Conventions. How many are too many?

I can’t believe I’m planning to write a book about conventions. I’m possibly the most anti-convention player/teacher/writer in the world.

In this article, I’ve excerpted and paraphrased (is it plagiarizing when you take from your own work?) some of what I plan to say in my Introduction to the book.

Photography by: ©Michael B. Lloyd

The “Big 4” (Blackwood, Jacoby Transfers, Negative Doubles and Stayman) need to be understood inside and out. But there are many conventions that should be avoided.

To succeed at bridge, you need to be good at logic and concentration. Avoiding dumb mistakes is the key to success. Conventions introduce the chance to really screw up the bidding. My estimate is that players make mistakes with new/complicated conventions more often than they use them properly. They don’t know if the convention is on by a passed hand or when the opponents interfere. They haven’t discussed all the variations and follow-ups.

Most of my students and readers don’t like to study and memorize. Even in college with our sharper, younger brains, we didn’t enjoy memorizing material to then spit it out on an exam, only to forget most of it two weeks later.

Unless you’re trying to win major championships, bridge should be for fun. Sure, you want to do well, but memorizing dozens of conventions is not the formula. Less is more. If your head isn’t clogged with artificiality and code, it is easier to focus on basics. Keep it really simple (knowing the necessary conventions thoroughly) and avoid the inverted spiral asks that come up once a year. It is much more important to know biding basics and your partner’s style than to work on fancy stuff.

How often have you had a 40% game and attributed it to the fact that you didn’t have enough conventions? Was your 60% game because you played lots of conventions? Usually, 40% means lots of mistakes (and bad luck) and 60% means not many mistakes (and good luck). Did you ever finish second and lament the fact that if you had only been playing reverse-caterpillar relays on Board 7, you would have finished first?

My friend and colleague Barbara Seagram wrote a very successful book: “25 Conventions You Should (emphasis mine—not hers) Know.” I’d say that’s about 15-20 too many.

For my Convention book, I’m focusing on the “Big 4” named above. I’ll begrudgingly give the pros and cons of a few others and then a long list of conventions you can live without. In the introduction, I’ll essentially be saying: “This is a book on conventions, and by the way, most of them are a bad idea.” Possibly the most contrite book introduction ever written.

I know some of you just LOVE conventions. I hope you're not offended. Go ahead, have a ball, play as many as you want (and think of me when you have accidents). Happy to hear comments and see what your favorites are in the poll below.

About the Author

Larry is widely regarded as one of the world's best bridge teachers and is as close to a household name as you can probably get in the world of bridge. He has been named ACBL Player of the Year, ACBL Honorary Member of the Year,  2020 Hall of Famer, and has won a total of 25 National Bridge Tournaments. He’s also a regular contributor to bridge magazines and has written and produced many best-selling, award winning bridge books, cd’s/computer software, videos and webinars.  

Find out more about Larry on his website, larryco.com

Larry Cohen Poll

Larry Cohen Poll

Choose your 4 favorite conventions from "25 Bridge Conventions You Should Know"

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40 comments on “Conventions. How many are too many?”

  1. Surely "rules of the road" regarding point count (HCP & SP) are important. Gerber rolling is beneficial in not over calling is it not? Stayman or "Puppet" transfers, weak jump over calls seem common place these days. I think values of jump shift and various NT responses are one of the greatest assets in bidding. If you don't use them the slams go missing. Enjoy the greatest card game on earth!!

  2. Forget about reverse, weak two and more. That are not conventions. Doesn't B Seagram know that?
    I can do with maybe 10 conventions but of course 4 is not enouigh outside the kitchen.

  3. Many of the "conventions" in the list (e.g., Reverses and Weak-Two Opening Bids) are NOT conventions. They are treatments for natural bids. I fail to see why anyone cannot see that it is obvious that a reverse requires extra values. Clearly, one should NOT want to land at the three level in a poor fit with 12-14 in opener's hand opposite 5-7 in responder's hand. If you stop at the two-level; maybe, you'll make something. Maybe, your opponents will rescue you. At the three-level, some real risk of a double and a penalty pass rears its ugly head. So, how do you want to play your opening two bids? Weak, intermediate, strong, very strong. As long as they are natural, NONE of those is a convention. Of course, when a two-level opening promises some kind of two-suiter or is the latest and greatest weapon of mass destruction, THAT is a convention.

