The “Unusual Notrump” Overcall
by Alfred Sheinwold
The convention known as the Unusual Notrump Overcall, unlike many others, has a history and a parentage. It was conceived, appropriately enough, in a mixed pair event (Miami Beach Winter Nationals, 1948). The convention sprang full-grown from the brow of Al Roth in a post-mortem discussion of the following hand:
♠ 9 7 ♥ K 10 ♦ A K 10 7 ♣ A 10 8 3 2
Roth’s partner made a takeout double with this hand when her right-hand opponent opened with one spade. LHO raised to two spades, which was passed around to the doubler. She doubled again.
This put it up to Roth, who held:
♠ 10 4 3 ♥ Q J 8 2 ♦ Q J 6 2 ♣ 9 4
Roth’s hearts were slightly stronger than his diamonds, as any bridge player can plainly see. Also, the double of one major urges a response in the other major. So Roth bid three hearts and went down one. He could have made three diamonds either by playing it out or by throwing the hand against any convenient wall.
Now, Alvin Roth is a gent who doesn’t like to land in a bad contract when a good one is available. How, he wondered, could he have known that this was no time to be bidding the other major? Was there any way for his partner to indicate that her hand was strong in the minors but weak in the unbid major?
He came to the conclusion that his partner should have bid two notrump at her second turn instead of doubling for a second time. It seemed clear to Roth that his partner couldn’t really want to play the hand at notrump. Hence the bid of two notrump would be idle or meaningless – unless he assigned to it the special conventional meaning “Partner, this is a takeout double that asks you to choose between the two minor suits.”
That was in 1948, and the resourceful Mr. Roth submitted the bid to his then-small coterie, polished it, refined it, and made it officially part of The (Roth-Stone) System. Then, as now, one always thought of The System in capital letters.)
The Unusual Notrump became better known when Roth published his book in 1953. Since that time it has been adopted by most tournament experts whether they play The System or just a system.
Essentially, the meaning of the convention has remained unchanged. An unusual overcall in notrump is a takeout double asking for a response in a minor suit.
What is Unusual?
There are times when a player wants to make a notrump overcall with a natural meaning, and there are other times when a player wants to do so with an unusual meaning. Which is which and when is when?
Before we go on to discuss the answers that are in current use, let’s consider the general problem of expert disagreement. In some bidding situations, the bid or call may have one meaning for Player A and a different meaning for Player B, even if the players are equally skillful and play the same system.
For example, there is some disagreement among experts about the Blackwoodness of certain bids of 4NT. There is also disagreement about whether certain doubles are for penalty or takeout; about whether certain redoubles are shouts of triumph or shrieks for rescue; about whether certain free bids are constructive or admonitory.
We accept these disagreements, perhaps because we have become accustomed to them. We must expect disagreements on the use of new conventions also.
All of which leads to the statement that there is some disagreement on when a notrump bid is unusual and that there is even some disagreement on the exact meaning of the unusual notrump overcall.
The classic unusual notrump overcall is made in the reopening position when the opponents have bid one or both majors:
East promises support for both minors and denies support for the unbid major. East may have a rather good hand with length in both minors, such as:
♠ xx ♥ xx ♦K Q xxx ♣ A J x
(If East reopens with a bad hand, he is relying on the enemy to know what they are doing. If the opponents have accurately gauged their strength, West may turn up with the best hand at the table! If the opponents have underbid, however, East’s reopening bid may give them another chance to get to game or to a better contract.)
Another classic reopening situation:
This time it is West who is last to speak. He is unlikely to have a really good hand, since he passed over the opening bid. He may well have a bad hand with good distribution since this is a much clearer case of the compulsory reopening bid than the previous example. In any event, West advertises length in both minors and asks his partner to choose one of them.
Sometimes a player doesn’t wait for the last-to-speak position.
In this case, West acts at once to relieve the pressure on his partner. West may have some hand as:
♠ xx ♥ x ♦ KJxxx ♣ AQxxx
If West fails to step in, East may have to sell out to two spades, only to discover that three of a minor was cold. Alternatively, if West passes, East may reopen with three hearts. West acts to avoid these dangers.
Mind you, no guarantee of safety goes with the unusual bid of two notrump. Partner may have two doubletons in the minor suits, and your side may be headed for a bad penalty as soon as you enter the auction. At total points, therefore, the unusual notrump should also be uncommon. At match points or board-a-match, the occasional disaster may be accepted with good grace.
The intervention may take place in the other position:
In this case, we see the beginning of a problem. How do we know that East has the unusual overcall of two notrump? Could his bid be perfectly natural, snowing a very powerful hand with spade stoppers and probably upwards of 20 points in high cards?
Perhaps the bid could be natural if nobody had ever dreamed up the unusual two-notrump overcall. Even then, however, the chances are that no expert would ever make the bid for the natural purpose. If the opener and his partner are telling the truth, West should have a Yarborough, and East should either stay out of the auction altogether or should double for a takeout.
In fact, much the same can be said for an immediate intervention by the second player:
When does anybody ever want to use this bid to show the real, natural stuff? Fifteen or twenty years ago, when babes in the wood were more plentiful , you might jump to two notrump in this position in an attempt to talk the enemy out of their hand. If doubled, you would retreat to your prepared position with some sort of weak seven-card suit.
