The Slam Hunt

Chapter 15 from Do You Play Stayman?

by Samuel M. Stayman (1965) New York: Odyssey Press

By all rights, Americans should be superb slam bidders. When an American, Harold S. Vanderbilt, invented contract bridge, he remembered that his countrymen like to "shoot the works" or "go for broke." So he introduced the slam feature which held out tempting bonuses for successful adventures. This element, as much as any other, added excitement to the game and led to its fantastic popular acceptance.

Another American bridge pioneer, Ely Culbertson, gave Americans asking bids, a somewhat controversial tool for locating key controls. In one form or another, they are used throughout the world, but rarely in America. Certainly Americans like to bid and make slams as much as anyone. But apparently they have always liked a free-wheeling, "go-as-you-please" approach instead of the intricacies of Mr. Culbertson's brainchild.

The Easy Slams

Fortunately we excel at some slams—particularly the ones that depend solely on the sheer mass of high cards. We are so point-count happy that we delight in adding our points to those of partner's and—eureka—"We have 33 points, ergo a slam!"

We have no desire to belittle these slams; they count just as much as the slams that must be ferreted out. But we do wish to emphasize that there are other kinds of slams—slams that depend upon suit fit and key control cards—and that these slams can be bid.

Recipe for a Slam

Successful slams have two elements: (1) declarer must be able to develop twelve tricks, but (2) he must cash them before the defenders can take two of their own. Totting up 33 points does not make a slam; it merely guards against the defenders having two tricks off the top. Slams do not live on points alone, for points only measure high cards. Almost invariably declarer must promote small cards to winning rank in order to score his slam.

And that is where fit comes in. Unless you hold a self-sufficient suit, you will need help from your partner to develop winners out of your small cards. Take this extreme illustration: Would you want to be in a slam, regardless of partner's holding, with this hand?

S. A K Q 7 6 5 2 H. A K D. A K C. K Q

The correct answer is no—not if partner is void in spades. If partner has as much as a single spade, the odds favor a 3-2 break, so that you can bring in the suit without loss. But if partner is void in spades, you need a 3-3- division, which is against the odds.

What is a Satisfactory Fit?

In the preceding case, a 7-1 spade distribution suffices for your cause, while 7-0 does not. Most of the time you'll be looking at 4, 5 and occasionally 6-card suits. Whenever the percentages favor an opposing distribution that prevents the loss of a trick you cannot afford, you have a satisfactory fit. Otherwise the element of fit is lacking.

This element of fit, like the law of gravity, is always present whether or not we are aware of it. Even the easy-to-bid "sheer power" slams we have been discussing require a minimum fit. Remember, these so-called "point-count" slams stem from an opening notrump bid, which assures partner of a balanced distribution. This responder knows he will find at least a doubleton—and probably three cards—in support of his long suit. Conversely, if responder's hand is also balanced, the odds favor one or more 4-4 or 4-3 suit fits.

Slams on Less Than 33 Points!

The last hand contained 28 high-card points, yet provided a fine play for slam opposite any Yarborough that includes a singleton spade. Many other slams can be made with less than 33 high-card points, as long as the hands fit well. When your singleton or void is in the same suit as partner's small cards—when you have a set-up side suit—when your honor cards help solidify partner's suit—when a 4-4 trump fit is disclosed (so that either hand can develop an additional ruffing trick)—in all these cases you know the hands fit well. About the only time you need 33 high-card points for slam is when you cannot discover whether the hands fit each other.

Even with 33 points assured, it may pay to take a second look. What do you do with this hand after your partner opens one notrump?

S. A 7 H. K J 2 D. A Q 6 4 C. A 8 4 3

Most players would bid six notrump on this reasoning: "I have a balanced hand, and my 18 points added to partner's 15 give us 33, enough for small slam; there is no chance for a grand, so I'll save time by bidding six no-trump myself." Or, if they know their responses, they will bid five notrump, which amounts to about the same thing. But what if this happens to be the layout:

NORTH: S. A 7 H. K J 2 D. A Q 6 4 C. A 8 4 3
SOUTH: S. K J 6 3 H. A 7 D. K J 8 2 C. Q J 6

Oh, six notrump may come home all right. All declarer needs is for both major-suit finesses to work. Or a favorable club lie—either a 3-3 break or the king with East so a backward finesse will work—and then he needs only one successful finesse in the majors. But which major suit? Declarer has to guess right the first time; he won't get a second chance.

