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 Steve Robinson Articles   

Preempts (Jun/Jul 2005)

I gave an expert panel the following question: You're playing with a new average partner and you're filling out a card. You get to the sections about opening preempts and weak-twos. What do you tell your partner to expect when you open a weak two-bid or three-bid? You expect to play with this partner at both IMPs and matchpoints. Since you're the knowledgeable expert, your partner will devour your every word.

Point No. 1

As you can see from the responses, there is a wide range of understandings. Half the experts play preempts as constructive and the other half as destructive.

Everyone agrees that fourth seat preempts show good hands since you could pass the deal out, so I won’t discuss them.

We’ll hear from the experts who agree with me and believe preempts should be destructive. Destructive preempts are designed to make life difficult for the opponents, but they also make life difficult for partner. Remember, there are two, sometimes three opponents and only one partner. It is much easier for the opponents to have a good constructive auction if left alone. Suppose the opponents have a simple hand: Ax AKxxxxxKQxx opposite KQxx QJAxxJxxx. Their auction will go 1NT -- 2 -- 2 -- 3NT. Partner will lead a spade from J10987 xxxxxQxx and they will take ten tricks. Suppose, in first seat, not vulnerable vs. vulnerable, you hold xx xxKJ10xxA109x and open 2 or even 3. Now you will get a diamond lead. With a diamond lead, the opponents can’t make any game. You’ll probably play in 2 down three undoubled for -150 or 3 down four undoubled for -200 with the field in 3NT and making + 630 on a spade lead. Give the opponents another hand: AKxx AxxxxKQxx opposite QJxx KQJxxxJxx. Their auction will go 1NT -- 2 -- 2 -- 4, and they will make 4. Suppose you hold xx xxxxKJ10xxxx and open 2 in front of the 1NT opener. How will the opponents get to 4? Would you make a take out double of 2 holding only two hearts? These hands and many others are why I strongly believe in preempting. Normal preempts get you normal results. Trashy preempts gets you swingy results. The way to win events is to get lots of good results. My motto is: “If you think about preempting, and it doesn’t make you sick, then do it.” I preempt whenever possible. Sometimes I even have a normal preempt. Sometimes you’re dealt KQJ10xxx of spades and out (no honors in any other suit). While this makes life difficult for partner, it wreaks havoc on the opponents.

Point No. 2

One might think that opening trashy preempts leads to numbers. In order to get you, one of your opponents has to make a takeout double and his partner has to pass it. You will escape if one of the opponents has a long suit or if the strong hand has the stack. There are three times when you get bad results. One is when you preempt and nobody bids and partner has a 4441 good hand. You know what the one is! The second is when you push the opponents into a contract that they would normally not get to and they make it. The third is when your partner bids too much. My experience is that preempts do work.

Bobby Wolff: My preempts (three-bid openings, weak-twos and preemptive jump overcalls non-vulnerable all have the same theme) probably are weaker than most. Preempts are meant to obstruct and not to scientifically reach the best contract so the use of them can be undisciplined. Early in my bridge career I had all sorts of caveats: (1) never open a weak 2 bid holding three cards in a major; (2) Culbertson's rule of two and three; and (3) having the ace of my suit on a three-bid opening, so that partner can expect a ruff on defense holding a singleton. The last half of my career I have thrown all that to the wolves. It is important to recognize the goal.

Point No. 3

Bobby Wolff mentions that weak jump overcalls are preempts, and they also can be undisciplined. If you jump to 2 holding KQJxx or KJ109x, you force LHO to bid at the three-level or possibly make an off-shape negative double. If you jump to 2 holding KQJxx over 1, you stop LHO from bidding a four-card major and you could force him to possibly make an off shape negative double. Weak jump overcalls can be made with good hands, especially when partner is a passed hand. If you jump to 3 over 1 holding AKQxxx, LHO doesn’t have room to show any of three types of heart support.

Marty Bergen: A more aggressive hand than for Standard players.

