The Bridge World has always been in the forefront of presenting new ideas. Virtually every new advance, development, and system in the history of the game has first appeared in The Bridge World.

The lebensohl Mystery

Authorship of conventional methods is often in doubt. Sometimes there are conflicting claims over who invented what first. At other times, the inventor is known but someone else's name is attached to the method--a prime example of this is Stayman, which was developed by George Rapee and in variant forms by others. The most intriguing cases are those in which the original author is unknown; no one is anxious even to take credit for the stroke of creativity. Nothing is more mysterious in this regard than the development of lebensohl, a quite popular technique widely used after an opponent overcalls one notrump or opens with a weak two-bid and occasionally employed in other sequences. Who was lebensohl? And why is the name of the technique written with a lower case initial letter?

It is highly likely that the impetus for the convention came from the "Problem Forum" of the October, 1965, issue of The Bridge Journal. After demonstrating that then-current techniques were inadequate to deal with a fairly ordinary hand after partner's one-notrump opening was overcalled with two spades, conductors Tony Dionisi and Harlow Lewis ended their discussion with, "Our only conclusion is that this fairly common problem deserves more study by the active theorists."

Some of Dionisi and Lewis's panelists had noted that it was feasible to use two notrump over two spades as forcing, but the conductors found flaws in their suggested implementations. However, some unknown somebody got to work on the problem and the eventual result was a useful technique, albeit with mysterious origins. The excerpt below is the early part of the first published article on the new method.


by George Boehm

About a year ago, in preparation for a Swiss Team event in New York, my son Augie and I converted our crammed and smudged convention card into a gaudy "menu." On a large sheet of white bond paper we typed detailed descriptions of our gimmicks and gadgets, highlighting in red letters those that were out of the ordinary.

At the start of the first match, a gaunt Lincolnesque youth sat down at our table and began studying the new bill of fare. "What's this?" he asked, pointing to a red line that shrieked: Lebensohl when you overcall our notrump opening.

"Oh, that's just a little refinement Augie picked up last week in Boston," I explained. "It's the brainchild of a very bright MIT student named Ken Lebensohl, and we expect it to earn us at least a dozen imps per session. Let's say that Augie opens with one notrump and you overcall with two spades. We play that any suit I bid at the three level is forcing to game. So, if I merely want to compete, I bid two notrump. This obliges Augie to rebid three clubs and let me decide the final part-score contract. It's like Flint, in a way."

Our opponent-to-be humpfed, which incensed me not a little. "I'll have you know, young man," I said, "Ken Lebensohl is reputedly a fine player and a brilliant, though youthful, theorist. Who are you to humpf at his ideas?"

He replied quietly: "I'm Ken Lebensold, and I don't think I'd want any part of your newfangled convention--even if you had spelled my name right." Since Mr. Lebensold disowned the convention, we have decided to designate it "lebensohl" and to continue to use it without fee or license.

lebensohl and other ways of handling competitive bidding after notrump openings are today worth a lot more attention than they have been getting. As Jeff Rubens pointed out not long ago, auctions starting with one notrump have become remarkably accurate. What with two-way Stayman, Jacoby transfers, and other tools, every moderately good partnership has ways of describing distribution and strength and even of finding playable four-three fits when notrump games seem shaky. Good opponents are aware of this, and they now tend to compete boldly with hands they might have passed as recently as five years ago. If they are fairly sure you are going to reach the optimum contract, they are willing to take a considerable risk to explore a cheap save, suggest a lead, or make it awkward for you to find the right game or slam.

In view of this trend, Augie and I have worked out an integrated system of countermeasures against opponents who make overcalls, either natural or artificial. As much as we resent having to grab for convention cards, and thus to let opponents greatly influence our bidding, we find it essential to have markedly different treatments for natural overcalls, as against such two-suit (or three-suit) takeouts as Landy, Ripstra, and Astro.

Our ways of countering opposition over notrump are geared to a particular bidding style: strong notrump openings and two-way Stayman. And in all the illustrative hands that follow, opener is assumed to hold a very meaty 15 points to a spotty 18, with three suits stopped but perhaps a worthless doubleton. With proper allowances, you may find our ways playable in conjunction with weak notrumps, Jacoby transfers, or whatever else suits your fancy. Although you may have to make point-count adjustments, the basic meanings of bids can parallel ours.

Against a natural overcall at the two-level: Responder's bid of a new suit at the two-level is merely competitive; at the three-level it is forcing to game. If you want to compete at the three-level, trot out the lebensohl two-notrump bid. And if you want to defend, yell "Double!" A direct cue-bid is forcing to game. It does not promise a stopper at notrump, but does show a disinclination to propose a suit.

This is certainly not the only way of handling a natural two-level overcall. . . .