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When to Overcall a Four-card Suit (Oct/Nov 2004)


I asked my expert panel the following question. Assuming you usually do not overcall in a four-card suit at the one-level, when would you make an exception to this practice and do so? Does type of game or vulnerability make a difference?

Point No. 1

The suit must be strong. The best four-card holding is AKQx. AKxx, AQxx and AJ10x are strong holdings also. When you hold the ace, you control the suit. KQ109 is a strong suit, but if the opponentís have the ace, they can hold up which could prove embarrassing.

Point No.2

If you have a strong suit, AKQx, AKJ10, or AQJ10, even if you have no other honors, itís important to get partner to lead your suit if heís on lead. Of course, if you overcall 1 holding AQxx xxxxAQxxx and the opponents get to 3NT with you on lead, you can lead a club. They are usually ready for a spade lead but might not be strong in clubs.

Kit Woolsey: Basically there are two types of situations. One is when that suit is entirely where you live, e.g., with AKJ10 of a suit and out, an overcall is mandatory. The other is on a strong hand where either a takeout double or a 1NT overcall is too severely flawed, and you decide that you are better off overcalling than passing and trying to recover later.

Point No. 3

Unless the overcall is strictly lead-directing, the hand is strong, usually at least 13 HCPs. Enough strength that you would have opened or doubled a different opening bid.

Point No. 4

Again, unless the overcall is lead-directing, the hand has flaws. Shortness in an unbid major or lack of a stopper in openerís suit are two of the usual flaws.

Point No.5

With opening bid or more strength, itís usually best to get in the auction right away rather than wait. If you donít bid right away, you will find yourself guessing at a higher level or being shut out. The opponents might steal the hand from you. Sometimes the least of evils is overcalling in a four-card suit.

Point No. 6

If you hold four spades and five clubs and you overcall in clubs, you might not be able to find the possible spade fit.

Point No. 7

There are many conventions that tell you how many trumps partner has. This will allow you to go conservative when partner has three-card support and go aggressive when partner has more.

1.  Mixed raise where partner jumps in the opening bid suit showing four-card support and 7-9 HCPs. 1 - 1(you) - Pass - 3(pard).

2.  Preemptive raise where partner jumps to three of your suit showing four-card support with fewer than seven points. 1 - 1(you) - Pass- 3(pard).

3.  High cuebid where partner shows a limit raise or better with at least four trumps. 1 - 1 (you) - 1 - 2(pard). 1 - 1major(you) - Double - 2(pard).

4.  Low cuebid or redouble of a negative double to show fewer than four trumps. 1 - 1major(you) - Double Ė redouble(pard).

5.  Jumps to 2NT showing a limit raise with at least four-card support. You should definitively play it by a passed hand. It makes some sense to play it by an unpassed hand. Pass - 1 - 1(you) - Double Ė 2NT(pard).

6.  Jump to game where partner usually has five-card support.

The experts make these points and give examples of some four-card overcalls that worked. They didnít tell about the ones that failed.

Henry Bethe: I can count, probably on one hand, the number of times I have done this in 40 years. I think the characteristics are:

1. A very strong suit, KQ109 or better

2. A fairly good overall hand

3. Two or fewer cards in an unbid major

4. Unsuitable hand for a 1NT overcall

A dead minimum for 1 over 1 would be KQ109 xxAQ9xJxx. I would not overcall with the clubs and diamonds reversed.

Jeff Rubens: A one-bid hand with a strong suit (all spots strong if hand otherwise doubtful) and a reason to act: Get in with values safely early. Preempt. Suggest a lead. Inhibit opposing three notrump, e.g., AKQ8 xxxxxxxxx. I'd take more chances to satisfy any of the last three given reasons at matchpoints. The occasional minus 1100 loses much less than is gained through a few overtrick-stopping lead-directors. Bad vulnerability requires more playing strength, but does not affect the issue of whether it is best to bid the four-carder. I might bid 1 over 1 with AKJ8 xxxxJxxxx not vulnerable, but would not do that vulnerable (though I'm tempted); however, with AKJ8 xxxxQJ10xx, I would bid 1 vulnerable

Allan Falk: I overcall a good four-card suit to keep the opponents out of 3NT, e.g., AKQx xxKxxxxxx after a 1 or 1 opener. I'd bid 1 at any vulnerability and any form of scoring. With KQJ9 32K1032432, I'd bid 1 non-vulnerable at any form of scoring, or when both sides are vulnerable at matchpoints. When your side card is in the opponent's suit, and you are a favorite to be on lead, there's less reason to overcall a four-carder in the seat to the left of the opening bidder. After 1, I'd bid 1 with KQJ9 5432Q10332 at matchpoints, not vulnerable. You also need less when partner is more likely to be on lead: After 1, I'd bid 1 with KQJ9 32Q1032432 not vulnerable at matchpoints, so I can get a spade lead against hearts (and maybe push them too high).