David Bird: In general I favor “undisciplined preempts,” particularly when not vulnerable. Preempts cause problems for the other side, and it’s losing bridge to keep on finding excuses not to preempt. Preempting with a side four-card major? Excellent! That may make it more difficult for the opponents to enter with a take-out double. So, use preempts as a destructive weapon and be prepared to accept the occasional adverse result when your partner has a very strong hand and your offbeat preempt puts you in the wrong spot.

Point No. 4

I agree. It is losing bridge to keep on finding excuses not to preempt.

Fred Hamilton: I will open a two-bid with a good five-card suit non-vulnerable, otherwise I bid the normal types. I may have extra shape, in which case I will bid again if supported. My three-level preempts can be very light at favorable vulnerability, otherwise standard. I preempt lighter at IMPS and am more conventional at matchpoints, contrary to most players’ ideas. The risk-reward is much greater at IMPS!

Bobby Lipsitz: Pay close attention to the vulnerability! At favorable first seat I may have Qxxxxx or KJ10xx and out for a weak two-bid. Similar for three-bids. Vulnerable is another story.

Kit Woolsey: Non-vulnerable (particularly at favorable and first or third seat), anything goes. I will be more likely to have a five-card suit for a weak two-bid than six, and six for a three-level preempt than seven. Vulnerable and/or second seat, my preempts will be closer to the norm, but still more aggressive than most. I can easily have stuff outside, and don't necessarily have a great suit.

Mel Colchamiro: Weak 2's: A five-card suit is OK, but not 5332 except in first and third seat at favorable vulnerability. Two-suited is OK, even 6-5 or 5-6. Never have more than two defensive tricks. Suit should be very solid at unfavorable vulnerability. A four-card major on the side is OK if it is weak, usually not more than Jxxx. I tend to avoid preempting with 6-4-3-0 and 5-4-3-1 distributions, but occasionally would preempt spades at favorable vulnerability. Suit quality is not important non-vulnerable. Axxxxx or Kxxxxx is OK vulnerable if otherwise normal. Even two aces on the outside are OK if suit is headed by J10. Usual HCP range is 5-10 HCPs. Three bids: Normal/aggressive, not suicidal. A bid at the three-level of a six-card suit is OK if you have some shape, such as at least four cards in another suit. A six-card suit at the three-level is also OK, even vulnerable, if suit quality at least OK. A four-card major on the side is OK if preempt is "obvious." A suit with only one-honor in it is OK. Avoid preempting with an AKQxxxx suit (either open one of that suit or gambling 3NT).

Point No. 5

It is important that you and partner have an understanding.

Lynn Deas: I think it is important to know how many trumps to expect when your partner preempts. I think this is much more important than putting restrictions on your suit quality or cards outside of your suit. My opening three-level preempts can be lighter than my weak two-bids. My bids in second seat are all generally better than in the other seats. Also an opening of 2, 2 and 2 in fourth seat shows about 8-12 HCP with a six-card suit.

Larry Cohen: I can live with (and have) ANY style. It’s totally unimportant to me WHICH style. What matters, though, is that partner knows my style. So, depending on the situation, I'd pick a style and make sure partner knows what it is. This is a very important area of bridge. I've had three major partners, and they all had completely different preempting styles. I pretty much adapted to whatever style they preferred. We knew what each other's parameters were and went with it.

Point No. 6

All experts agree that in third seat, anything goes.

Steve Bloom: 3 and 3 are moderately constructive. Partner can expect a reasonable suit and a side card. This combines frequency with definition. It can be quite effective to preempt 3 on, say, xx xxxx109xxxxx, but that hand never comes up. For every hand like that, you will pick up 100 hands that fit a more traditional range. Hands that are closer to average occur more frequently, and preempting frequently, with hand-types that partner will expect, is winning strategy. So, a typical hand might be xxx xKxxKJ9xxx. If you preempt on xxx xKxKQxxxxx, partner won't be fooled, nor will partner go wrong if you produce xxx xxxAQJxxxx.