But at a diamond slam, declarer gets three chances: a favorable club lie or ruffing out the queen of spades; if neither works, he can fall back on the heart finesse. All told, he has about a 68 percent chance plus other possiblities if he is adroit at squeeze play. But six notrump makes only about 41 percent of the time.

If North recognizes the importance of 4-4 trump fit and the value of the extra ruffing tick it delivers, he will go more slowly. Here is how the slam can be reached:

1NT 2c.(a)
2S. 3D.(b)
3NT(c) 5NT(d)
6D.(e) ---

(a) Not really interested in the majors, but the Stayman bid sets the stage for asking about the diamond suit.
(b) As planned.
(c) Despite the fine fit for diamonds, holding a minimum notrump, South can do no more than bid three notrump.
(d) "I want to be in slam; pick your spot."
(e) "In that case, I like diamonds."

Here 33 points yield a subpar play for notrump slam; yet slam in the 4-4 trump suit is odds-on. When you are not sure if the partnership assets total 33 points, the case for fit exploration becomes stronger. In fact, the more fit, the fewer points you need.

Let's follow another well-bid slam:
NORTH: S. A 8 6 4 H. Q 7 D. K 10 6 5 C. A K 10
SOUTH: S. K 5 3 H. A K 6 D. A Q 9 4 C. 7 5 3

1NT 2c.(a)
2D. 3D.(b)
3H.(c) 3S.(d)
4D.(e) 6D.(f)
(a) North could bid 4NT to show his point count, but that leads to slam only when South has a maximum 17 points. Even then, notrump may not be the best spot. A trump fit is usually worth an extra trick, so North correctly explores the spade suit first.

(b) No luck in spades; maybe diamonds will be luckier?

(c) "You found me, I have a good four-card diamond fit, as well as heart strength and better than a minimum notrump." At this point, North could bid six diamonds without further ado, since there are too many holes for a grand slam. But let's follow the rest of the auction through, for it is a valuable exercise in the techniques of slam bidding.

(d) Both a slam try and a cue-bid showing the ace of spades. If North were not slam-minded, he would rebid four diamonds or three notrump. And South can be sure North has the spade ace, for once the trump suit is set, the first cue-bid in any side suit shows the ace of that side suit. (Before a trump fit is established, a cue bid in a side suit may show a high-card combination, such as K Q, K J—or even just king, if no better bid is available—but not necessarily the ace.)

(e) South has several bids available to him. He chooses to return to the agreed suit, for it is the most innocuous and least encouraging. South is wary of slam, for the partnership has talked over every suit but clubs and South cannot help out in that department. If he had the club ace, he would cue-bid it now. If he had sure second-round club control, he could jump to six diamonds himself. if he had K x in clubs, he would bid five notrump, which says, "I have second-round control of the fourth suit—clubs—but it's not a sure stopper, so I don't want the opening lead to come through me. How about playing the hand from my side—in six notrump—so they can't lead through me?"

Summing up, South has four bids to describe his holding in the fourth suit: (1) returning to the agreed suit, diamonds, as the lowest level, to confess he has no high card in the suit; (2) cue-bidding clubs to show the ace, (3) jumping to slam in the agreed suit, diamonds, to show sure second-round control (K Q in this case, but if South were not marked with a balanced hand and therefore at least a doubleton club, it could equally be based on a singleton); and (4) a bid of five notrump to show the guarded king.

South might also bid four spades. This would show the king of spades, since the second cue bid in a side suit shows second-round control. However, this sounds encouraging, since it volunteers more information. Note though that it does not take the partner past the agreed game level—five diamonds—so it does not commit the partnership to slam.

(f) North has the clubs well under control, so the only question is whether to go for a small or grand slam. Each of the four suits has a potential loser and South cannot be expected to fill all the gaps. Therefore North wisely decides to settle for a small slam. Technically he could cue-bid six clubs to show the ace of that suit. But the theory of cue-bidding is that you give information only when you are unsure of the final contract. A cue-bid at the six level after the trump suit has been decided therefore inquires about a grand slam. North is not quite strong enough for this aggressive move. If he had an extra queen somewhere, the cue-bid would be in order.

Secrets of Slam Bidding

The sequence described above illustrates several facets of slam bidding:

1. Use of the Stayman two-club bid to find out about suit fits—both the majors and the minors.

2. The implied fit: a bid that cannot logically show a real suit implies a fit with the suit just bid by partner. At the same time it indicates a high card in the suit actually bid.

3. Cue bidding after a trump suit has been agreed upon. The first time a side suit is bid shows first-round control (ace or void); the second time, second-round control (king or singleton). A cue-bid implies uncertainty about how high to bid (otherwise why mess around?) and therefore asks partner to help in making the decision.