The trouble with using such a bid for deceptive purposes is that the word gets around. You can fool some of the bridge players some of the time. And there it ends. The next time you try your deceptive bid, the opponents smile knowingly and go right ahead with their auction.
Far better to abandon the deception that doesn’t deceive. Use the jump to 2NT as the unusual notrump overcall, asking partner to choose a minor suit.
Similar comments may be made on an overcall at the level of three:
Conceivably East may have seven solid clubs and a spade stopper, in which case he might hope to stay in three notrump undisturbed. The odds are that somebody will bid four spades even if East has this pleasant notion. It is far better to give up the idea of playing the hand at three notrump in order to use the bid in its unusual sense. East should have length in both of the minors, with whatever strength is necessary to underwrite a good sacrifice.
A more imprudent example:
After South’s (strong) two-bid, West acts at once to demand a sacrifice at the level of five. If West is non-vulnerable against vulnerable opponents, he may take the action with good distribution and an astonishingly bad hand, such as:
♠ x ♥ — ♦ Jxxxxx ♣ Qxxxxx
We must now try to distinguish the usual from the unusual.
To begin with, the opening bid of any number of notrump is a natural bid. The unusual notrump is used only when the opponents have opened the bidding.
An overcall of one notrump is usually natural.
West should be showing a spade stopper or two, balanced distribution, and a good hand. (Some players make this bid with 15 to 17 points, others with 17 to 19 points, still others with an indefinite range. It always shows a good hand.)
East should have a spade stopper and balanced distribution. The strength shown by the reopening bid depends on the partnership philosophy. Some experts make it a practice to reopen with a double whenever they have 11 points or more, so that the reopening bid of 1NT would show not more than 10 points. Other experts, who have no firm policy, might have a good hand for the reopening bid of 1NT.
Even at the level of one, however, a player who has previously passed may make an unusual notrump overcall:
|Pass||1 ♣||Pass||1 ♠|
East should have clubs and diamonds for his bid of one notrump. This is, however, a very rare situation. The unusual overcall in notrump is almost invariably at the level of two or higher.
The notrump overcall over a preemptive bid is natural:
West wants to play the hand at three notrump. East is expected to pass unless he has a rather good reason for bidding.
|2 ♠ (weak)|
It’s hard to say what this bid means. Quite a case may be made for employing this bid either in the natural or in the unusual sense. Obviously, you may have a takeout double with length in the minors, and this is probably the better use for the bid. Alternatively, you may have a good balanced hand, lacking support for the unbid major. Most partnerships have no set policy on this bid and may have to guess when the situation arises.
Some players use the unusual notrump overcall to ask partner to choose between the unbid suits when the opening side has bid two suits. For example:
|Pass||1 ♠||Pass||2 ♦|
East asks for a choice between hearts and clubs. If East happens to have a fairly good three-card holding in spades, he may reopen with a double instead of 2NT.
When the opponents have bid both majors, a reopening bid may take the form either of a double or of an unusual notrump bid. In either case, partner is expected to bid a minor:
|Pass||1 ♠||Pass||2 ♥|
|Pass||Pass||2NT or X|
Most players in the East position will double or bid two notrump as the spirit moves them. A scientific partnership will draw a definite distinction: two notrump shows only the minor suits; a double indicates some strength in the other major. In the example given, East would show some spade strength by a double and would deny any spade strength by a bid of two notrump. In either case, he would show length and strength in the minors.
Past of the reason for drawing the distinction is that spades may be the best spot for East-West even if North has some sort of legitimate spade response. Another reason is that West has a better picture of his partner’s hand for the defense, if opponent becomes declarer.
In one situation, it is possible to show up a psychic response:
There is no need for East to double for a takeout if he uses the unusual notrump convention; he can either jump to 2NT at once or bide his time. The double may be used, instead, to show a long and strong spade suit. East would keep quiet with an otherwise poor hand but would double for penalties if he thought that North was trying to steal the spade suit.
East would bid 2NT for takeout. The double is for penalties.
If you employ the Unusual Notrump Convention, be sure to list it one way or another on your convention card. Don’t take it for granted that your opponents will know what you are doing.
About Alfred Sheinwold
Alfred (Freddie) Sheinwold (1912-1997) was one of the world’s foremost bridge columnists, authors and analysts. He is best known for a writing career that spans nearly seven decades. Sheinwold, a member of the ACBL Bridge Hall of Fame, served as the chairman of the ACBL Laws Commission and of the Appeals Committee at NABCs. He was chairman of the ACBL Board of Governors in the early Seventies and was named ACBL Honorary Member in 1983. Of Sheinwold’s many popular books, the most successful, 5 Weeks to Winning Bridge, has gone through many editions and sold more than a million copies. He was a story teller and raconteur without peer. A real audience pleaser, Sheinwold had an amazing memory and an endless file of entertaining talks and anecdotes. During World War II, he was chief code and cipher expert of the Office of Strategic Services. For a decade in the Forties and fifties he was a singer with the Cantata Singers. Sheinwold was a top-ranked player until he retired from competition. Sheinwold’s partnership, friendship and collaboration with Edgar Kaplan is legendary. The two co-invented the Kaplan-Sheinwold system, which features the weak notrump and other features still widely played in tournament bridge.