A similar philosophy applies to other three-level bids, but is tempered by our weak two-bid style (and whether the partnership has a weak 2 bid available). The two-bid should be the more constructive choice, but frequency is still very important. It would be nice to open 2 on KQJxxx QxxQxxx, and open 3 on QJ10xxx xxxxxxx, but such rigid definition makes too many hands unsuitable for a preempt. Thus, a reasonable suit plus an honor in a side suit, or a very good suit with nothing outside, rates to be a nice definition for any preempt. This allows for occasional five-card weak two-bids, with discretion. AJ109x xKxxxxxx is a fine 2 bid, as is AJ109xxx xKxxxxx, but Jxxxx AxxxKxxx is not acceptable.

Point No. 7

If you are going to open a five-card weak two-bid, have most of your strength in your suit.

Bart Bramley: Vulnerability matters a lot. Requirements for suit quality rise as the vulnerability gets scarier. At favorable vulnerability my suit could be terrible (Jxxxxx); vulnerable against non-vulnerable my suit will be at least QJ10xxx or AKxxxx.

My own style for weak two-bids is to have exactly six cards in the suit. Never seven. I occasionally have five, mainly in third seat not vulnerable. With a good suit I don't need anything else on the side. With a bad suit I need some side stuff. At the upper ranges I think that most hands with six-card suits should be eligible for either a two-bid or a one-bid.

Position also matters. My second seat preempts will be the most classic in type, and third seat preempts are the least disciplined. First seat, my preempts can be loose at favorable vulnerability. Fourth seat preempts describe hands that expect to make their bid opposite an average hand. The range of possibilities is wider for those, but if partner bids on with a fit and side aces your hand better deliver.

Distributional quirks don't bother me. Weak two-bids with voids or 6-5 shape are OK.

Vulnerable three-bids should be seven-card suits of reasonable quality (KQ10xxxx or better), with an occasional very good six-card suit in third seat. Eight-card suits are also possible when vulnerable, but I like to pick my spots. If vulnerable, partner should expect the suit to run when he has a top honor. At unfavorable vulnerability, the suit should often be runable opposite a small doubleton or even a singleton (AKJxxxx, AQJxxxxx), although KQJ10xxx also qualifies. Non-vulnerable three-bids can occasionally be six-baggers, but then the hand should be hopeless outside of its suit; otherwise just start with a weak two-bid.

I don't like partner to have side aces when opening preemptive three-level bids.

If I have a six-card suit, I strain to open with a weak two-bid, but I don't strain as hard with a seven-bagger to open a three-bid. If there are too many defects I will pass.

Drew Casen: If I open or preempt vulnerable at the three-level, expect a fantastic suit with about 6.5 playing tricks. Examples: AKJ10xxx or KQJxxxx, possibly QJ109xxx with an outside Ace or King.

If I open a weak two-bid vulnerable, expect a reasonable suit, no worse than KJ9xxx, never something like Q10xxxx or worse. If I have a broken seven-bagger when vulnerable, I don't mind opening a weak two-bid. I feel it is better than to pass. If white (not vulnerable) against red (vulnerable) in first seat only, I will open 3, 3 , and 3 destructively: expect a horrible hand--JACK or QUEEN sixth with nothing outside is possible. If I have a constructive normal three-bid in this seat, I will open two of my suit, thus promising a constructive preempt.

My white preempts in other seats are down the middle of the road, as are white-white first chair. If I have a solid seven or eight-bagger, I will ALWAYS open the bidding at the one level.

Eddie Kantar: I would tell my new partner to expect a “strong” (three of the top five honors or two of the top four honors with the 98 included) suit from me and would expect the same strong suit from him. I would also tell him that it's OK if he’s a bit light non-vulnerable VS vulnerable, particularly in third seat, and he's even allowed to have a five-card suit at that vulnerability in third seat if it's headed by 100 honors. I would also tell him that fourth seat preempts are the next thing to opening bids.