When desperate at matchpoints for a good board: Holding KQJ9 432432432 not vulnerable, after a pass by partner and 1// on my right, I'd try 1, hoping LHO ends up as declarer and that partner would not have found a spade lead otherwise. In a qualifying event where we were in trouble late, I'd also bid 1 with AK32 432432432

When I have a good but awkward hand and a decent suit: After 1 or 1 on my right, I'd bid 1 with 32 KJ109AQ102J107 at any form of scoring and vulnerability. In the LM Quarterfinals in 1974, I bid 1 vulnerable against not with AKQ7 3KQ9652J4 after 1 on my right; LHO bid 1NT, partner tried 2, and that ended the auction. They led a diamond, and when I discarded from dummy, which had xxx and a diamond void and random useless junk like K and Q, RHO won the ace and shifted to a trump, but they could no longer stop 2. We got a huge score

Joel Wooldridge: Most often, I overcall with a four-card major at the one-level if I have close to an opening hand and have shortness, two or fewer, in the other major. Opposite a passed partner, the overcall is mostly lead directional and doesn't require a good hand (may be KQJ9 and out). Also, if I have to bid over 1 or 1 with something like AKQx xxxxQJxxx, I'm more likely to overcall 1, even though it's canape. My usual requirements for this type of bid are a weak five-card suit that I would have to introduce at the two-level, a strong four-card suit, and close to an opening hand

Gary Cohler: I overcall with any good four-card suit non-vulnerable. Vulnerable, if I have a good hand and length in the openerís suit, I will overcall even a bad four-card suit. Over 1, holding Axxx xxAQxxxAx, I would bid 1. I must admit though that I would more likely overcall 1 over 1, but if the opening bid was 1 I would overcall 1.

Bobby Wolff: Four-card overcalls at the one-level definitely have a time and a place. Of course, being not vulnerable is a factor, but not an overriding one. Some hands cry out to get in the bidding if you can, and sometimes a four-card suit overcall is the best way. Consider: KQ10x xxAxxxxJx and having RHO open 1 . To me 1 stands out as the proper action.  Even KJ9x AxxxxKxxx, if RHO opens 1 I would bid 1 rather than pass. Doubling is not right, but passing isn't either. What is to gain by overcalling?

1.  We might make something and if we don't bid now partner will be shut out;

2.  Helps in lead direction should LHO become declarer;

3.  Sometimes when the opponents don't have our suit stopped or at most a flimsy stopper they steer away from a making 3NT;

4.  Sometimes prevents a double game disaster if lefty is dealt a hand that he can jump to game and partner needs your overcall to compete;

5.  Even in a competitive situation the opponents may judge wrong whether to bid or go quietly but without our overcall the hand would never become competitive.

6.  If both opponents have three of our overcalled suit (partner has, of course, raised) both think the other is short and consequently they misjudge.

I'm not pretending there are not disadvantages and one of them is you can get too high, and rarely, even get doubled by a trump stack. By and large though it has probably been a big net plus to me on balance, and also probably makes me a tougher opponent.

Marty Bergen: I need a good suit to overcall with a four-card suit at the one-level, and the type of game or vulnerability makes no difference.

Kerry Sanborn: I would not be a proponent of four-card suit overcalls, as the guiding Law of Total Tricks becomes skewed and difficult to judge. That said, there are surely hands where I would want to bid with a four-card suit. These include good hands with primary length in the suit bid on my right. I would probably overcall on this example - x AKJxAKxxxxxx. Were I to wait and balance with this hand, my strength would have been hidden. I might also overcall a good lead director when partner was a passed hand and that was all I had. To wit, AKQT xxx xxx xxx. It could be the only lead to stop a game their way. I would not bid on this hand, however, if partner had not passed. Vulnerability should always be considered, but with the first hand above, I find it acceptable at any vulnerability. The second would scare me at unfavorable, since partner might compete too high, and we could go down too many, even when not doubled.

The disadvantage of overcalling a four-card suit is that partner might violate the Law of Total Tricks, especially if the opponents preempt. There are some hands where Iíve had to support partner with a doubleton after an opponentís preempt.

Eddie Kantar: I would overcall with a strong four-card suit, opening bid values, and a hand not suitable for a takeout double or a two-level overcall in a minor suit. At any vulnerability in any form of scoring -- if the four-card suit is strong enough. Holding xxx AKJxAQxxxx, I would overcall 1 with 1 .

Karen Allison: I overcall with a four-card suit when the suit is very concentrated and I have values to enter the auction but double is inappropriate for one reason or another, usually shortage of a key suit and/or length in opener's suit. I'm not deterred by vulnerability (but I'm not crazy -- I'll have a good reason to bid) or type of game. I've never overcalled at the two-level with only a four-card suit, however. I remember the late Paul Heitner overcalling (as my partner) with a very concentrated three-card major suit when he felt the lead would be essential. He survived that one when I had great length in the suit and competed, but only to a safe level. Alan Messer used to advocate third-seat openings on three-card majors, and I've done that on occasion, once with spectacular success.

