Pre-emptive Bidding


There's only one intention behind a pre-empt - that's to rob your opponents of their precious bidding space.
Of course they are taking a risk in pre-empting and it can come unstuck - but surprisingly infrequently.
In the modern game pre-empting is being taken to the limit - always pre-empt at the highest level at one's first bid - never pre-empt at say the 3-level and then up it to the 4-level when opponents dare to speak! A sure recipe for failing.

There are two questions to answer:
  1. A Guide to making pre-empts
  2. How to combat a pre-empt

First a brief guide to pre-empting

        Its basically all about holding a long suit & distribution
        A second suit is also a useful consideration  -  that also gives another option if the opponents have opened the bidding before you. See 2-suited overcalls

There are four questions to evaluate:
  1. What position am I opening in 1st 2nd 3rd or 4th?
  2. What are the vulnerabilities round the table?
  3. How many tricks can one reasonably expect to make?
  4. What do you believe the opponents could possibly be making - a game or a slam?
Your position is most important.
In 1st position you have the advantage of stealing bidding space from your LHO and thereby hopefully making things difficult for your opponents to reach their optimum contract.
Bear in mind too that your partner is also being pre-empted too! Although he will get a fair view of your hand he too may now lack the bidding space to progress safely.

2nd position is the most demanding position for pre-empting! One best understands this as your LHO opponent already knows of his partners limitations and is more prone to exert penalties when suitable - (corollary we should use penalty doubles rather than take-out doubles over 2nd hand pre-empts. Over weak 2 pre-empts we have Rubinsohl for positive action).
So in 2nd position 'weak' cannot be as weak as in other positions and need better quality suits (not broken) and classical length.
In 3rd position it is likely that your LHO has values. Also partner has not opened so you will not be preventing him so much from developing his limited values - so an ideal position given an appropriate hand - neither the old rule of 2 or 3 or suit length of holding level-2 cards is necessary. Quality of the suit is also not paramount!
In 4th position pre-empts make less sense - you are not pre-empting anyone! With 5 spades, and sub-opening values a 1-level or 2-level opening with 6 cards is worth doing.

Vulnerabilities will always be a consideration - especially whenever vulnerable. These days far more aggressive behaviour is becoming common - even when vulnerable.

Your number of tricks comes from two sources
  1. Your trump suit
  2. Outside controls
Too many outside controls are a negative consideration against pre-empting if your hand has good defensive  values
In fact ideally you should not usually hold more than one outside quick tricks.
So its all down to your trumps and basically its down to their length & quality
Vulnerabilities are a major consideration:

 a)  The worst scenario is adverse vulnerability in any position
You're vulnerable and the opponents are not - it will be rare to pre-empt riskily in this situation. Even if opponents have a game they will only score 400-500 and if you are doubled, as you undoubtebly will be, you cannot afford to go down more than 2. In 2nd position you will be restricted to 3 level pre-empts and have to be pretty sure too of 7 tricks and 2  level with 6 tricks. If opponents are also vulnerable a little more wriggle room is taken by modern aggressive players - which is becoming more and more the norm too especially in 3rd position openings!
If you believe the  opponents have possibly the best part of 3/4 of the pack then they may have a small slam - if you stake your life on this - you can risk 4 even 5 down!

b)  Now we consider the next best situation - both parties non-vulnerable
The maths are definetly better! Again basic maths shows a benefit will only be sure to accrue by going 2 short, however the loss in Imps is not too serious if you are 3 down. If the opponents have a slam 4 down is the mathematical limit but again a small IMP loss if you are 5 down now. Therefore one has to be  braver in this scenario. The modern tendency is too risk far more than our fathers did! - in all positions.

While its pretty hard to know if opponents have a slam you do have a partner who is now better placed to decide whether the opponents will possibly have a slam once you have pre-empted, and if so, can make the necessary further sacrifice, if he has the right hand.

Pre-empting does have a downside: It can stir  or help opponents into a game or slam which they might not find left to their own devices. The distributional information it provides can even help them in achieving it too.

3-level minor pre-empts are particularly prone to these risks. True, they can take out a good full round or two of bidding space which has a chance to disrupt opponents bidding. However modern defensive methods: e.g. T-O doubles, Rubinsohl (Lebensohl) & Specialised overcalls such as : 3NT & Cue-bid which show game going values, and simple competitive 3-level major suit overcalls. Not to forget options in the protective position too.
If the  opponents win the auction they are armed with key distributional information and likely location of honours too. All of which can guide their planning of the play. There is a notoriously difficult lead situation for the opposition where aggressive leads are generally very rare - typically simply leading their preemptive suit.

3-level Pre-empts in Spades have most effect as the opponents are forced to the NEXT level if they wish to compete. A 3 Heart pre-empt is noticeably less effective as either opponent will be quick to introduce his spade suit..

