When your partner opens 1NT, you know almost exactly what kind of hand he holds. It is one of only 3 possible shapes: 4333, 4432 or 5332 – the balanced hands. And it sits in a very narrow point range: 12-14 if you are playing Acol; or 15-17 if you are playing Standard American. 

This is really useful because, if you think about it, the 1NT opening bid takes up an awful lot of space, as it takes out the whole 1-level! If you want to diagnose whether or not you should be in game, which is 3NT, you only have two levels available now – and only two NT bids: 2NT and 3NT. Naturally, 3NT needs to be reserved for hands that are sure about game, whereas 2NT needs to be for the “maybe” hands. This is where knowing your partner’s point count to within 1 or 2 HCP is helpful; the hope is that you will not get too high very often but also that you will bid game whenever you have the strength for it.

If you are happy with your partner’s offer of playing in NT, there are three “labels” you can choose from to assign to your hand:

  • Weak: the “not game” hands
  • Invitational: the “maybe game” hands
  • Game-going: the “definitely game” hands

Similarly, there are three actions you can take:

  • Pass if weak
  • 2NT if invitational
  • 3NT if game-going

So all we have to do is decide which category we fall into!

Assigning a label

You are Responder and your partner opens 1NT. How do you decide whether you are weak, invitational or game-going?

Remember that 25 is the key number to keep in mind when deciding whether you should bid a game. Start by adding your HCP to: (1) Partner’s minimum HCP; and (2) Partner’s maximum HCP. Do you reach at least 25 when you add either of these? 

Your decision will be as follows:

  • If neither reaches 25weak
  • If only the maximum reaches 25invitational
  • If both reach 25game-going

You do not need to do anything complicated: you just need to decide how much combined strength you have between you!

Opener’s decision after Responder invites

As the opening bidder, you need to remember that your partner knows more about your hand than you know about his. If he passes your 1NT bid, you cannot bid again anyway: trust him. If he bids 3NT, he has already decided that that is the right contract: trust him. If he bids 2NT, he is asking for your opinion. So how do we give that?

Both 1NT opening ranges are 3 HCP wide: there is therefore a minimum, middle and maximum point count in the range.

If your 1NT showed 12-14 HCP:

  • 12 is a minimum
  • 13 is in the middle
  • 14 is a maximum

If your 1NT showed 15-17 HCP:

  • 15 is a minimum
  • 16 is in the middle
  • 17 is a maximum

Slightly awkwardly, the auction 1NT – 2NT only gives you two options:

  • Pass if minimum
  • 3NT if maximum

So what if you are in the middle? Here, you need to decide how good your hand is. This is hard and takes some experience but here are some guidelines:

  • A 5-card suit makes your hand better
  • Honours in a sequence make your hand better
  • The presence of tens and nines makes your hand better
  • Aces and kings are better than queens and jacks
  • Points in your doubletons make your hand worse
  • 4333 is the worst shape

As you get better at bridge, these decisions will get easier, so don’t worry if you struggle with this aspect at first.

Happy labelling!