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Choosing between 3NT and Four-of-a-major (Dec/Jan 2003/4)


When do you play 3NT with an eight-card major suit fit?  The form of scoring can make a difference.  Since the object of IMPs is to get the game bonus, +600 is just as good as +620.  In order for 4 to be right at IMPs, you have to be able to take two more tricks in spades.  If both contracts have exactly nine tricks you want to be in notrump.  If both contracts have exactly ten tricks, it doesnít matter.   You want to be in spades only if you can take ten tricks in spades and eight tricks in notrump.  At matchpoints however, 620 is significantly better than 600 but 630 is significantly better than 620.      

The auction goes

   1 - 1

   1NT - 2(new minor)

   2* - 3NT (choice of games)

   * does not deny four hearts

Point No. 1

Responder has five spades and is offering a choice between 3NT and 4.  Remember, if he didnít want to play 4, he would have bid 3NT directly over 1NT.  

Experts were asked:  Assuming that if you held AKx xxxAQxxxxx, where you lack stoppers in two suits, you would bid 4 with this 3343 hand, then what changes would you make to the above hand so you would pass 3NT?   

Point No. 2

The experts expect the 1 bidder, who offered the choice of game in 3NT or 4, to be balanced, holding some 5332 hand with the doubleton most likely to be in diamonds, partner's first-bid suit.  Opposite any balanced hand, some experts passed 3NT even with three little in both unbid suits.  With 3343 opposite a balanced hand they always play 3NT.

Bobby Wolff:  I think I would tend to pass with almost any 3343 including this one.  Seems to me that any time responder is short in diamonds (1 or 2), leaving more room for losers opposite the three little clubs and the three little hearts, it is better for notrump.  The one trick less to make is definitely better for IMPs and (not on your example hand, but on most hands) the opening lead vs. notrump tends to give up a trick more often than against a suit, again favoring notrump.  The only way to get some kind of conclusion would be to run a computer simulation with the responder generally having a 5332, 5233, 5323 11+-16 HCP, and also when the doubleton is relatively weak when the responder tends to prefer the major.  The two flies in the ointment are in notrump when the opponents can take the first five tricks, and do, and in a suit when a surprising ruff occurs before the defenders lose the lead.  All in all, my guess is that the simulation will show a surprising (to some) advantage to notrump.

Point No. 3

If your heart stopper is Kxx opposite Qxx, you might win two tricks in 3NT when LHO underleads the ace.  If you had Kxx opposite xxx, you win one trick in notrump.  In 4, your king is unlikely to win a trick.  The same is true with Jxx opposite Kxx when they underlead the AQ against 3NT.   

Kit Woolsey:  I'm not so sure I would bid 4 on the example hand you gave me -- particularly at IMPs.  Make the AQxx of diamonds the KQJx and then I would surely bid 4. Obviously, Iím more inclined to bid 4 at matchpoints than at IMPs.  To make 4 more attractive, I want a ruffing value or slow tricks.

Mel Colchamiro:  Would pass 3NT at any form of scoring.  Would expect partner to have 5323.  Partner's hand might be: Qxxxx AQxxxAJx where 3NT most days would depend on one of two finesses or a lead with 4 down with one of two finesses working.

Point No. 4

A few experts would have raised spades immediately.  Some partnerships never raise directly with three, some raise directly with three frequently and some raise directly with three only with a good reason.  Iím with the latter, raising only with a good reason.  If I held AJx QJxxAxxxxx, I would raises spades rather then rebid the pitiful diamonds.  With AJx QJxxAxxxxx, I would rebid 1NT but many experts would raise spades holding a worthless doubleton.  How frequently you raise with three could make a difference on partnerís decision to offer a choice.  If you frequently raise with three, then partner with 5323 can bid 3NT more frequently.

Grant Baze:  With that hand I would bid 2/1, and I feel strongly about it.  I prefer

1NT when I am 4333, but not when I donít have a semblance of a stopper in either of the two unbid suits.  I would pass 3NT.  I expect partner to have 5332, with a doubleton in my bid suit.  In general, I try harder to play 3NT at matchpoints, but with this hand it would make no difference.

Henry Bethe:  With the hand you give I would bid 2, not 1NT.  At the very least I would need to change a spade honor to a round honor to bid 1NT.  With a hand full of secondary values, say Qxx KQ10KJ9xQJx I would bid 1NT and would pass 3NT.

I expect partner to have opening bid strength and a balanced or semi-balanced hand.  I am not smart enough to make different decisions at matchpoints and IMPs.

Point No. 5

Some experts use judgment.  With kings and queens, play notrump, with aces play in a suit contract.  With 3343 distribution, play notrump, but with 4432 play in a suit.

Ralph Katz:  Exchange my spades and hearts and my clubs and diamonds.  Then it would be close!   Iíd expect partner to have Qxxxx QxKxxAQx.  Would type of scoring make a big difference?   Some, but with xxx of spades I might be more likely to play 3NT at IMPs than matchpoints.

Point No. 6

With xxx in spades, your destiny could depend upon getting a good trump split.   

Eddie Kantar:  It seems that partner has five spades, probably not four hearts (didn't bid 3 ) and maybe two doubletons.  If I had weaker spades and more strength on the outside with this distribution I would pass 3NT.  Jxx AJxK10xxKQx.

Kerry Sanborn:  I would make the hand much "softer," i.e., Jxx K10xQJxxKQJ to pass 3NT.  I would expect partner to be 5332 in some manner.   I think getting to the right contract should transcend the form of scoring on a hand such as this.

