The 2NT Yips

The many conventional faces of 2NT can be anxiety-producing

According to the International Olympic Committee, bridge is a sport. Ever since the World Bridge Federation moved its headquarters to the Olympic City in Switzerland, East–West players all over the world have been hoisting themselves out of their folding chairs and tottering to the next table with an unmistakable spring to their step. Who says boards get younger, players get older?

This new status comes with responsibility, and we are definitely up to it. Athletes live and breathe their sport, and so do we. They train vigorously, and so do we. They relentlessly seek
new means of improving their performance, and so do we. They watch their diets, and so do … never mind. The point is, we’re athletes too, right? For sure, we are mental athletes, and I’d
bet my favorite convention card holder that in a contest of mental skills, Steve Robinson would beat Roger Federer any day of the week.

As I see it, the only real mental challenge we bridge players share with the Federers of this world is the yips.

According to Google, the yips is the loss of fine motor skills, without apparent explanation, in one of a number of different sports, usually golf. Athletes affected by the yips sometimes recover their ability, sometimes compensate by changing technique, or may be forced to abandon their sport at the highest level.

With golfers, yips turn up when they’re putting. I have a friend, a decent golfer, who tried putting left-handed to break himself of debilitating yips. He still struggles. Some golfers putt with eyes closed, or apply nail polish to their grips, or get their caddies to poke them in the cheek (true – found it in The New Yorker). Generally assumed to be an organic disease of the brain, it is not exactly clear whether the yipsare anxiety-related or simply a cause of anxiety.

I have yips. Always have. It may or may not be a disease in my brain, but it’s definitely somewhere on the anxiety spectrum. My yips are all about 2NT. Just the thought of that bid hitting the table makes me want to hoist myself out of my folding chair and totter promptly and springily to the snacks.

Everything was fine when I was playing kitchen bridge in the safety of my home. A 2NT opener meant 20–21 high-card points, balanced. I could even handle partner’s 2NT response when I opened a minor (11–12 points, no fit, balanced, bing-bang-boom). The trouble began when I asked Alison Shoemaker to take me to a duplicate game, and she suggested I study two systems simultaneously: Jacoby 2NT, and the responses to partner’s bid of 2NT over my weak-two openers. I wasn’t experienced enough to discern the soul of these systems yet. Why on earth would I stick my neck out and bid some useless feature on the three level when I’m weak? (Duh, because partner has a monster hand and is trying to find game.)

Once you understand why a convention is useful, you know its soul. Then it’s a million times easier to remember to actually use it, not to mention what the heck you are supposed to do when it comes up. All I knew when I started duplicate with Al was that whatever I opened, if she bid 2NT, I was yipping.

It was such a relief when I got over it – even when curve balls came, like when Steve Becker reprimanded me for not Alerting the responses in the Jacoby 2NT system. (Not everyone knows that, but directors will tell you Steve is absolutely right.)

Then, just when I thought I was in the groove, Al threw me a shocker-type curve.

Al: If I open and you bid whatever, and we’re on the one level and I rebid 2NT, do not pass automatically. Stop and think, because I have 18–19 highcard points and a balanced hand. You
have 6–9, so we need to find a game.

Me: Good gravy. OK. Why didn’t you tell me months ago when we started?

After I found the soul of Al’s various 2NT bids, along came Claire Rolin, Queen of Gadgets. Claire, a European, wanted me to switch to upside-down discards, the queen-ask in Roman key card Blackwood, of all things, and puppet Stayman over 2NT all at once. Help! The yips were back with a vengeance. Every time I picked up a new hand, I’d pray, “Please don’t let either
of us have a 2NT opener, please, please, please …”

My next two partners recommended Jordan 2NT, which attracted me immediately. Unfortunately, I was still so preoccupied with my puppet yips that when I put Jordan on my card, I promptly forgot all about it. (I just looked Jordan up again: I open a major, opponents double, partner bids 2NT. I’m allowed to freak out for a second, but then I have to Alert it. It’s a four-piece
limit raise. OK, that is super logical. Maybe I’ll frigging remember it next time.)

While I was still yipping about puppet and whatnot, John Dickenson made it his mission to convert me to lebensohl. He gave me a nice thin book, which I started, and to my orror, discovered that lebensohl relies mightily on … 2NT. It’s used when opponents interfere over a 1NT opener, when partner bids a reverse, or when partner doubles a weak opener in a major.
Fair enough. These are all situations where game can either be bid or missed when it’s not appropriate. So lebensohl is a great system, but the yip factor is that sometimes the 2NT response is artificial and the sign of a weak hand, and sometimes it’s fantastically strong. Yip! Yip! Yip! Learning lebensohl is like getting a concussion and having to start all over again.

Just when lebensohl’s soul was in sight and it didn’t feel like a total death sentence, John added four-way transfers over 1NT. Crap!

Four-way transfers: A response of 2NT to opener’s 1NT shows a long diamond suit and requests opener rebid diamonds. The way we play it, as opener, I can super-accept by bidding diamonds, but only, only, only if I have A x x or K x x. What this means is partner would have responded Stayman (2♣) before 2NT if he had 8–9 points and no four-card major. No matter what I rebid after his ding-dang 2NT bid and no matter what he does as a result, I have to Alert (between yips)
that he has 8–9 points, and explain that he may or may not have a four-card major.

I’d include the unusual notrump in this laundry list of ways to screw up artificial 2NT bids, but to be honest, the unusual doesn’t seem all that unusual to me any more. There’s a Robert
Todd article somewhere in the nether regions of my handbag at the moment. It’s about Kokish game tries, which rely heavily on … well, you know …

OK. I can handle this. I’m an athlete. I am going to find the soul of 2NT, I’m sure of it. But first, I need to totter to the snack table and look for a caddy to poke me in the cheek. Maybe Federer will be there. Wake me up when it’s over.

Susan Morse is an actress and bestselling author of two memoirs: “The Habit,” and “The Dog Stays in the Picture.” Her third, chronicling a recent headlong dash into duplicate bridge, will be finished if she can just stop playing long enough to write.