4. Identification of the key suit: When the trump suit has been set and two side suits have been cue bid, both partners are alerted to the danger of the fourth suit. If one partner cannot stop that suit, he returns to the agreed trump suit at the lowest level and the slam hunt is abandoned unless the other has second-round control. With first-round control, he cue bids the suit; with a sure second-round stopper, he bids six in the agreed trummp suit. If the player who bid notrump first holds the guarded king, he bids five notrump to avoid an opening lead through that suit. Here is a further refinement of this principle, which also illustrates another facet of slam bidding:

NORTH: S. A Q 9 4 H. K 5 D. K J 7 6 4 C. Q 8
SOUTH: S. K 8 6 3 H. A 9 7 D. A Q 8 C. K 7 2

1NT 2c.
2S. 3D.(a)
3NT(b) 4S.(c)
5H.(d) 5S.(e)
5NT(f) 6S.(g)

(a) North could take a chance and leap to six spades at this point. But there may be two quick club tricks off the hand. Since he doesn't know how well the hands fit, he explores a bit further and tells about his diamond values on the way.

(b) A forced response, since South has neither four hearts nor four diamonds.

(c) South's last bid helped not at all, so North bids the game where he knows it belongs.

(d) Now it is revealed that the three-diamond bid was really a mild slam try, for if North were only interested in game, he would have bid four spades at his second turn. South is only too happy to cooperate in the slam hunt, as he has excellent diamond support and almost all his values are in aces and kings, where they should be most useful.

(e) North can do no more, for clubs are still wide open as far as he knows.

(f) South shows the guarded club king, and suggests a notrump slam played from his side.

(g) North knows a lead through partner's king cannot cost his side two quick club tricks, for his own queen provides sure second-round control. So he bids the slam in the agreed suit. If North lacked the club queen, and had, say, the heart queen instead, he might follow partner's lead and bid six notrump, which has the same chances of success as the actual six-spade contract—a 3-2 spade break, odds of 62% in his favor.

Theoretically North could pass five notrump, if he suddenly got cold feet. But it is a capital bridge crime to go past game, stop short of slam and end up in the wrong denomination to boot.

Experienced bridge players have an aversion to certain contracts, viz., three or five in a major suit or four notrump. There is no advantage in contracting for one trick more than necesssary; you feel downright sheepish when you go down a trick at such a contract, for you could have chalked up a plus just by stopping one level lower. Down one at three of a major is only a misdemeanor in the bridge code of justice, for all it throws away is a part-score. But down one at four notrump or five of a major is a felony. It tosses away a game for no apparent commpensating advantage. By these standards stopping at five notrump on the previous hand and going down one is a hanging offense, for the culprit took two shots to kick away the game.

Don’t Get Past Game!

That is why knowledgeable bridge players hesitate to get past the game level. Yet most are unduly timid. All through this chapter we champion the cause of exploring for slam below the game level. But there are times when it is impossible to look for slam intelligently without getting up to the five level.

If you know the hands fit well and include an extra margin of strength beyond what is needed for game, you should not be afraid to go a level higher in search of slam. Usually you will be safe enough at the higher level. If you are set once in thirty times, it is worth it, for you'll probably bid at least four successful slams as a result of your daring. If you are never guilty of the crime of being set at five of a major suit, then you are not trying hard enough for the enticing slam bonus. The purpose of any intelligent bidding system is to land you in reasonable contracts, not ironclad ones. Even reasonable contracts go down when the percentages turn fickle. But to get to a reasonable contract, you must occasionally stumble along the way and arrive at an impossible one. There isn't a bridge "great" who hasn't fallen, even as the veriest hack. Console thyself and bid those slams!

Start Below the Game Level

Most slam tries can be made below the game level. It is fortunate that this is so, for few players can be prodded beyond game unless the Bank of England has underwritten a slam.

The road to slam should be smoother after an opening one-notrump bid, for this is the most descriptive and precise bid of all. It permits scales of responses that accurately delineate the partnership holdings, with clear demarcation between weak, strong and forcing bids. But, alas, notrump is also the shortest road to game and it is a prodigous feat to budge a partner off this familiar highway. It has taken years to persuade the average bridge player to move out of notrump into superior game contracts at a suit. As for slams, whew! If he doesn't smell a notrump slam right off, wild horses won't budge him past three notrump.

