The World's Most Popular Bridge Feature

On the surface, the Master Solvers' Club is a monthly and yearly bidding contest. On eight problems each month, you are asked to decide your action. Scores are awarded, and solvers compete for prizes and prestige. The high scorers for the month and year are listed in the Honor Roll.

The impact of the MSC is much greater. The emphasis is on discussion. The expert panelists explain their reasoning. The directors, who organize the discussion, present and evaluate different points of view, sometimes promulgating one particular approach or attacking another. For increasing our understanding of the game and developing judgment, the comments are more important than the answers. As one many-time world champion told us, "I learned to bid by reading and rereading the Master Solvers' Club." Many other top players would say the same.

To provide a framework for Master Solvers' Club problems, the North-South players are assumed to use Bridge World Standard (BWS), our consensus system, which determines the meanings of the North-South actions.

January, 1995, Problem F

Directed by David Berkowitz & Larry Cohen

Neither side vulnerable
You, South, hold:

K    J 8 6 5    K 9 8 3    Q J 4 2

1 NT*
Pass2 **2 3

*13 to 15

What call do you make?

4 1001660
4 4028
3 2016
4 2013
4 2010

What have we here? Ten unexpected high-card points, with lots of defense and offense. Is this a pinochle deck? Where do we get these problems? This actually comes from a real-life New Jersey knockout event. (Yes, our warped minds consider New Jersey to be real life.)

The first thing we wonder is what it would have meant if we had doubled three hearts in direct seat. Would that be responsive, "cards," or penalty? Fortunately, we don't have to answer.

Partner, bless him, has kept the bidding alive, and we now have a decision. He's got five or six spades, zero or one heart, and probably three-four in the minors. Let's start out with the real pessimists:

AL ROTH: "Three spades. Give up on game, but take no chances that three hearts might be cold."

CARL HUDECEK: "Four clubs. North is bidding my values."

DON VON ELSNER: "Four diamonds. Funny business. East has 13 points and three-four hearts. I've got 10. My partner bids at the two-level and then doubles prepared for a response at the four level; and he's sitting in front of a notrump bidder and across from a guy who's passed twice. He ain't doing this on used tram tickets, folks."

Then why are you "jumping" all the way to four diamonds?

No, it must be right to do something more than trying for plus 130 or plus 140 with our surprise collection of assets.

We think the majority of the panel was seduced by the beauty of the four-heart cue-bid. It gets across our strength, allows us to play in four spades if it is right, gets us to five of either minor, or maybe even six. Perfect! What could be better? We'll tell you after we hear from the four-heart squad.

HENRY BETHE: "Four hearts. Partner could be 6=0=4=3 or 5=0=4=4 and with all these working high cards I will offer a choice of games. This should imply the sort of hand I have."

RICHARD FREEMAN: "Four hearts. Willing to play four spades or five of whichever minor partner bids."

ROBERT WOLFF: "Four hearts. Penalties? No thank you, but game yes, I hope."

BILLY EISENBERG: "Four hearts. With slam a possibility, four hearts seems easy."

IRA RUBIN: "Four hearts. It certainly looks like a minor game. Ought to be laydown so let partner pick appropriate minor (probably four-three). By the way I wouldn't be surprised if slam is odds-on."

Yes, Billy and Ira, slam is remotely possible, but we're never going to get there. Partner will never jump to six, and unless we drive there ourselves, plus 920 is not in our future.

EDDIE KANTAR: "Four hearts. I hate these problems."

Is that an objection to A-H in this set, or to problems where a cue-bid avoids the best solution? Here are some clues in the direction of the "right" answer:

TOM ZINKLE: "Four hearts. The opponents have nine-card protection for the three level. I don't know what protection I have under the Law but I just think it's right to play this hand in whatever game partner chooses. If he doesn't lose control, slam is not unlikely (although I don't expect to bid it)."

ERIC KOKISH: "Four hearts. . . . Although we have four trumps and lots of defense, they seem to have nine trumps and have reached their proper Law level. Although we may have some handling charges in five clubs or five diamonds, we have enough cards to take a shot at game on the four-four fit. The fallback position is that North may rebid four spades, which ought to be okay with all our cards working."

