Book Review: Innovative Slam Bidding

by Matthew Kidd

Title: Win Bridge Tournaments with Innovative Slam Bidding
Author: Irwin S. Landow
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher: Xlibris Corporation

I took an interest in this book after doing data analysis that showed even partnerships with a masterpoint average in excess of 5000 MP in regional matchpoint events were bidding only 49% of the slams and grand slams available double dummy.

Most of the players I know in the 5,000–10,000 MP range, do not seem to be employing methods more sophisticated than Roman Key-Card Blackwood, Jacoby 2NT and splinters, accurate control bidding, and the extra bidding space provided by the 2/1 bidding system to better describe shape and suggest extra values conducive to slam. In particular they do not seem to be employing a comprehensive approach within 2/1 such as that outlined by Steve Robinson in Washington Standard (1996). Many are not playing Serious 3NT, asking bids, relay systems after a strong 2♣ opener, and they do not have special agreements to handle long minors across from 1NT openers or strong hands with a source of tricks opposite a weak opener. Few are playing Kickback Roman Keycard, which requires a decent amount of partnership discussion, and almost none are playing full relay systems (only allowed on the ACBL Mid-Chart) which require a very serious amount of discussion and memorization.

Innovative Slam Bidding tries to categorize the types of hands that pair well to generate slams and provides suggestions for cases that most partnerships do not handle well. For example, when responder has a long solid or nearly solid minor across from a 1NT opener, the author suggests showing it with a three level response where opener’s rebids indicate opener’s length in responder’s suit and whether opener possesses the ace or king of the suit, allowing responder to judge the trick taking potential of the long suit. This is better than settling for 3NT, often the matchpoint default, or blasting to slam. From experience I know this case comes up often enough to be annoying when using poor methods, particularly at team play.

The author also addresses the problem of a strong hand with a source of tricks across from a 3♣ or 3 preempt. He presents an artificial 3 bid to inquire whether opener’s suit will be runnable across from a small doubleton, either based on suit quality or side suit entries, primarily for playing in 3NT. Responder’s artificial 3♠ response asks opener how many honors he has in his suit and also whether he has an ace or guarded king as a side entry. The followup bids seem within the capability of a serious non-professional partnership.

Mr. Landau presents a self named relay structure as a followup to a strong 2♣ opener. He claims it averages 0.38 IMPs better than the common 2 Waiting method, and 0.90 and 0.77 IMPs better than Controls and Step Responses respectively. His structure is fairly complicated and should only be attempted by a partnership where both partners are seriously interested.

When shortness exists in either hand, the methods presented emphasize distinguishing between a singleton and a void immediately. For example, the author advocates that three and four level responses to Jacoby 2NT show singletons and voids respectively, rather than singletons or voids at the three level and a good five card side suit at the four level as is often agreed. Similarly, he prefers mini-splinters, e.g. 1♠ 3♣ = singleton, in preference to other uses for these bids such as Weak Jump Shifts, Strong Jump Shifts, or Bergen Raises, so that traditional double jump splinters can be reserved for showing voids.

I liked Innovative Slam Bidding as a source of ideas, particularly for cases that don’t seem to get much attention outside of perhaps expert circles. But I took issues with other aspects of the book.

First, all the hand and accompanying bidding diagrams look pixelated. Clearly they were saved as images from elsewhere and pasted into the final document as such. This is very unprofessional in the era of desktop publishing. It is not hard to generate the appropriate diagrams in Microsoft Word. Or even better, the whole book could be written using the BridgeComposer software, which had already existed for four years by time Innovative Slam Bidding was published.

Second, there is an unstated assumption that the partnership is using disciplined preempts. There is nothing wrong with disciplined preempts but be aware that some of the methods will breakdown in the face of “creative” preempts. By contrast the hands allowed for a Jacoby 2NT response seem quite liberal, often lacking in the usual strength requirement even after adding a point or two for suit length. But specific criterion are not given.

Third, chapter 3 presents statistical tables based on double dummy calculations in a realm where their validity may breakdown. The six tables, one for each combined suit length from 7 to 12 cards, shows the double dummy chance of making a slam with different combinations of combined HCP and different hand properties, e.g. a singleton but not a void. But double dummy analysis has limitations. For example, the double dummy solver always guesses a two way finesse correctly, knows when to drop a stiff king, and finds low percentage squeezes in favor or high probability lines that fail on the given layout of the cards. When evaluating game and lower contract probabilities or the effectiveness of various leads, the effects tend to cancel out between offense and defense. But at the slam level, declarer is much more likely to benefit from double dummy quirks than the defenders. Defenders seldom need to guess the location of queen to set a slam but declarer frequently needs to guess a queen. Therefore the percentages shown in the tables may be artificially high as they approach slam territory.

Finally, other than for the strong 2♣ relay structure, the author does not present a case for the superiority of his suggested methods. For example, is the emphasis on distinguishing between a singleton or void during the first slam oriented bid so important? Is using all three level suit responses to 1NT for showing a potentially runnable suit better than alternative structures? I think it is better than the crummy and rare uses I put to these bids in many partnerships but I’m not convinced it beats how I use those bids in stronger partnerships. Are Mini-Splinters a better use for those bids than Weak Jump Shifts or Bergen Raises? Does it depend on whether the event is scored by matchpoints or IMPs?

Overall, the book is a step in the right direction but I would like to see a couple of more authors take a stab at advanced slam bidding methods.