Diagnosing Slams

And yet, oddly enough, the reason most often given for not making a slam try is the fear of getting partner "all excited" and driving him headlong into some wildly impossible contract. How preposterous! A slam try is nothing more than a tentative slam suggestion. It doesn't promise a slam. It doesn't even indicate a slam is likely; it just states that a slam is possible.

A "slam try" says, "Partner, we are already committed to game, but there is just a chance our hands might fit well enough for slam. Therefore, as a start, I want to tell you about this particular feature of my hand, which might prove valuable in a slam effort. Obviously, if I'm even whispering about slam possibilities, I think game is odds-on, so I have full values—perhaps a shade more—for my bidding so far. But we don't want to throw away an odds-on game for some slim hope of slam, do we? So don't get the idea that I am insisting on slam. If I have substantial values above what I have shown, you will hear from me again. In the meantime, if you have a feature that you think will help us in slam, tell me about it. Let's keep telling each other about these features—below the game level—until one of us has enough information to bid the slam, or, in the absence of that information, we settle for game by default. If you have stretched your hand already or have no slam feature to pass on, just return to our agreed suit or to notrump, if that looks better. Remember, I am not forcing you to slam, only making a mild suggestion."

A slam has to start somewhere; someone must make the first move. But that first move is not a command. There may be as many as five separate bits of information that have to be fitted together before a slam can be bid intelligently. Think of tries as a series of entries on a checklist. As soon as either partner sees that all the necessary items have been checked off, he bids the slam. If neither partner can complete the checklist, then only game is bid. It is a cooperatived effort, for each partner has elements to contribute to a slam.

Don’t be afraid to look

The first step in bidding a slam is the recognition that is is barely possible. Think back to the last time you were in four of a major, making two overtricks, and you and your partner solemnly agreed that it was "just lucky; sure the hands fitted perfectly, but there was no way we could find out." Wasn't there? Didn't either of you pause for a split second during the bidding, thinking, "If partner has thus-and-so, we...oh, but it is just too unlikely."

Ah, but there's the rub! It is not your role to decide what partner's hand is. If there is a chance for slam, describe what you can offer toward it, and let your partner tell about his hand. Giving partner room can add thousands of points to your score.

Here is an excellent slam that was reached because each partner allowed for the possiblitiy and gave the other leeway:
NORTH: S. 7 5 4 H. J 8 6 5 3 2 D. A 4 C. 9 3
SOUTH: S. A 6 H. A K 7 4 D. K Q 3 C. A K 8 4

2c. 2d.(a)
2NT(b) 3H.(c)
3S.(d) 4d.(e)
5C.(f) 5H.(g)
6d.(h) 6H.(i)

(a) Conventional negative response to an artificial two-club forcing bid

(b) Showing 23-24 points.

(c) Four hearts is the "book bid," but what's the hurry? North can always bid four hearts over a three-notrump rebid. South might just have a maximum hand, good heart fit, lots of key control cards, and he may relish the chance to show that by bidding a new suit along the way. Give him room.

(d) Sure enough, South has just that kind of hand, and his bid shows a high spade honor, maximum notrump and excellent heart support.

(e) Showing the d.A, the one feature North can contribute to a slam venture. Note that the bidding is still below the game level.

(f) That's all South needs to bid six. He can count one spade, five hearts, three diamonds, two clubs and a probably ruff. But there might be a biddable grand slam, so South continues by cue bidding the c.A.

(g) Nothing more to show

(h) South makes one last try by cue bidding second-round control of diamonds

(i) Still can't offer anything more than he has done, and now South must abide by his partner's decision and pass.
To be sure, this is a delicate and expert sequence of bids, but the slam is biddable. However, if North bids four hearts at his first turn, South is forced to pass and the post-mortem comment will be the usual "Lucky hand; fits perfectly, but there was no way we could bid it."

South cannot budge over a four heart rebid. To do so would be a bridge crime of the first order—and a breach of partnership faith. Besides, for all he knows, North might have the following hand for his four heart bid:
S. 5 2 H. Q J 9 8 6 3 D. 6 5 2 C. 7 2
and an exploratory bid past four hearts could put the pair overboard.

Sniffing Out a Slam

Slam bidding is more of an art than a science. It demands imagination more than pat technique. But it is one of the greatest thrills in bridge to gradually smoke out a slam, bid it and then bring it home with good play.

But you have to be on the lookout to find these prizes. The more unbalanced your hand, the more your fancy shuld turn to thoughts of slam. Unbalanced hands become veritable powerhouses when opener's controls are in the right places, and you'll never know unless you ask.