    Me? I use canapé methods. Thus, my reverse is a nonforcing limit bid showing the better of my two best suits. I like my two level suit opening bids NATURAL and WEAK (all four of them). I can get away with that because 1C and 1D together replace 2C (and also launch sequences for intermediate or strong hands worth a rebid or two that fall short of the very strong standard).

    I know that 2C natural and weak sounds silly. It is indeed easier to brush aside than 2S. However, it is quite a bit more troublesome than "pass" while also accepting less risk than 3C on the same hand.

    This tender balancing act comes from a player who once opened 3C in first seat red against white on xxxx -- xx 9xxxxxx (one of very few hands I've held that takes the Duke's money). The Law of Total Tricks suggested that the opponents were booked for game or slam. Lefty was a very competent local pro, and righty was a client of unknown ability. I figured that odds were fair to good that righty would mishandle lefty's takeout double. With a little luck, I thought they might play game in partscore or slam in game. Thus, I decided that applying a little pressure was a good idea. I forgot to consider my unpassed partner. He held a weak hand with long, broken, aceless hearts and C-QJ10. Pard, reasonably expecting me to hold C-AKxxxxx, went for -1100 in 4HX which he expected to make . . . until I faced the dummy . . . for a cold top. The opponents had 14 top tricks in diamonds, spades, and notrump; one of which was bid and made at every other table.

    So, is that a triumph for the LoTT or me being stupid and lucky?

  4. You should have many conventions. Provided you both understand them and both agree on each of them!!!
    One of the the best pairs ever
    Rodwell- Mac. had 1100 pages
    system. Few years ago reduced them to only 800!!!!

  5. Good players don't need lots of conventions, contrary to what some have said in this thread. Especially at matchpoints, where bashing often prevents opponents from finding the killer lead. A strong pair can win a matchpoint event playing SAYC,

  6. I agree that the Big 4 are sufficient, but only at the basic level, I have never met a master player who does not use lots of conventions. I think conventions get a bad name because players believe they have to use them just because they are in their system, there are hands to use your conventions and hands where you should not, good players know the difference.

  7. I hope your article here helps promote the game by pointing out the fact that beginners can have fun with just a few conventions. However, I think anyone playing at a duplicate game likely won’t stick with it unless they grow up to about 8-12 conventions bit by bit. That's part of the fun: learning.

    As a learner, I have found it helpful at times to understand conventions I don’t play just so I’ve get an inkling about what the opponents are doing; Alert briefings are a poor substitute.

    It would be interesting to me if we could ever know what the correlation is between conventions and bridge success: not only number of conventions but some measure of how much each one has contributed to actual success.

  8. If the argument against conventions is, in effect, you or your partner are too stupid to use them properly, that is NOT an issue with too many conventions, it is an issue with preparation. Some conventions, like Stayman come up daily and often are helpful or necessary. Others come up infrequently, but can be very useful. A good set of agreements includes conventions that are used to fill gaps in your basic methods.
    Each of these viewed in isolation is something one can live without, but collectively, they will improve your results. Your ability to play good sound bridge is in no way damaged by having more conventions. If you are. truly confused by your conventions, the solution is to put in more time leaning your system, not stripping it down.

  9. Wow. Splinters, Namyats and Short-Suit Trial Bids instead of Stayman, Blackwood and Negative Doubles?
    I suppose that's why they make Chocolate and Vanilla.