Only one year as Directors and now everyone refers to the Law. Our brainwashing is working well.

RON GERARD: "Four spades. The air is pretty thin at the five level, even if we have a four-four fit. For example, opposite,
A Q J x x x    x    A x x x    A x,
we can make five spades but may be down at five diamonds. Since you're not bidding a slam, why bother to cue-bid? If I'm supposed to pass based on legal theory, when do I sue for the 14 imps when the deal turns out as . . . ?"

Ouch! A shot at the Law from a lawyer. His construction is too ridiculous to print. He gives responder a pure 3-6-0-4 (yes, a six-card heart suit) opposite a super-prime 14 count. If declarer plays double-dummy he might indeed score plus 530, and of course, four spades is the only game that makes our way.

What about that Law of Total Tricks? Kokish was on the right track, but why should we assume the opponents have nine trumps? First of all, as we stated in problem C, we a-void takeout doubles with voids. There are many many Easts who would raise with only three trumps. Sure, it's risky to bid to the three-level with only eight trumps, but if he had a pure enough hand, and not much in spades, he'd be tempted to do so--especially at IMPs, where he's very unlikely to get doubled. Wouldn't you want to raise to three hearts with,
x x x    A K x    A x x x    K x x?
Also, West could easily have a four-card heart suit. We know that he is broke, and that increases the likelihood that he's escaping into a four-card suit. Wouldn't you run from one notrump (before it gets doubled) with,
x x x    10 9 x x    J x    x x x x?

Okay, we promised you the right answer.

MICHAEL ROSENBERG: "Pass. . . . Maybe East (wrongly) raised with three hearts, or maybe we'll get lucky and catch West speeding with four hearts! . . . "

MARY AND MAX HARDY: "Pass. Sure we would like better trumps, but this choice could easily reap a bonanza."

CHIP MARTEL: "Pass. . . . I'm unhappy that the auction suggests that partner might have a heart void, but still, with little assurance of finding our eight-card fit much less making a contract, I will go for my most likely plus."

MARSHALL MILES: "Pass. . . . And West might have bid two hearts with a four-card suit! Although we undoubtedly have an eight-card fit in a minor, that means 17 total tricks and at most 18 with adjustments. That doesn't suggest bidding five of a minor."

Ah, our brainwashing at work. Here's the way we'd figure the trumps and tricks. Let's assume that half the time partner has a heart void--that gives them 8-1/2 trumps. Our side might end up in a six-one spade fit, but more likely is a four-four (or, on a good day, a five-four) minor-suit fit. The average of all this is that we rate to have eight trumps. That makes a total of 16-1/2 trumps. Our jack of trumps could be a trick on defense, but not on offense. We wouldn't be surprised to see only 16 tricks--but to make our argument let's be generous and assume 17 tricks.

With 17 tricks, why should we cue-bid four hearts? If we were to bid and make a minor-suit game (eleven tricks) we would have gotten get plus 500 (six tricks) by passing three-hearts doubled. What if we were to take only ten tricks? Then we've traded in plus 300 for minus 50!

In real life, a four-heart cue-bid would have led to plus 400 in five clubs. And a pass--plus 800 against three hearts doubled. Even without the actual deal to back us up, it seems clear that this an easy pass. There simply are not enough trumps to go venturing off to a high level, when you've got a total-tricks road map telling you to defend.

February, 1996, Problem B

Directed by Jeff Rubens

Both sides vulnerable
You, South, hold:

10 3    Q 10 7 5 4    K 6 5    8 4 3

1 DoublePass
1 Pass1 Pass

What call do you make?

2 1001446
2 80930
3 60418
2 5010
2 4011

On this sequence, South should rebid two hearts with hands like,

(a) x    x x x x x x    x x x    x x x,
because the partnership probably cannot make one spade but will make two hearts part of the time. In other words, two hearts, a correction of a limited, nonforcing action, is a selection of contract. It does not suggest values or game chances. Indeed, it is not needed for such a purpose because South has a wide variety of strength-showing devices available: direct raises, notrump bids, jumps, and cue-bids (all plural).