Nick Nickell:  I would want an honor in every suit.  If my hand held a Jxx in one of the side suits then I would decide based on how many of the side suits had intermediary cards (10's and 9's).  If my hand had no honor in my four-card suit (Diamonds) then I would pass 3NT with soft values and decent intermediary cards.  With fast tricks I would tend to bid 4.  I would pass a little more aggressively at matchpoints.

Ron Smith:  This is a situation without a good answer.  I would think you would have to have secondary values that would come in handy in 3NT and maybe not four spades.    Qxx QJ10xK109xAJ10.  Poor spades usually hinder you from setting up your suit before they get theirs going.

Marty Bergen:  Axx QJxQJxxQJx.  I would expect partner to have 5323.  Would type of scoring make a big difference?  No.

Zeke Jabbour:  I would pass only if I had weak spades and a source of tricks of my own (e.g. AKQxx of diamonds), or weak spades and a textured hand with scattered values and lots of tens and nines.  Sometimes you can make 3NT when you can't make 4-of-a-major with bad trump.  Partner should not have given me options if he didn't want me to choose one.   He knew I had three spades.  His spade holding is not likely to be robust and he has scattered values.  Type of scoring is not a big factor.  The quest is for the contract most likely to make--although, as always, matchpoint play enhances the attraction of notrump.

Peter Weichsel:  Let's start with the easy question first; partner should definitely be 5(332), ideally with two diamonds, but I don't believe that is required.  Without getting into exact hands, I wouldn't consider passing 3NT without a full stopper in the other suits.  The strength of my spades isn't that big an issue, since partner will have more outside strength with weaker spades.  The type of scoring is an issue, of course, but I find that it is right to play 3NT at IMPs, as well.  It is often the only game.

Marinesa Letezia:  I would pass 3NT with softer values, with not all cards concentrated in diamonds and spades.  I would expect partner to have 5332 with a little something everywhere.  I would try and play 3NT more often at board-a-match (BAM) or matchpoints.  At IMPs I want to play the best contract, so I would be pickier about card valuation. Sometimes nine tricks are easier to take than ten.

Mike Passell:  A tough question to make an exact answer.  I would pass if my spade honors were in my three-small suits.  Obviously, I would never pass this hand at any form of scoring as partner wouldnít have offered up a choice of games if it were right to pass.  Passing most 4333 hands is tempting, but not this one.  Holding three small spades, most hands I would pass 3NT as two great things could happen--partner could have solid spades, or we could be beat in a suit contract and make 3NT.

Point No. 7

There are some 5332 hands that partner would bid 3NT directly over 1NT.  

Karen Allison:  I would pass 3NT with fewer primes, more transferable values in the plain suits.  I would expect partner to have a balanced hand with transferable values in the plain suits.   Pluses are terribly important and getting to the best contract, the one most likely to succeed, matters most, irrespective of the form of the game.

Barry Rigal:  This is a courtesy offer of contracts.  With xxx AxxAQxxKxx I'd pass, but with either clubs or hearts not protected by a top honor I'd remove to 4.  With Qxx AKxxxxxAxx, I think it is close!

Michael Kimal:  Why would I bid 4 with the given hand?   Is it because we often raise with three?   The fact that you say this hand would go to 4 implies that QJxxx AxxKxKxx would not offer the choice.   I would have thought most hands with 5323 would offer such a choice.  Anyway, using your prerequisites, I suppose moving my A or K of spades to a round suit would cause me to pass 3NT.  However, with xxx AxxAQxxKxx I would be more inclined to bid 4.  The honor(s) in spades seem to me to make nine tricks a better bet than ten.  As I said before, I expect partnerís hand to be 5323 almost exclusively, as 5422's generally will play better in a suit.  I don't think scoring really matters, as most of the time it will be a close call either way.

Fred Hamilton:  I would expect partner to be 5332 with 14+ HCPs.  Who knows which suit is the doubleton?   I would pass 3NT with Axx KxxQ10xxKJx, and I would be more likely to play 3NT at matchpoints than at IMPs.

Allan Siebert:  Partner should be square, of course, with soft values in his three-card suits, stronger values in his two-card suits, and suspect spades:  Jxxxx QJxAJxAQ.  In matchpoints these requirements can be altered somewhat with the emphasis being on having more high-cards in general.   The theory being, the bigger the combined hands, the more likely both contracts will make the same number of tricks, hence matchpoint strategy.  The opener should have the same:  IMPS J109 K10xAQ109QJ10.

Jill Meyers:  I would pass 3NT at matchpoints and bid 4 at IMPS.    Iíd expect partner to have a 5332 hand pattern and softer values.

Steve Garner:  I expect partner to have any 5332 distribution most of the time, but 5422 is possible with a very weak four-card suit.  Anytime partner is 5(431 any order) I would expect him to bid his four-card suit after 2.   Certainly at IMPs I lean more heavily to correcting to 4 with most hands - but at matchpoints or BAM I prefer to pass 3NT.

Point No. 8

The point is to play 3NT often at IMPs.  You need only nine tricks and the opponents have to take their five tricks before you take your nine.  In 4, the opponents only have to take four tricks before you take ten.  In notrump, you might be able to survive if spades donít split.  If you always pass 3NT when 3343, youíll probably be ahead of the game.  At matchpoints where every trick counts, stoppers in the side suits and strength are important.  If you have 32 HCPs between you and youíre off two aces, you want to be in notrump. So, with extra strength, play notrump.