Nick Nickell: Vulnerable three-bids should be fairly sound, particularly at matchpoints where a bad score can be attained for going down two or three even if they do not double. Vulnerable weak two-level and three-level bids should have good internal solidity so that you don't have to worry about losing a lot of tricks to cards like the Jack, 10, 9 or 8. If you get doubled in a two-bid, you would much prefer to have KQJ10932 than AK5432.

When not vulnerable, you can be much looser. You should still look at the ratio of offense to defense when deciding if you should open a two or a three-bid. This is an often overlooked practice when preempting. The more offense you have relative to your defense the more likely that partner can rely on you having what he expects. If you preempt partner should be able to raise or save without worrying that you end up being able to take a couple of tricks on defense, particularly outside the preempt suit. AKQxxxx xxxxxx is a great example of a preempt. If you also preempt on Qxxxxxx KxxAxx partner is likely to go wrong, not to mention that our preempt may just leave us badly placed without partner doing anything wrong.

Your holding in the other major should be considered when thinking about opening a weak two-bid. If your suit is really solid, like KQJ109x, then it is unlikely that the other major will be a better strain to play. With A105432 and KJx in the other major, then the other major may very well play better. A rule that I use when thinking about a two-bid in one of the major suits is: Should partner open in third or fourth position with one-of-the-other-major, and my hand is worth a Drury (limit) raise of his major, then I should not open two-of-my-major.

Point No. 8

I agree that you should not have a lot of outside strength when preempting. However, Eric Rodwell did open 2 against me holding 1098xxx (no face cards in his suit) with two outside aces.

Dave Berkowitz: I would tell the new partner that my preempts are sound, except first and third seats at favorable vulnerability. My suits will be good, and should be led or raised. I am willing to adapt and may get more frisky if the state of the match warrants it.

Barry Rigal: My weak two-bids show six-card suits or five-card suits that look like six. In second seat vulnerable they will be perfect, slightly less so in first or third seats vulnerable and second non-vulnerable. Flaws consist of side four-card suits and voids, outside defense, and weak suits.

Jeff Rubens: Assuming I am setting the agreement, the obvious general requirements are: (a) a good suit for a two-bid, (b) rule of three and four for a three-bid.

(Moderator Robinson’s comment: The normal rule of two, three and four is that you will be between two, three or four tricks of making your contract depending upon the vulnerability. KQJ10xxx and out is six tricks. My rule of two, three and four is that you have two, three or four tricks. QJ1098xx is four tricks, J1098xxx is three tricks and Jxxxxx is usually two tricks.)

Karen Allison: I play that the standard system is off for third seat openers, that my preempts are by the book in first and second seat, and strong in fourth seat. My weak two-bids are always a six-card suit, preferably with three of the top five honors. I don't like to open a suit and lose tricks when partner leads the doubleton king. Three-level bids show respectable suits with not more high cards outside of the suit than in it. I don't like outside aces at all – I am willing to agree not to open with a long suit as a preempt when I have an outside ace.

Mike Becker: Preempts depend on vulnerability (ours and theirs) and position.


First Position: Normal. Could have VOID or side five-card suit. Rarely side four-card major or two aces.

Second Position: Disciplined

Third Position: Wide range

Fourth Position: Invitational, but game unlikely opposite an average passed hand. 2 suggest a good suit that can stand playing 3NT at any vulnerability, or a maximum passed hand.

Neither: x AQ97xxQxxxxx = normal first position

Favorable: Subtract a queen

Both: Add a jack or improve suit

Unfavorable: Add a queen or improve suit

Will occasionally have a seven-card suit or five-card suit, depending on position and vulnerability.

Positional modifications: add a jack to second position.

Fourth position is a light opening bid with a decent six-card suit, so opening a one-level bid and rebidding the suit is sound.

Three-bids: Same idea as two-bids. I would open 3 in fourth position vulnerable with AKQxxxx xxJQxx. I am not preempting to go down with the ranking suit. I would open 3 (or psyche a 1 -opener!) in third position favorable with KJ9xxxx xxxxQx.