That's basically it, pre-empting has risks.  However there is an element in your favour and that is that most people are playing a double as a Take-out rather than a penalty Double. Saying this it is interesting to note that well advanced players are increasingly turning towards penalty doubles. lesser players fear  the disasterous consequences if double fails!  (This is unnecessary and such occasional reverses of fortune  just need to be taken on the nose!)
Naturally if the doubler's partner does not fancy further competing and prefers penalties a PASS it can also seal your fate! Futhermore the opponents might not have the hand to make a penalty double anyway, then you are safe. Besides your opponents also have risk too as by doubling they might be cheating themselves out of their own better scoring contract!

So overstepping the mark by 1 to 1/2 trick and possibly 3  to 3 1/2 tricks in the most favourable position is now considered a maximum for pre-empting (and partner would be expecting less!) - instead open at the one level with near opening values!
The purpose of pre-empting is not now aimed just against opponents potential game contracts - more a dirsruption of their normal bidding - presenting opponents with difficult decisions due to reduced bidding optionn.

Last note: in Pairs (the above is more the teams position) it has become the norm to be prepared to take additional risks - maybe the penalty double will come back in fashion to curb this! I actually tried this for a while but had little success with it, so it remains a Take-out double, possibly optional, for me - although i still contemplate using penalty doubles of  3+ level pre-empts given the trend to ever weaker pre-emptiveness!

That's one side of the story - what about being pre-empted?

Well you have risks too! Like the pre-empter your LHO & your partner are still unknown quantities! For this reason competing directly is basically to the limit of your own hand, especially when you have a longish suit and good values and shortness in the opponents pre-empt is likely and useful as would be a top honour! Otherwise we have the ubiquitous T-O Double at our disposal.
I am aware that many who use Rubinsohl are playing the double as optional (similar situation exists with Lebensohl). I'm not convinced about this although some mighty good players seemingly are - but nothing stops partner with a suitable holding to convert your double into a penalty - perhaps that's all they really mean by optional anyway.  In the distant past I used to describe my doubles as 'optional' but this practice is not generally accepted these days,
If defending a against a weak major two (or 2 Diamonds for that matter) we have Rubinsohl to help with defence with near opening values and a good suit with transfers showing in principle a 6 card suit and also a transfer to the opponents suit to show a 4-5 card major, a 2-level competitive overcall in a major with 4-5 card is also possible.
Note:  a T-O double is  likely to disclose any unbid 4 card major. Immediate overcalls of 2S with near opening values over a weak 2  Hearts opening are advocated with a 5 card suit. with at least near opening values and a 6 card suit one should use a Rubinsohl transfer (which has the adantage of immediate disclosure of your suit (a serious plus point over a Lebensohl 2NT overcall where if opponents continue in their bidding you may never get to disclose your suit!)

Also since the T-O Double expresses certain values (opening at least and an unlimited threat  too!) and a balanced hand except for a welcome but not certain shortage in the opponents suit, it puts your partner  in a good position to compete or not.
It has to be remembered that a T-O double is strictly forcing and partner must make a bid if his LHO passes. We use a lower minor negative to show weakness (curiously more often than not we actually hold something in that suit!).

The opponents have taken the risk to pre-empt you and steal the hand, therefore you too have to take chances to overcome it! So help your partner be prepared to counteract with a T-O double! On rare occasions you may have a great hand and a good suit - in that case bid it to the hilt! You may not get another chance - either directly (4-level and beyond) or with Rubinsohl transfers. You also have Beta's wide range of 2-suited overcalls where BOTH the suits involved are directly known (if at least one is a major) and also the strength in terms of a LTC is known in two ranges:
(i)  Strong 2-suited hands with a maximum of 5 1/2 LTC.
(ii) Weak 2-suited hands with a LTC greater than 6 - the higher limit depending on the vulnerabilities at the table.

The opponents have removed their suit from your calculations and you will have discounted any small honours held in the opponents suit and added value for any shortage when competing in your suit!

Now lets consider the protective position. If your partner has made a bid then respond with a limit raise - don't hold back, with limited bidding space and bidding options partner has bid without knowing your values (except if you were a passed hand). If partner has doubled a pre-emptive bid consider to bid any 5+ card suit and expecting at least a minimum support from partner & at  least near opening values.
When partner has passed its more difficult  but be prepared to  show any  good  long suit if you have no clear defence if your  RHO has not bid  -  in this case you may expect at least moderate values with your partner.

Now the difficult issue of taking penalties! At teams your opponents may well have pushed  one too high - should you double. Well the mathematics are against you and your opponents know this and with distributional hands there is a far from ignorable probability that it can make!
Consider the bidding: 3H P(partner) P ?
If you double and they go down you will score: 100 or 200 instead of 50 & 100 if you pass. But if they make it you score:  -490 0r -690 instead of  -140. The odds are against you risking a gain of 50 versus a loss of 350 or 100 versus a loss of 550!
Conclusion in teams the risk is unacceptable (unless you are reasonably certain to defeat the opponents). At pairs its an entirely a different matter and a double  for penalties  is altogether more common  when you are sure you cannot  compete
any higher. Note this practice is becoming increasingly commonplace.

