Overcalling on Four Card Suits

Chapter 2 from Complete Book on Overcalls

by Mike Lawrence (1979) 

Every now and then, you are going to find yourself with some sort of goodish hand and your RHO opens the bidding. Feeling like you should take some action, but finding nothing convenient, you pass and later discover you had some game or partial available on a hand where neither you nor partner had been able to enter the auction. Certainly there are hands with which you would open the bidding but which you can't compete after an opening bid. Some of these hand, however, can be handled through the tactic of overcalling on a four card suit. There are many cases where this is correct but there are not many generalities available. So, instead, the usual examples.

With no one vul, RHO opens 1D.. Holding

                    S. K Q 10 9
                    H. 4 2
                    D. A Q 6 5
                    C. K 5 4

Bid one spade. One of the few generalities I can give is that overcalling on a four card suit requires a very good suit. Partner is going to raise you whenever possible and three small should be quite adequate support if his hand is otherwise suited. Responder should not have to be too worried about the quality of your overcalls. Holding

                    S. 8 2
                    H. A Q 10 7
                    D. 10 7 6 5 4
                    C. A Q

Bid one heart after RHO opens 1D..  If the possession of five cards in the suit opened bothers you, forget it. Your length in diamonds plus opener's length assures you that your partner (and LHO) are also short. This means your partner is likely to have heart support. The length in diamonds therefore is not a minus but, rather, an asset. Perhaps the two hands are something like this:
                    S. A 9 7 6 4
                    H. J 8 3
                    D. 3
                    C. 7 6 3 2

                    S. 8  2
                    H. A Q 10 7
                    D. 10 7 6 5 4
                    C. A Q

With a diamond lead and a heart return you should make between seven and nine tricks. Not bad considering that dummy is not all that good. If dummy had a fourth heart, ten tricks would be possible and if you found dummy with five of them, game would depend on winning either the club or heart finesse. With the opening bid on your right, game should be nearly a cinch.

Now, if game is on opposite (see below)
                    S. A 8 4 2
                    H. J 9 5 4
                    D. 3
                    C. J 9 4 2

it would be nice to bid it. Or, if you can't get to game, at least get to hearts. Making 170 is better than being -110 or -90 or some such part-score. If you don't bid 1H. right away you will never be able to reach four hearts or, for that matter, hearts, period.

Consider this hand after RHO opens 1D.

                    S. K Q J 9
                    H. A 2
                    D. 4 3
                    C. J  8 7 4 3
Bid one spade. This hand may appear similar to the prior hand, but it is, in fact, quite different. There is a rather subtle difference. The points are the same. The distribution is the same. The hand contains a good four card suit and a crummy five card suit. Neither hand contains a singleton.

The difference? It is in the auction. In the previous hand the opening bid was in your weak five card suit. This had the effect of implying that your partner would have substantial distributional support for your four card suit. Even if you found partner with no high cards at all, you were assured of some kind of fit.

In this hand, however, the opening bid was in one of your doubletons. Therefore, even though it's correct to bid one spade, you do so in the hope, rather than the expectation, that partner can provide some sort of fit. If worst comes to worst, you will probably take three spades tricks and the ace of hearts. But my estimation of this hand is that you will seldom get less than five tricks, even opposite nothing. There are many hands with five cards suits on which nearly everyone would overcall which could easily end up taking fewer tricks.

                    S. A Q 8 6 2
                    H. A Q 3
                    D. 4 2
                    C. 9 7 3
The hand above, if doubled in a one spade overcall could conceivably take only two tricks. While two tricks is, admittedly, unlikely, the possibility of taking three or four is very real. And yet, nearly everyone would hasten to bid one spade on this hand, and hasten equally quickly to pass the hand just being discussed with K Q J 9 of spades. My own feeling is such that I would be quite pleased to hold

                    S. K Q J 9
                    H. A 2
                    D. 4 3
                    C. J  8 7 4 3
and be able to overcall one spade at matchpoints, rubber bridge, IMP's, or, for that matter, board-a-match.

There is another aspect of this hand which is important to recognize. If you elect to overcall one spade, you have to be prepared to lose the club suit. There is no way you can ever hope to get the club suit mentioned without partner assuming (rightly) that you have as many or more spades than clubs.

Hands like these are inflexible. Either you don't bid at all, or you bid (as in the example) one spade and then forever subside. It is true that you may bid again. You may accept a game try if you have a maximum, or if partner bids notrump, there are hands on which you could raise. Perhaps, once in a while, your partner will bid your side five card suit and then you can raise. But, for the most part, once you've overcalled, you will take no more voluntary action and will essentially leave it up to partner.

There are conventions which you might be using: Michaels, Hi-Lo cue bids, Astro cue bids, etc. If it suits you, you might use one of these if you happen to be using the right one at the right time. But, if not, then consider the overcall. Far better to describe some of your hand than none at all.

You may wonder why overcalling on four card suits is so effective. Aside from the usual reasons, a four card suit overcall needs a good suit by definition, so it is certainly a suit you want partner to lead. The fact that you have such a good suit suggests partner would not have much in the way of high cards in that suit and it might not occur to him to lead it without a suggestion from you. Furthermore, the quality of your suit is such that the opponents may be shy about contracting for some number of notrump. They may credit you for a longer suit and decide on a part-score when three notrump is cold.