Marinesa Letizia: Weak two-bids: 5-11 HCPs, six-card suit all vulnerabilities except favorable. No outside four-card majors and no voids in first or second seat. Not vulnerable it can be a bad suit, vulnerable it will be a reasonable suit, at least Q109xxx. Fourth seat it can be an opening hand, but not likely to miss game opposite a passed hand.

Three-level preempts: In first or second seat they will be pretty normal vulnerable, a good seven-card suit, but not seven solid. Not vulnerable, my three-level bids tend to be more destructive than constructive – they can even be a six-card suit at favorable vulnerability, i.e., Jxxxxx is acceptable. Third seat they can be anything, even an opening bid (not enough to have a game opposite a passed hand).

Kerry Sanborn: I like to tell partner to expect a certain number of tricks out of my hand. I expect to have a playing strength based on the rule of two, three or four varying by vulnerability. I also don’t care so much about suit quality as playing strength. Having a side four-card major is irrelevant unless the quality of that suit is far superior to the opening suit. I will expect five-card weak two-bids if not vulnerable.

Henry Bethe: With respect to a weak 2 bid, I tell my partner to expect a decent six-card suit: either three of the top five honors or very good internal texture, and not extreme shape, e.g. 6322, 6331 or 6421. In third or fourth seat the suit could be a very strong five-bagger. For three-level preempts, I tell my partners to use the "rule of two, three, and four," but to interpret it liberally. That is, you should expect to take seven tricks at unfavorable vulnerability, six at equal, and five at favorable. In making the estimate, assume reasonable but not favorable breaks.

Kathie Wei: First and second seat, I prefer to have two of the three top honors; at the three-level I promise less.

Grant Baze: Vulnerable against non-vulnerable, preempts are constructive. In particular, three-level bids show a seven-card solid (ish) suit and partner should take a shot at 3NT with two aces and J10xx in the other suits. Both sides vulnerable, preempts are constructive. In particular, three-bids will never be worse than on a finesse for seven tricks. When neither side is vulnerable, preempts are descriptive, neither constructive nor purely destructive. Non-vulnerable against vulnerable, preempts are destructive, and may be quite weak. Third seat preempts at this vulnerability may be mildly insane, and further preemption is not encouraged. Additionally, a vulnerable preempt (at the three level) is expected to include a defensive trick, while a non-vulnerable preempt may have no defense at all.

Zeke Jabbour: I would tell a new partner that vulnerability counts. Both vulnerable, I am disciplined; at unfavorable vulnerability, I am VERY disciplined (take it to the bank); non-vulnerable, I am lighter; and at favorable vulnerability, there are few holds barred. I would tell him that, contrary to popular opinion, second seat is as good a place to preempt as first and third. You have already gotten past one guy and it's a little harder for the other guy to compete knowing that his partner is a passed hand. Meanwhile, you have described your hand for your partner. I would tell him that if I bid a weak two-bid in fourth seat, I think it's our hand, but I am not looking for game. I open the game-interest hand at the one level. However, if I open in fourth seat at the three-level, I am very interested in game and partner should put me in game with any quick trick. I would tell him that I sometimes open the bidding at the game level when others would open one, should I fear that a good save may be easily discovered.


The main thought that you should get from this column is that your partner must know what your preempts look like. Then, if you know that partner might open 2 on a five-card suit holding: KJxxx xxxxxxxx, you won’t jump to 4 holding xx AKxxKQxxAQx.

Here is a better hand for opening 2 on a five-card suit. You hold KQJ109 xxxxxxxx in first seat, both sides vulnerable. You pass, and it goes 1NT – 3NT. How do you feel knowing your partner is going to lead a heart? I don’t know the feeling since I would have opened 2. Just to repeat. My motto is: If you think about preempting, and it doesn’t make you sick, then do it.

However, if your partner insists on sound preempts (six-card weak two-bids), you have no choice but to agree. Expect a lot of normal results. But holding KQJ10x xxxxxxxx, you could take a club, put it in with your spades, open 2, and later apologize for missorting your hand.