Surprisingly, half the panel believes that two hearts here discharges South's obligations even though he holds a hand bristling with high cards (when partner shows 19 points and someone else opened, a king and a queen is far above expectation), a long and strong major suit, and even a bit of a fit (think of North's spades as king-queen-jack-fifth or the like). This is the panel's worst selection of the month.

MIKE SHUMAN: "Two hearts. Just in case partner has,
(b) A K x x x    A K x    A x x    x x."

A good example. (Thanks!) Why should North, with hand (b), bid over two hearts? If South has hand (a), two hearts is the ideal contract; even three hearts is in significant jeopardy. And if you think South should not be bidding two hearts with (a), then how can North-South get out of one spade, which they can't make, into two hearts, which they can make, when North has this entirely normal one-spade rebid?

CARL HUDECEK: "Two hearts. Just enough to inkle. North could (should) have, at worst, a strong 5=3=4=1, e.g.,
(c) A J x x x    A K x    Q J x x    x."

A good example, if a little skimpy. (Thanks!) Why should North, with hand (c), . . . (continue as before).

FRED HAMILTON: "Two hearts. We may still have a game. If partner lacks three-card heart support, the spade suit should be rebiddable. Pass is slightly conservative."

JOEY SILVER: "Two hearts. Inferentially, I must be showing some values because with a bust I might well have passed one spade."

With a bust and some spades. Silver's view is quite popular. Roth, Rubin, Swanson, Wolff and Woolsey all supported it, albeit implicitly. Another "nothing" action:

DAVID BERKOWITZ: "Two diamonds. Roth would say that this is the best action if I get by this round, but, really, what can pard do to me? Any other bid overstates a different part of your hand--hearts are weak, you have only two spades. Pass is not from this planet."

But two diamonds shows no extra values. What would you do with a hand similar to (a) but with 1=5=5=2 shape? The same arguments apply.

The other half of the panel recognizes the need to show game potential. Is the most straightforward action the most appropriate?

ARTHUR ROBINSON: "Three hearts. Too good simply to rebid two hearts. Partner could hold, for example,
A K x x x    K J x    A Q x x    x,
and pass two hearts. Two hearts promises nothing. It might be bid on,
x    10 9 x x x    x x x    Q x x x."

EDDIE KANTAR: "Three hearts. Extras with five hearts."

BART BRAMLEY: "Three hearts. Extra length and extra strength. Partner promises heart tolerance, usually three."

ERIC KOKISH: "Three hearts. . . . Honest enough, and doesn't preclude four spades or even three notrump. Why cue-bid when you don't have to?"

Well, maybe you do have to. It's all very well to say that partner's typical hand has five spades and three hearts, or, with Bramley, that partner "promises" heart tolerence. But might not partner be forced into the sequence he used with, say, twenty points, five spades and two hearts? (What alternatives did he have?) So, we have to consider the cue-bid, a more flexible, though admittedly more complicated, approach to showing strength. First, what should a cue-bid show?

KITTY MUNSON: "Two spades. Give me a touch more and I would cue-bid.''

MICHAEL ROSENBERG: "This is not strong enough for two clubs (the same hand with the spade queen)."

I disagree. With the spade queen in addition, South would have a game force. (That can be computed at least two ways: (i) 19 plus 7 with no misfit; (ii) with about 9 points, South would have shown strength, so, with about 7-8 he has as much as he can have, plus no misfit.) Using the cue-bid as a game-force is too inflexible. Other defensive-bidding cue-bids in BWS don't have, and should not have, that exalted status. Anyway, two clubs is so far away from game that we can allow it a four-point range, say 5-8. Indeed, it is almost essential to do this, lest advancer have no way to show a moderate to strong directionless hand with nothing in clubs.

RALPH KATZ: "Two clubs. Only a one-round force. Over two diamonds, two spades; over two hearts, four hearts; over two spades, three spades."

Eisenberg was in accord. "Only two hearts will excite me," he said. It is a typical advantage that the cue-bidder can decide how much strength to show after getting a further distributional clue about partner's hand. When North doesn't have three hearts, this is a minimum two-club bid, so South soft-pedals thereafter.

