Brush up your basic bidding – Overcalls

When you've been playing bridge for a while, it's very tempting to experiment with new conventions, but it's actually much more valuable to ensure that you're playing a simple system properly, and giving accurate and useful information to your partner. Familiarity breeds contempt, and players often forget the principles on which the bidding rules they were taught were based, so it's a good idea to refresh your memory occasionally.

Suit Overcalls

When the opponents have opened the bidding, it's usually only worth competing if you are (a) very strong, or (b) have a good quality long suit, or both. The sort of flat hand on which you would have opened a (12-14) 1NT is often better suited to defence.

A simple suit overcall doesn't require very many points, but it promises a good quality suit of at least 5 cards. If you're considering whether or not to overcall, always ask yourself "if my partner ends up on opening lead, do I want him to lead this suit?" If you overcall on J10976 and your partner dutifully leads that suit, declarer may be able to cash AKQ and discard a loser in another suit in where your side holds the top cards. Without your overcall, partner may well choose a much better lead.

Measuring 'Quality'

To get a rough idea of the quality of a suit, you add the number of cards in the suit to the number of honours in the suit, only counting a Jack as an honour if you have a higher honour as well.

For example, AK875 is quality 7 (5 cards with 2 honours), AKJ763 is quality 9, but J10976 is only quality 5.

A simple suit overcall requires:

  • At the one-level: 8-16 HCP (High Card Points) and a 5+ card suit of quality at least 7
  • At the two-level: 10-16 HCP and a 5+ card suit of quality at least 8

But note:

  1. Do not overcall at the two-level if you can overcall at the one-level unless your hand meets all the criteria for a jump overcall.
  2. With 17+ HCP, double first and show your suit on the next round. That tells partner that you doubled because you were too strong to overcall.

Jump overcalls

There are three main types of jump overcalls:

  • weak (approx 5-10 HCP)
  • intermediate (approx 11-16)
  • strong (approx 15-18)

It's important to agree with your partner which type you are going to play!

But… All jump overcalls promise at least 6 cards in the suit.

Weak, Intermediate or Strong?

How do you decide which type of jump overcalls to play? Very few people choose strong ones, because that type of hand occurs so rarely, so the choice is really between intermediate and weak.

Standard English Acol uses intermediate jump overcalls, so that's what most of you will have learnt, and there's a lot to be said in their favour. They're fairly safe, because you only jump when you have a reasonable number of points, and they give your partner a lot of information in one go:

You would have opened the bidding if the opponents hadn't got in first.

You have a good quality suit of at least 6 cards.

You have no more than 16 HCP.

This should help partner to decide whether or not it's worth bidding on.

However, if you enjoy pre-empting – taking a gamble and being a nuisance to the opponents, then weak jump overcalls might be the thing for you. They're risky – you could end up getting doubled for penalties- so you need to keep an eye on the vulnerability to ensure that your "sacrifice" doesn't turn into a debacle! You also need to be fairly skilled in your card play, enjoy the challenge of trying to squeeze an extra trick out of very unpromising material, and be able to shrug off the occasional disastrous result! People who play weak-two openings often choose to play weak-jump-overcalls as well, because they show their partner the same type of hand – a 6 card suit with no more than 10 points and virtually all those points in that suit – and they're an integral part of Standard American.

…and possibly learn something new

When your partner makes a simple overcall at the one level, he could have as few as 8 HCP or as many as 16.

If you have 10+ points and support for partner's suit, or very good all round strength with stops in the opponent's suit and are thinking of No Trumps, you might have a chance of game if he's at the upper end, so it's useful to have a way of asking him how strong he is. You can do this by bidding the opponent's suit, e.g. (1) – 1 – (Pass) – 2*

*This is called an Unassuming Cue Bid (UCB). It asks your partner to tell you how strong his overcall is. (It's called 'unassuming' because it doesn't say whether or not you've got any cards in that suit)

If he's a minimum overcaller (8-11 HCP) he simply rebids his suit at the lowest possible level and you pass unless you're very strong.

If he's stronger (12-16) he bids anything else which tells you something useful about his hand, e.g. he rebids his suit with a jump to show at least 6 cards, bids another suit in which he has good cards, or even bids No Trumps if he has good stops in the opponent's suit. This will help you to decide how to bid on.

Responding to partner's overcall

When you can support partner's suit it's often a good idea to be aggressive in your bidding to make things difficult for the opponents, particularly if they are vulnerable and you are not. If you use a UCB whenever you have real game-going support, you can use direct raises of partner's suit as pre-emptive. With a weak hand and several cards in his suit, raise to the 'level of the fit'. If the bidding goes (1) 1 (2) ?? you know your partner must have at least 5 spades, so if you have four you have a 9-card fit- raise to 3; if you have five, you have a 10-card fit- raise to 4. This may stop the opponents making a 4 contract. [With six spades (11-card fit) it's probably wiser to raise to 4 rather than 5 though!]. Partner won't get excited and start looking for slams as he'll know you're weak because you didn't use a UCB.

If you cannot support partner's suit it's usually best to pass his overcall. You should only suggest a suit of your own if it's likely to be superior to his – e.g. if he overcalls in a minor and you have AKQxx of a major. You may have a singleton in his suit, but he may well have a void in yours!

The most important thing is- when responding to your partner's overcall, use common sense! THINK what he has told you with his bid.

Brush up your…

By Celia Jeal

Celia has been a very active and committed bridge teacher in Suffolk for many years. She is a registered EBU Partner-Teacher and has developed a strong following in her West Suffolk base. Currently she runs classes and tutored play at Abbeygate Club. These articles were written for and first published in Table Talk.

If you are interested in learning or improving your game, contact (01284 728350).