Jon Wittes: Not vulnerable, I would not hesitate to overcall a good four-card suit at the one-level, especially when I can't stand alternative leads, should the opponents buy the contract. I would be more likely to overcall a four-card suit at matchpoints than at IMPs, but once again, I would not hesitate even at IMPs under the circumstances stated above. Obviously, the hands that I would be overcalling a four-card suit would be those where a takeout double would be inappropriate because of wrong shape (length in opener's suit, shortness in the other major, etc.). A minimum holding in the suit might be something like AQ10x, though the more favorable the vulnerability, the more flexible I might be, especially when other leads by partner look as if they might be blowing tricks and or tempo.

Barry Rigal: I'll overcall with opening values and a four-card suit with three of the top five honors or three of the top cards including two top honors. The hand has to be close to opening values with shape unsuitable for a takeout double (doubleton or shorter in the unbid major).

Jill Meyers: Not vulnerable when my partner is a passed hand; or at any vulnerability if I have a good hand.

Joe Kivel: I would overcall a four-card suit with at least three of the top five honors, and generally shortage (doubleton or less) in the other major(s) particularly if partner is a passed hand.

Randi Montin: I also think that four-card suit overcalls are acceptable in certain situations. I usually do it with a good four-card suit where I could not make a takeout double because I am short or weak in one of the remaining suits. I also think that one should have a fairly good hand (opening hand or thereabouts). I would do it at all forms of the game and at any vulnerability. At matchpoints my general hand may be weaker. My suit would be AKxx AQJx, KQJx, or something similar.

Robert Lipsitz: Opposite a passed hand, especially non-vulnerable at matchpoints, I may make a purely lead-directional overcall, e.g., Pass - 1 - 1 on xx AQJ9xxxxxxx.

Marinesa Letizia: I only overcall a four-card suit when itís a good suit and a good hand that has a flaw so I can't make a takeout double. I'm sure I do it more often at matchpoints, but I will occasionally do it at IMPs. I would be much more likely to overcall a four-card suit non-vulnerable than vulnerable.

Competing for partscores and getting partner off to the right lead improves your IMP score as well as your matchpoint score.

Eddie Wold: I overcall in a four-card suit more often at matchpoints than at IMPs because I make lead directing overcalls that donít justify the risk at IMPs. At IMPs or matchpoints I would overcall a strong four-card suit with a good hand that doesnít lend itself to a takeout double (usually short in an unbid major). These hands also tend to have length in the opponentís suit.

1) Any AKQx suit at matchpoints, you may keep them out of notrump.

2) KQJx xAQxxxxxx over a 1 opening

3) x AJ10xQxxKQxxx over a 1 opening

4) Axx xxAQJxxxxx over a 1 opening are some of the many examples that I would overcall with a four-card suit with no reservations.

Bob Hamman: Certainly a marginal hand with a four-card-major and five-card minor is a reasonable choice for an overcall. Over 1, I would bid 1 with AQxx xxxxKQxxx. While somewhat risky, it may well be your last chance to get into the pot. I would also overcall a four-card suit with length in RHO's suit or other hands unsuitable for takeout doubles.

David Berkowitz: At matchpoints I would be more likely to bid. It must be the only suit I want led, so a minimum hand for an overcall would be xxx xxxAQJxxxx -- over 1, I would bid 1 in any situation, except when vulnerable at IMPs.

Ron Smith: I was keeping a record for awhile of what worked and what didn't. You need a secondary source of tricks. I found if you're long in the opening bidder's suit, you usually can have them established at trick one when LHO blindly leads his partner's suit. I tend to overcall in four-card suits only with hands that I fear that I will be parked out when the bidding comes back around to me. For example, holding x AQ10xKxKJxxxx, if RHO opens 1, I have to bid now. I won't be able to come in later if the auction goes 1 P (by me) 1 P 2.

Curtis Cheek: Warning -- this is not an advertisement for four-card overcalls: My partner overcalled twice on four-card suits in Alexandria, both with amazing results:

1) 1 on your right. You hold AQxx JxK109xxxK, a normal 2 bid, but partner chose 1. It went 2 on his left, and now 4 from me holding KJ10xx xxxJxxxx. A trump was led, Joe ran the J to the queen, a second trump returned (they were 2-2), and now the successful ruffing finesse in diamonds. Made four.

2) Partner passes, 1 on your right at favorable vulnerability, and you hold J108x Kxxx-K10xxx. Of course you overcall 1 as partner did (!). LHO bids 2 and your partner raises to game with K97xx Q10xxJ10xx. You get doubled and rightfully score 590 against their playing 3NT and making 630 when everything works.