IRA CHORUSH: "Two clubs. . . . limited by my one-heart advance, is just right, expressing some values but uncertainty about strain."

JIM HALL: "Two clubs. Values for three hearts, but I can still help spades."

GRANT BAZE: "Two clubs. The I-don't-know-where-to-go-but-I-have-too-much-to-pass cue-bid. Suggests safety at two spades but not the right stuff for a direct two spades, any red-suit rebid, or one notrump."

LARRY COHEN: "Two clubs. I have too much to bid only two hearts, and a jump to three hearts is too heart-oriented. Two clubs brings spades more into focus and retains maneuvering space to investigate strain."

Disagreeing with the plan of the mainstream cue-bidders:

PAM AND MATT GRANOVETTER: "Two clubs. Tell partner we have some values, and, if necessary, rebid hearts next."

I think you'll be better off supporting spades, showing a doubleton, if North denies three hearts. Write out some typical North hands and you'll agree.

Pessimist of the month:

MARK COHEN: "Pass. If we can make a game, I'd be amazed."

You shouldn't be. In Bridge World Standard, hand (b), above, is close to a minimum for one spade. That bid has a range that, coming at the low level it does, can safely be four points wide (perhaps even a bit more).

March, 1995, Problem A

Directed by Directed by Eric O. Kokish

Neither side vulnerable
You, South, hold:

K 4    7 5    A 6    A J 8 6 5 4 2

1 1
2 2 Pass3

What call do you make?

3 1001023
4 80827
5 5005
4 3003
3 NT2001

South started life with a promising hand, facing a first-seat BWS opening bid. It's gotten worse, however, as the auction developed. The king of spades may be worthless; and if North has the king, queen, or king-jack of hearts, that value has also decreased. North has not indicated any sort of club fit or a long diamond suit (with a sound hand). It is quite possible that North-South can no longer go plus on offense, and they might not have a plus on defense either. How depressing! So perhaps this is the answer . . .

IRA RUBIN: "Pass. It looks like all the cards are right for the enemy so, do you want to bid and go set or hope for a small plus? Even your club suit offers not so much safety."

KIT WOOLSEY: "Pass. I don't have anything intelligent to do; maybe partner does. Even if he passes three hearts out that may be okay, since it looks unlikely we would have a game."

ROBERT FRIEND: "Pass. Tempting to bid the seven-card suit again but to do so would eschew three notrump. Double does leave three notrump as an option but I believe partner would expect a different type of hand."

DAVID BERKOWITZ: "Pass. I know this isn't forcing, but anything I try can be a lot worse. If I bid four clubs and it goes double, I can return my cards to the board, especially the way we open the bidding."

So, who's forcing you to open that cheese, big guy? Here in the MSC, we can shade our opening bids with some shape and an easy rebid, but balanced hands are supposed to be something akin to full value. It still might be right to pass and hope for the smallest possible minus, but is there enough hard evidence to merit such a deep position?

Haberman, Rosenberg, and Robinson (who is not sure, and asks that his bid be changed to three spades if it is nonforcing) believe that their pass to three hearts is forcing. It is not. The two-over-one in competition may be based on a long suit and a bit more strength than a weak jump shift. That sort of hand would wish to commit to (here) three clubs, but would not wish to establish a force beyond that level. Some, perhaps even many, would volunteer two clubs on a ten-count and a decent five-card suit. Those players would not promise a rebid, and would certainly not wish to establish a force at any level. Although everyone has different rules about promising a rebid, BWS has not yet dealt with this important question, but it is apparent that very few partnerships would define this particular sequence as forcing.

Well, if five panelists are willing to sell out to three hearts, undoubled, then perhaps a nonforcing bid of four clubs is not so unreasonable . . .

PHILLIP ALDER: "Four clubs. Did this hand come from Pietro Forquet? It has all the hallmarks of one of his sadistic questions: everyone bidding like they've got two-club openings, and here we are, looking at more than our fair share of the coconuts. However, if partner has, say, king-doubleton of hearts, and the major-suit aces are where they appear, we will have trouble stopping their winning vast numbers of tricks. But I can hardly pass. And four clubs looks like a logical move."

