Stolen Bids

Quite a few club players play “stolen bids” after partner opens 1NT and RHO intervenes with an overcall at the two level. A double here advises the 1NT opener that the opponent’s overcall “stole” the bid that the responder wanted to make.

    The purpose of the stolen bid double is to allow Stayman and Jacoby transfer sequences to proceed as if no overcall had been made. Normally, in both 2/1 and SAYC, Jacoby transfers are OFF when opponent’s interfere. Thus, in the sequence

    partner        opp             you
    1NT       2C.          dbl

playing “stolen bids”, your double is Stayman. In this following sequence, 

    partner        opp             you
    1NT        2H.          dbl

your double requests a transfer to spades.

    There are two serious difficulties with “stolen bids” after 1NT openings. (1) Firstly, they deprive you of the penalty double which is a powerful deterrent to opponents contemplating an overcall after a strong 1NT opening. Playing stolen bids is an open invitation to your opponents to have a field day with obtrusive interference at the two level and deprives you of the ability to penalise them for their impunity. (2) Secondly, it is not always possible to make a stolen bid, especially when the overcall is artificial, as in the Landy and Cappelletti defenses to no trump openers. In Cappelletti, 2D. shows the majors, so you can hardly want your partner to transfer into hearts with a stack of hearts behind her. The same is true of a Landy 2C. bid showing the majors. Now Stayman doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    One reason that experts eschew stolen bids is because they usually employ Lebensohl to cope with interference after 1NT. Lebensohl retains the penalty double, but it’s a complex convention (entire books have been written about it) and the average club player is unlikely to want to invest the time to learn it fully.

    If you aren’t going to use Lebensohl and still would like to have the double to penalise rash opponents, what can you can do if you give up “stolen bids”?

    All is not lost. You need only remember the days before Jacoby transfers when you could bid your own five card major naturally. Although contracts often play better if the strong hand (the 1NT opener) is declarer, it certainly is not always true, and although no statistics are available, I would wager that the averages are something like about a 55-60% advantage, no more, declaring the hand from the strong side.

    Therefore after 1NT --2H. (overcall), bid 2S/3S yourself if you have a 5-card spade suit. After 1NT--2C. (natural) bid 3C. for Stayman. That use of the cue bid after interference was part of the original Stayman convention when it was first formulated and still retains its original usefulness. If you don't like going to the three level to look for a major, then this is the one place where a stolen bid will not cost you much: use the double of a natural 2 for Stayman. Even the experts do.    

    Not playing stolen bids allows you a simple way to counter opponents' artificial (Cappelletti, Landy, etc)  2C. overcalls. Now your double of their 2C. bid shows clubs and 7+ hcp, a piece of information your parnter with her strong 1NT hand may find very valuable, either for making a subsequent penalty double or competing.      

©Jock Millenson April 2006