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Roman Keycard Blackwood

John Haslegrave

I'm sure you're all familiar with Blackwood; for better or worse, it's one of the first conventions beginners learn. When contract bridge was still in its infancy, Eadsley Blackwood observed that slams missing two aces don't play very well, and came up with the idea of counting aces during the auction. Figuring that 4NT was a very underused bid, he chose to use it to ask the question "partner, how many aces do you have?"

Since then, people have tried to build a better mouse-trap in a variety of ways. Roman Blackwood was developed by the Italian Blue team, and is "the eleventh worst convention ever", according to Toby.

The much more useful Keycard Blackwood was born of the observation that slams missing one ace and the king of trumps are pretty bad too. Its solution is very simple—it just counts five "aces" including the king of trumps. The only issue is that sometimes it may not be clear what trumps are.

From there, we go to Roman Keycard Blackwood (RKCB), which is played by almost all of the experienced university pairs. It is a modification of Keycard Blackwood, so again you need to know what trumps are. It may be worth only using RKCB when trumps have explicitly been agreed at first, but I think a jump to RKCB agrees the last bid suit as trumps (see below). As before, 4NT asks, and the replies are

  • 5C : 0 or 3 of the keycards (ie the aces plus the king of trumps)
  • 5D : 1 or 4 of the keycards
  • 5H : 2 keycards without the queen of trumps
  • 5S : 2 keycards with the queen of trumps
However, some pairs (me and Currencyboy included) play 1430 RKCB, where the first two responses are swapped:
  • 5C : 1 or 4 keycards
  • 5D : 0 or 3 keycards
  • 5H : 2 keycards without the queen of trumps
  • 5S : 2 keycards with the queen of trumps
So, why do you only tell about the queen of trumps when you have two? Well, it is still possible to find out about the queen after a 5C or 5D response—the next bid up (other than a return to the trump suit) asks about the queen.

Let's go through this in detail, assuming 1430 RKCB, with hearts as trumps.
  • 5C : 1 or 4 of CA, DA, HA, HK SA
    • 5D : "do you have the HQ?"
      • 5H : no
      • 5S : HQ + SK
      • 6C : HQ + CK
      • 6D : HQ + DK
      • 6H : HQ only
    • 5H : signoff
    • 6H : signoff
  • 5D : 0 or 3 keycards
    • 5H : signoff
    • 5S : "do you have the HQ?"
      • 5NT : HQ only
      • 6C : HQ + CK
      • 6D : HQ + DK
      • 6H : no
      • 6S : HQ + SK
    • 6H : signoff
  • 5H : 2 keycards without the queen of trumps
  • 5S : 2 keycards with the queen of trumps
Whew. Look complicated? Well, the cheapest bid in the trump suit always says "no, I don't have it". If you do have it, and also have a side-suit king, you bid that side-suit. If you just have the queen, you have to bid the slam (or 5NT if bidding the slam would deny the queen).

The reason we play 1430 is that if the trump suit is hearts, as above, and the response is 5C, you can ask for the queen and still stay out of slam if partner doesn't have it. If the response is 5D, you can't. You tend to want to do this when partner has one keycard, not when he has none, so it makes sense to swap the responses.

I recently played in a Cambs + Hunts league match against a team from the Cambridge Club, partnering Jon De Souza. We won by 57 IMPs, and were helped along by two boards where RKCB allowed us to find out that slam was good. As you can see, on one of these it was vital that we were playing 1430.

Example hand #1

 S
 H K Q J x 
 D K x x 
 C K T 9 x x 
 S K x x x x 
 H T 9 x 
 D
 C Q x x x 
[W E]  S T x x x 
 H A x 
 D T x x x 
 C J x x 
 S A Q J 
 H x x x x 
 D A Q J x x 
 C
West



pass
pass
pass
all pass
North
De Souza

1C
1H
5C¹
5NT ³
East


pass
pass
pass
pass
South
Haslegrave

1D
4NT º
5D²
6H

º RKCB for hearts

¹ 1 or 4 keycards

² "do you have the queen?"

³ "yes, and 2+ kings"
The slam can be defeated double-dummy on a diamond lead, but East led a spade. Jon won with the ace and knocked out the ace of trumps. When trumps broke 3–2, there was no difficulty in ruffing a club for his twelfth trick.
Example hand #2

 S A Q T 6 
 H K Q J x x x 
 D
 C J x 
 S J 7 4 
 H x x 
 D K x x x x 
 C Q x x 
[W E]  S
 H A x x x 
 D Q T x x 
 C T x x x 
 S K 9 8 3 2 
 H
 D A J x 
 C A K x x 
West



pass
pass
pass
pass
all pass
North
De Souza

1H
3S
4S
5C¹
5H ³
East


pass
pass
pass
pass
pass
South
Haslegrave

1S
4Cª
4NT º
5D²
6S

ª cue-bid

º RKCB for spades

¹ 1 or 4 keycards

² "do you have the queen?"

³ "yes, and HK"
After drawing one round of trumps, I played the HT, which was allowed to hold (if East covers I can draw trumps and cash winners), then crossed to dummy in trumps to play hearts, pitching diamonds. Eventually a heart was covered, ruffed and overruffed, but at this point I could claim on a crossruff.