ERIK PAULSEN: "Four clubs. Middle-of-the-road approach. Three notrump may make or go down four. If I bid three spades and partner did not respond three notrump, we would get overboard."

ZIA: "Four clubs. Something smells; there's too much bidding going on. Four clubs, one down, a possible result, may just be better than minus 530."

DAVID BERAH: "Four clubs. A very simple, nonsophisticated, competitive bid. To double is shooting craps. Would you wager plus 100 or 300 against minus 530? Bid what you think you can make . . ."

JEFF RUBENS: "Four clubs. East probably likes spades, so I must put partner in the distributional picture before ending with a double. Three notrump is probably irrelevant."

Well, three notrump is not at all irrelevant to a plurality of the panel, although they don't sound too enthusiastic about their vehicle for getting there.

MARSHALL MILES: "Three spades. I don't like the lead going through the spade king if partner, with a heart stopper, bids three notrump. However, there are only so many cards out, so it is unlikely that partner has nothing in spades (and if so, East might have the ace)."

TOM ZINKLE: "Three spades. With seven clubs I don't particularly want to defend. Not willing to forego three notrump, and much more worried about hearts through partner than spades through me."

ROBERT LIPSITZ and ROBERT WOLFF: "Three spades. If partner can bid three notrump, it should be a viable spot; else I will settle for four of a minor (third round of hearts will beat five clubs)."

So, you're going to pass four diamonds if poor North can't think of a better bid. You may not like it, but I think that three spades establishes a game force. To pass four diamonds is an exquisite double cross, bad for the partnership in the long term. Of course, it might be the winning action.

MIKE LAWRENCE: "Three spades. The only game that has a chance is three notrump from partner's side. Three spades gives us a chance to get there. Passing is not possible. It isn't forcing and there is no reason to expect North to bid again. I refuse to believe double will win this one, Kokish notwithstanding, and four clubs is an exercise in doing nothing."

All right, you've flushed me out. I thought you'd never ask. I have some wise spokesmen this time . . .

JEFF MECKSTROTH: "Double. I think it's pretty standard among experts to play that responder's second action of double is card-showing; that is, do something intelligent. No reason partner can't be four-four-four-one or four-three-five-one, in which case three hearts doubled is where we belong. Any other action seems unilateral to me."

How can you argue with that, really? Where a pass would not be forcing, you need to double to keep the bidding alive with all the hands that have no clear direction. It's odd, in a way, that a good hand with a seven-card suit should have no clear direction, but isn't that the case here?

EDDIE KANTAR: "Double. This is a very good problem. The crux is: After a two-level response in competition, are there forcing passes, and if so, at what levels? For my money they create a force at the two- and four-levels. If so, I can't make a forcing pass here, so my double is action-oriented."

You don't have to agree with Edwin B's rules, but you've got to admit that establishing rules is the right way to approach competitive bidding.

MICHAEL BECKER: "Double. In my partnerships, a pass here is nonforcing, which makes this a tough problem. A real close choice between double, trying for 300, or five clubs, trying for 400. They've bid enough to talk me out of playing game, so I must double."

I am worried a bit by this comment, since there is a hint that the double is closer to penalties than to "action," which gives us all reason to express our agreements as accurately as possible in our system notes and on our convention cards. I am pleased to double in the Kantar-Meckstroth mode because I believe it's the right action. I'm not sure my old friend Joe is on the same page, however . . .

JOEY SILVER: "Double. The modern style: when you don't know what to do, double, and transfer the problem to partner."

If this is a little shop of horrors, perhaps we can close with an almost satisfied customer . . .

AL ROTH: "Three spades. How come we never get a problem like this in real life? Any Tom, Dick or Harry can send in a problem and drive the Master Solvers crazy! Where do all the bids come from? Anyway, three spades is the only bid."

