a cue-bid.

Non-examples

1C – 3C – 3H
This is just natural, probably aiming to bid 3NT if responder has a diamond guard.

1H – 2H – 3C
This is a natural game try. There is still a major fit agreed, so you won't play anywhere but hearts, but you still have to decide whether to bid game, and knowing opener has clubs may help that decision.

1H – 1S – 3H – 4C
No suit has been agreed, so this is still looking for the best game.


So, now you should be able to recognise a cue-bid, but what does it mean?

A cue-bid shows:
  1. That slam is a possibility.
    The likelihood of a slam depends on how high the cue-bid is. A cue-bid below the lowest game in your suit merely says that the cue-bidder hasn't ruled out a slam and wants you to be able to make the right choice. It may show no extra strength beyond that required for game, if partner is unlimited. On the other hand, if a cue-bid forces you to play in 5 of a major, it is a strong statement that cue-bidder thinks slam is likely. If it is between 5 and 6 of your suit, it is suggesting a grand slam may be on, as it commits you to at least a small slam.

  2. A control in the suit bid.
    A control may be any of the following:
    1. the ace
    2. a void
    3. the king
    4. a singleton

    As we shall see later, exactly which of these are possible will vary according to the auction. Usually a given cue-bid may show only two of these possibilities.
So now we know what a cue-bid is, and we have hopefully agreed to play them with partner. So what do we do if partner bids one? There are four possibilities:
  1. You are sure that slam is not worth bidding. In this case just bid your suit at the lowest level.
  2. With the information partner has given you, you know that a small slam is worth bidding, but a grand slam is definitely not worth bidding. In this case just bid the small slam.
  3. With the information partner has given, you are sure that a grand slam is a good contract. In this case, just bid the grand slam.
  4. Most likely, you will not be sure what level to play at. What now? Easy, you make a cue-bid yourself! Well, you have to have a suitable cue-bid to make; bidding past the next level of your suit shows a fair amount of slam interest, so only do it when you have this much slam interest. Sometimes you will just have to bid game if you have nothing to cue-bid. If partner still thinks slam is likely, he can make another cue-bid.
Which cue-bid should I make?

Here are the rules about what a cue-bid can show:
  1. Make the lowest cue-bid appropriate to your hand. This allows partner to make certain inferences—if you have missed out a possible cue-bid, then you have denied a first-round control in that suit.
  2. On the first round of cue-bidding, cue-bids show first round controls (aces or voids) unless in a suit partner has bid naturally.
  3. In a suit partner has bid naturally, cue-bids must show the ace or king, not a shortage. This is because if partner has KQxxx in the suit, there is a significant difference between the ace and a shortage from his point of view. However, you can cue-bid the king of your partner's suit on the first round of cue-bidding.
  4. If you have chosen not to cue-bid a suit on the first round, or if partner has cue-bid it, you can now cue-bid a second round control (king or singleton). Partner will know it is a second-round control because either he has the first-round control, or you have already denied a first-round control.
Examples


I think I've covered the main points about cue-bidding, so lets look at some examples.
 S A K 
 H K Q T x x 
 D K x x x 
 C K x 
[W E]  S Q x 
 H A x x x 
 D Q x x 
 C Q J x x 
Recommended auction:

West

1H
3S
pass
East

3H
4H
If East had the DA and the HA or CA, slam will be a good bet. In order to find out, West cue-bids 3S — there is no risk in getting too high. However, when East bids 4H, West knows he doesn't have the CA or the DA, so slam is impossible.
 S K x x x 
 H A J x x 
 D A x 
 C K Q x 
[W E]  S A Q x x x x 
 H  — 
 D Q x x 
 C A x x x 
Recommended auction:

West

1H
3S
4D
5C
pass
East

1S
4C
4S
6S
With 6 points and two trumps to spare for his bidding, East is clearly worth a slam-try. When West shows the DA, he has nothing more to cue-bid (remember, don't cue-bid a void in partner's suit) so he just signs off... But West has some points to spare for his bidding, and good cards for slam, so he cue-bids his CK. Now East decides it's worth bidding the slam.
 S A Q J x x x 
 H Q x 
 D A K Q x x 
 C  — 
[W E]  S K x x x 
 H J x x x 
 D
 C A Q x x 
Recommended auction:

West

1S
4C
5D
pass
East

3S
4S
5S
West has a powerful two-suiter—with a likely five tricks coming from his diamond suit, he can easily envisage slam. He starts off with a 4C cue-bid (remember this is either the ace or a void). East is having none of it. West isn't done yet—East could still have the HK—so he shows that he has diamonds under control too. East knows his CA is worthless opposite partner's void, so signs off (again).
 S A Q J x x x 
 H Q x 
 D A K Q x x 
 C  — 
[W E]  S K x x x 
 H K J x x 
 D
 C Q x x x 
Recommended auction:

West

1S
4C
5D
6S
East

3S
4S
5H
pass
Which of those two East hands would you rather have? A king for an ace doesn't sound like much of a bargain, but when West cue-bids the other two suits, East knows that he is hoping for a heart control. He has already denied the ace, so his cue-bid shows a second-round control, which is enough for West to bid the slam.