In competitive situations like 1H - 1S(opp) - 3H2NT(partner) - 3S(opp) - P - P  - ?
the same issue arises. See Competitive bidding - Theory of total tricks is a really useful help. This may aid you in deciding whether to compete further,  PASS or go for a penalty double.

A 3NT pre-empt is a very different animal - often termed a Gambling 3NT.
It announces a SOLID  8 card minor and denies any outside Ace or King.  Partner  can accept it or bid 4 Clubs - PASS or correct bid.
3-level pre-empts are far more destructive than weak two's.
We commented on 3 of a minor pre-empt above and indeed in Beta we do not make such bids putting them to better use as opening bids see our 3-suited and in 2 suited overcalls see our weak overcalls & our strong ones.
Once bidding begins at the 3-level Majors sure do take precedence!
Over a 3-level pre-empt one cannot  show a 6+ card minor suit by bidding it directly.  However can be shown over 3D/H/S by first making a T-O double then 'correcting' partner's response. Over 3C first bid 3S (transfer to 3N) then bid 4D. Occasionally use 3NT overcall if one has a guard and the highest unbid major too - then rebid your minor
(Note: There is often more risk than gain in lanquishing in a 4 of a minor contract! Therefore it should be invitational.)
4-level overcalls are all 2-suited.
Rubinsohl transfers are still played but only over 3C. (Just 3D/H/S)
Over 3D  natural bids of 3H & 3S are required:
3C-3D Transfer: Shows Hearts 5+: responder may bid 3H, 4H, 4NT(ERKCB) with fit , 3S  & 3NT Natural
3C-3H Transfer: Shows Spades 5+: responder may bid 3S, 4S, 4NT(ERKCB) with fit or 3NT Natural
3C- 3S Is a transfer to 3NT Which is to play or a continuation can be made to 4C or 4D to show a 6 card suit.
3X- 3NT Is special - see below
3D-3HS Are Natural - Non-forcing
3H-3S Is Natural
3X-* Is for T-O Asks for partner's suit 5+ at the same level. There is no negative! PASS is for penalties! At the 4 level 2 suits are shown. 3NT is natural.

Over 3-level overcalls we have a special overcall of 3NT which is closely akin to our usage to our 3NT response to 3-suited openings!  It shows a guard in the opponents suit and at least 4 cards in the highest unbid Major.
This bid is invaluable against 3CDHS opening pre-empts as there is not simply enough bidding space to decide between the highest unbid Major and a 3NT game without it.
Ex: Consider opponents open 3H and you hold a potentially game going hand with a Spade suit and  good stops in Hearts (or vice versa opponts open 3S etc) and a semi-balanced hand, you surely would like to explore the dual possibilities of a 3NT game and a 4 Spade(Heart) game.
We use 3NT to show such hands, over any 3-level pre-empt, allowing partner to PASS if he feels 3NT is the better place to be or to bid 4 of the highest unbid major if this looks to be the better option or rarely a break-out into his own long suit.
A third possibility available to responder is to bid 5 of the lowest unbid minor with a fair 6+  card suit only when all other options are less favourable. The reason being is that there is a fair probability that the 3NT bid also includes a small club holding of 3 or 4 cards! This is due to the semi-balanced structure of our 3NT conventional overcall.
This convention operates over 3C & 3D too in respect of Spades, and over 3S in respect to Hearts.
Over 3CD with HEARTS  other approaches need to be taken.
Over 3C we use red suit transfers: use a 3D as a transfer to Hearts & 3H can is a transfer to 3S! and you may PASS partners response! - So partner needs to seriously consider bidding 4H or 4S respectively.
In particular following: 3C-3D-3H-...3NT is again our 2-way bid (3S would show both majors!) and partner is given the obvious choices respectively.
 NOTE: there are NO transfers over a 3D pre-empt - 3H and 3S are natural competitive bids &  4-level bids show 2 suits
Over 3D there is no surefire way of giving partner a choice of 4H or 3NT.
So best is to overcall with a Double (or possibly 3H if suitable) and then:
(i) If partner bids 4H then PASS
(ii) If partner bids 3NT PASS
(iii) If partner bids 3S: bid PASS or bid 4S with 3 card support. Also bid 3NT with 2 cards spades, game values and 4 Hearts: and partner with 4 Hearts too should seriously contemplate bidding 4H if distributional. By way of explanation realise that this would not be partner's chosen bidding path  with both Spades and a good stop for NT.

Over 4-level pre-empts we are seriously out of bidding space. Our options are few & more risk needs to be taken!:

(i) Compete directly by bidding your long nearly solid suit - At the 4 level this should be done in a major even with 6 LTC if non-vul and with a 5 LTC vulnerable. At the 5 level the LTC's must be 5 & 4 respectively.
(ii) Bid 4NT! This convention shows interest in the 2 lowest unbid suits and partner needs to choose (unless he has a better option!)
(iii) A cue-bid (this needs greater strength if not 5C as it may force partner to the 6 level) showing Highest and lowest
(iii) Double. This convention asks partner to choose between the 2  highest unbid suits
(iv) 5-level bids are all natural (not showing 2-suits!)