April, 1995, Problem D

Directed by Directed by Kit Woolsey

Both sides vulnerable
You, South, hold:

Q 8 7 3    A 9 6 5 4    A Q    A 2


What is your plan?
(a) one notrump
(b) one heart, then, after a one-notrump response, rebid:
   (b1) two notrump
   (b2) two spades
   (b3) two clubs
   (b4) other
(c) other


I have never been a fan of forcing notrump, and I have been playing Flannery for years. Thus, I will admit that my two-spade rebid was pretty much a reflex response consistent with the methods I am used to playing, where partner could easily bypass a four-card spade suit. Under BWS structure it probably isn't best, although at least it does give some description of the hand. However, this hand really fits into no-man's land. There is no approach that doesn't have some serious flaw. Some are so afraid of the rebid problem that they dodge it completely.

SAMI KEHELA: "(a) One notrump. Mainly because I cannot stomach the continuations after a one-notrump response."

PAUL SUGAR: "(a) One notrump. A nasty opening bid, dictated by the system. Besides, notrump probably plays better from my hand, and this is the only way to play at the one level. Opening one heart and then rebidding either two spades or two notrump is madness on this 16-point hand lacking intermediates."

STEVE ROBINSON: "(a) One notrump. Comes closest to describing the hand pattern and pointcount. With such weak majors, this hand is far from being strong enough to reverse. The only downside is that we could miss a five-three heart fit; that is countered by getting a major-suit lead if we do end up playing in notrump."

This is the only cost, assuming partner is strong enough to respond. However, if partner has to pass, we could miss a four-four spade fit or even a five-four heart fit. It is not clear that this risk is worth the obvious potential gains from opening one notrump.

LARRY COHEN: "(b1) One heart, then two notrump. The last time I opened one notrump with a hand like this everyone told me I was crazy, so I've reformed my wicked ways."

JEFF RUBENS: "(b1) One heart, then two notrump. It's bad enough having to rebid a doubleton with a minimum!"

TOM ZINKLE: "(b1) One heart, then two notrump. This will get us to the right denomination, which has enough merit to risk getting too high."

HOWARD WEINSTEIN: "(b1) One heart, then two notrump. One notrump is very nice if you don't belong in a major, but it just gives up too much. One heart followed by two spades gains nothing except for the opening leader. After one heart followed by two clubs, even if I get past playing a six-card fit I still won't know where we belong after a two-heart preference. One heart followed by two notrump may be a slight overbid, but it seems highly preferable to the other courses of action."

Granted this is an overbid, but at least the auction is under control and we are likely to arrive in the proper strain. This is a lot more than can be said for the catch-all two-club rebid.

ERIC KOKISH: "(b3) One heart, then two clubs. This is a suit-oriented hand and I can't quite bring myself to dabble with an eccentric notrump. Especially in an Edgar magazine."

DAVID BERKOWITZ: "(b3) One heart, then two clubs. Why doesn't partner ever do the right thing after I open one heart? If I had the ten of diamonds, I would open one notrump."

MANFRED MICHLMAYR: "(b3) One heart, then two clubs. I do not like to open such a suit-oriented hand with one notrump (though the trend seems to be to open all 15-17 HCP hands with one notrump). I also hate to rebid in a two-card suit, but I think I can handle everything except a pass by partner over two clubs. I can pass if he bids two diamonds, rebid two notrump over two hearts, and rebid three notrump over three clubs."

IRA RUBIN: "(b3) One heart, then two clubs. Anybody who opens one notrump is sick; however, this shape is clearly a problem for five-card majorites and forcing notrump. After one heart-one notrump, two notrump constitutes a distinct overbid whereas two clubs is supposed to portray at least a three-card holding. No other actions seem possible. Some 4=5=2=2 decent 16's might warrant two spades, but not these ragged suits. Therefore, choose the least-evil bid."

ALEX TSCHEKALOFF: "(b3) One heart, then two clubs. Since we're not playing Flannery, partner knows my two-club rebid could be a doubleton, so there's no reason to panic and do something unreasonable."

My main objection to the forcing notrump (other than the obvious one, the inability to play one notrump when it might be the best contract) is that the two-of-a-minor rebid loses a lot of its value when partner has to take into account the possibility that it might be a three-card suit. Now several panelists are telling us that partner has to worry about the two-club rebid showing a doubleton on this sequence. I just don't see it. How can partner ever make an intelligent choice of strain when he probably has a limited hand and your rebid could be anywhere from a two-card suit to a five-card suit?