Grant Baze: As far as I am concerned, there is a large subset of hands that should overcall with a four-card suit. The common thread of these subsets is that the four-card suit is very good and RHO has opened a suit in which you have a strong holding. You hold AKJx xAKJxxxxx and RHO opens 1. I would always overcall at all games and vulnerabilities. This is a two-suited hand and one of your suits was opened. You could also hold AKJx xAJ9xQxxx where RHO opens 1. I would always overcall at all games and vulnerabilities. This is a three-suited hand where one of your suits was opened. There are situations where I would overcall at matchpoints and not at IMPs, or where I would overcall depending upon the vulnerability. There are also situations where I would overcall as a passed hand but not as an unpassed hand. If I held AKQx xxxxxxxxx, I would overcall 1 at matchpoints unless I was an unpassed hand and vulnerable. Even vulnerable, as a passed hand, I would overcall at matchpoints. With the same hand at IMPs, I would overcall 1 as a passed hand if I were non-vulnerable, but I would not overcall if vulnerable or if I were an unpassed hand.

Fred Hamilton: I overcall a four-card suit at the one-level rarely, but do so when I have a very strong suit perhaps AKJx and feel it is important to get the lead director in. The rest of my hand would have to be reasonably good in terms of playing strength, so that I could be comfortable with a raise or double raise.

Bart Bramley: I am not a big fan of four-card suit overcalls. However, I would do it under these conditions:

1. Strong suit -- this is a must, KQJx or better.

2. Enough strength to fear that I will get blown out of the auction if I don't act now.

3. Some distributional feature: a singleton or a side five-bagger.

3. Wrong pattern for a takeout double. 4333 is NOT a wrong pattern, but length, four or more, in opponent's suit or shortness, two or fewer in an unbid major is bad for doubling. With AKJx xxxxxxAJx I would double 1 or 1 (or even 1) rather than bid 1.

4. Wrong pattern or strength for a 1NT overcall.

5. A clean hand. Stray quacks would make me less tempted to butt in. The lead-directing value is diluted when you have stuff on the side.

6. With a passed partner I would be more wary, although I acknowledge valid arguments on the other side of this point.

7. With a VERY strong suit (AKJ10 or better) I might overcall despite some other defects. However, even with such a suit I prefer to double with adequate pattern and overall strength.

8. With a weak side five-card suit the four-card overcall is often better than bidding the five-bagger, especially if the five-bagger requires a two-level overcall. Holding five of the opponent's suit would make me LESS tempted to overcall.

Point No. 8

Donít overcall in a four-card suit when you can double or bid 1NT.

Lynn Deas: I do overcall some four-card suits but I think it is very important to have two conditions: a good suit (three of the top five honors) and a good hand (opening values).

David Bird: One-level overcalls are recommended when (a) you are relatively strong but do not have the shape for a take-out double (say 13 points and up);(b) you have a good four-card suit; and (c) you hold length in the opponent's suit.

I recently read a 1992 Bridge World that was discussing a hand such as: x AKQxJxxKxxxx. Their panel did not like 1 over 1 because of the longer club suit and the risk that you would end in a 4-2 heart fit if partner ever had the chance to give preference. Swap the minors and 1 would be fine.

Zeke Jabbour: Opening leads are so important that it's worth taking an occasional risk to get partner off to the right one. I will overcall with a four-card suit at the one level on a hand that meets the following conditions:

1.  The hand does not meet the standard requirements for a takeout double.

2.  The suit contains three or four of the five top honors and I want that suit led. It is hard for the opponents to make a low-level double without high cards in the trump suit.  

3.  When it might disrupt the opponents' communication. This is not crucial, but it makes such overcalls more attractive in marginal situations.

As in all bridge situations vulnerability plays a role, especially at IMPs. It is another case of measuring the risks against the potential rewards. With a flat hand it is dangerous to overcall four cards vulnerable, because partner may compete past the level of safety. Minus 200 is not an attractive score, particularly at matchpoints.  Judgment remains a crucial element in this bridge decision. This week, I held KQJ10 710973AQ103. That holding met my criteria, so over RHO's 1, I bid 1. This made it a little more difficult to find hearts if LHO was not strong enough to bid at the two level unless it was via a negative double. That's what happened. The opponents found their eight-card fit and competed to the three-level. Partner doubled and we cashed the first three spade tricks! We also collected three hearts and two clubs.

Conclusion

Donít go out of your way to overcall a four-card suit. There are a lot of bad things that could happen. However, if youíre dealt a very strong suit that must be led, or a strong hand where you canít double or overcall, and there is no other way to enter the fray, the four-card overcall could be the way to go.

If anyone has questions that need answers from my panel, send them to me, Steve Robinson at robinswr@erols.com or

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