Having only a four bagger works out additionally in that when partner leads it, you may find yourself taking two or three tricks in the suit against a suit contract. Each opponent, holding three or even four small may have been hoping his partner held shortness in the suit. When this happens, you will occasionally find the opponents getting two high in the wrong suit. It's not bad when your opponents miss a game; but when you can get them into the wrong game and then beat it when another game (usually 3NT) is cold, it's even better.

By now, if you've not been convinced that overcalling on four card suits is a good thing for your side if done properly, do this: first, review the two hands at the introduction of this chapter. Then, during the next session or two you play, note the ease or difficulty you experience when your opponents overcall.

If you are convinced it's right to compete, then consider this: it is a fact that most people do not compete with four baggers. If a partnership which did not tend to do this decided it was right, then they would be in a position to compete on from one to three or four hands more per session than they had been in the past. My experience suggests that, in general, my matchpoint results are excellent when one of these overcalls has been used. Out of ten occurrences, I would expect two or three tops, four very good results, an average or two, and, perhaps, one bad result. At IMP's, bad results just don't happen. The reason is that the worst thing that happens is a small plus like 70 or 90 instead of 110 or 130. At IMP's, you just don't worry about small differentials.

So, if you give these a try, you will be well placed. At least until everyone else learns as well. I do understand that if you are not accustomed to something like this, it is difficult to make the transition. I hope you don't make it against me.

Some more examples in the same vein. This time you are not vul vs vul and your RHO opens 1H.

(A) (B) (C)
S. K Q 10 8
H. 3 2
D. A J 4 3
C. K 6 5
S. A 2
H. 10 8 6 5 4
D. A 2
C. K Q J 8
S. K 10 9 7
H. A 9 5 4 2
D. 4 2
C. K Q J 8

With hand (A), don't get carried away. This is a takeout double, not a one spade overcall.

Pass hand (B). Overcalling at the two level requires a five-card suit. Two clubs, good suit and all, is just a bit rich.

(C) is the kind of hand of which a theoretically unsound bid of one spade could work well. It's the sort of "bad" bid you can get away with at matchpoints, but definitely not IMP's. Bear in mind that you are trading heavily on the fact that you expect to find a fit because of your heart length

Even though you don't take much room away from the opponents by your one spade overcall, look what might happen. Compare these three auctions after your RHO opens 1H.

RHO you LHO partner
(1) 1H. 1NT/2C. P
2S. ?

(2) 1H. 1NT P
P ?

(3) 1H. 1S.   P 2S.

In auction one, the opponents have been able to find their best fit (probably) and whether or not your side balances, they can judge what to do over your belated competition.

Likewise, in auction two. If you bid 2S. now it is somewhat dangerous, although probably correct.

In auction three, however, you have kept the opponents from their smooth exchange, and at the same time you got to two because your partner likes spades which on auction two was not so clear.

So, after a 1H. opening, holding

(A) (B) (C)
S. A K Q 9
H. 8 7 2
D. Q  4 3
C. 10 9 7
S. Q J 4 2
H. 8 7 6 5 3
D. K 10
C. K 2
S. Q J 9 7
H. 8 7 6 4 2
D. A
C. A J 10

with (A) you should get in there with one spade at matchpoints, but only at matchpoints. You would have preferred the opening bid to be one club instead of one heart because you would have deprived the opponents of far more bidding room.

Again, with hand (B) above, at matchpoints, one spade should be both safe and effective. The reason you shouldn't try this at IMP's is that you could go for a large number. At matchpoints, this is not serious if you score some victories, however small. But IMP scoring requires some degree of caution, and cautious one spade is not.

Hand (C) above shows the degree to which you might stretch things. At matchpoints, one spade is not as silly as it may seem. It's a bad bid, but you may well get away with it. Remember that you would never try this unless you had reason to expect a fit, i.e., your heart length. With (C)  you are getting close to a minimum one spade call at IMP's. At matchpoints, for sure. At IMP's, this is reasonably safe. You have four or more likely tricks and you may score an incredible game now and then. Give partner

                    S. K 8  6 4 2
                    H. J
                    D. 10 8 6 3
                    C. Q 9 3

and four spades is possible. And you will be able to grab quite a few part-score swings.

And with this dummy,

                    S. 10 8 6 3
                    H. Q 2
                    D. K Q 6 3
                    C. 9 6 4
you can likely make two or, on a good day, three spades. At the same time they can make three diamonds in spite of your impressive trump holding.

Again, after a 1H. opening on your right with these three hands:

(D) (E) (F)
S. K J 8 7
H. 4 2
D. A K
C. Q 6 4 3 2
S. K Q 10 5
H. 8 6 4 2
D. A J 3
C. 7 6
S. K Q J 3
H. 8 7 6
D. A J 4
C. K J 5

With hand (D), pass is probably best. With no reason to expect a fit it is too dangerous to attempt any action. If you must bid something, I suppose one spade is best, but I don't care for it. Be sure you understand why this hand is a pass when it is actually better than the last three examples.

One spade is reasonable with hand (E) at matchpoints. Holding four hearts is not as great an inducement for you to bid as holding five hearts would be, but they do suggest a fit is possible. Don't try this one at IMP's.

Hand (F) above is probably a better double than it is a spade bid. If partner has four spades, he will bid them. If not, the odds favor his holding a five card minor. At matchpoints or at IMP's, this hand is too good to pass. Try double.