  10. Sorry Larry to bring in some controversy when you are such a great contributor to our favorite game, particularly in your books about the Law.
    Some more details on my opinion about the "big 4" conventions: 1. Stayman: say you play it as a game invitation not promising any major. You can replace it by answering naturally as you would in opening: your major if you have one by 5+ cards, otherwise your best minor. This gets rid by the same token of Jacoby. True using Stayman and Jacoby would be better, but are not indispensable, especially for average players and surely for beginners. 2. Blackwood: Say you play RKC, which is already so much better than the older versions. The ocurrence of slams that you would bid and fail missing 2 aces is too low for you to crown BW in the top 4. Yes when this happens, it hurts. Besides, RKC does not work well for minors, and can even hurt when the trump suit is Hearts. Use instead my Comfortable Blackwood (use the bid at level 4 right above the trump suit, by extention 4C for NT: Gerber), and please avoid teaching the other ones: why impose a convention that is not very efficient apart from Spades contracts: stay natural then instead until the student is ready to add such a convention. 3. Transfers are great, but not a priority until later in the maturity process for the player. 4. Negative doubles have for sure value, but are too complex to handle until players reach a certain level. It looks obvious that the take-out double is much more urgent to give them as weapon. In my opinion, the "big 4" that are mandatory for a comprehensive and coherent initial bidding system are: TOD, Strong opening (say 2C), Splinters, and short suit trial bids tied with Namyats (a mandatory complement to first seats preempts when you play them solid in terms of playing tricks). I would be happy to discuss this with you off-line, as well as my recommended process for harvesting a brand new and significant flock of new players.

  11. Seriously? You are basing this on ... ???
    What natural bids can replace Stayman?
    What on the list would replace Negative Doubles which come up many times per session?
    And without Blackwood, you would avoid slam missing two aces...how?

  12. Difficult to agree that those 4 are the most useful. In particular, 1. Stayman can easily be replaced by natural bids... 2. We can live without Blackwood, even RKC
    Besides, it is ill-designed 3.
    We will not lose a lot if we do not use transfers, though they are undoubtedly useful. 4 negative doubles should not be on the top 4, as others are more useful. We can just agree on the main point: almost all players do play much too many conventions, a message I have kept carrying to my students to emphasize logic and get rid of memorizing any.

  13. Well, those 4 are surely not the most useful 4. In particular, 1. Stayman can easily be replaced by natural bids... 2. We can live without Blackwood, even RKC
    Besides, it is ill-designed 3.
    We will not lose a lot if we do not use transfers, though they are undoubtedly useful. 4 negative doubles should not be on the top 4, as others are more useful. We can just agree on the main point: almost all players do play much too many conventions, a message I have kept carrying to my students to emphasize logic and get rid of memorizing any.

  14. Please could you explain why 4th suit forcing and the Strong 2C opener appear twice in the list? And why have you changed the title of Grand Slam Force/Josephine to, admittedly more appropriate "Pick a Slam"?

  15. Yikes! How many times have my pard and I misbid or misinterpreted a conventional bid. Don't ask!!
    Please send news about when your book is published to your loyal email list subscribers!

  16. What Larry says is 100% correct for the vast majority of players who just want to play for fun. However bridge is a game of many levels and it depends on which level you aspire to. In the house game or at the local club the big 4 conventions are indeed enough. Get to say national level however, where strong players open light and enter the bidding with any excuse, you will quickly be crushed unless you have at your disposal the means to counter the bullying bidding tactics strong players routinely use. In other words, the higher the level, the more conventions you need, but only then use conventions that are of use regularly and when you have comprehensively and thoroughly discussed with partner.

  17. I am curious that no one has done a study of the number of times that popular conventions COULD be used. There must be available data of bridge hands which could be analyzed. A clever programmer/bridge player could define the parameters for when a given convention could be used; to play a convention one must know its rules. Then it would just be a matter of running that code against the database. If so, knowing the utility of given conventions would be a great aid to newer & intermediate players.

  18. Hi Margie,
    That reminds me of Fishbein saying he doesn't play Fishbein.
    Ogust, like so many conventions, is "okay" if studied, agreed upon (there are variations) and remembered and used properly.

  19. I once read that Ogust said the worst thing he did was to bring the Ogust convention into Bridge. I do not like it and my partner wants to play it. Please let me know what you think of

  20. Replying to "anonymous."
    Of course I use more than 4 conventions. I believe the list that BBO used for the poll is from Barbara's book -- and I agree that many of those shouldn't be considered "conventions."

  21. Larry, please don't tell me that you use only 4 conventions. Some of the items listed are not even considered conventions, the reason Reverses are forcing was established in 1935 by the 4 Aces, t/o doubles are even older, the 4th suit was forcing in early systems, balancing is a method not a convention. Responses to 1 NoTrump are ambiguous w/o Stayman and Transfers (Do you not play them?). Who plays strong 2s? The first five on each column are a must understand (with the exception of splinters). Many of the other bids & calls do not require an alert on the ACBL card & handle difficult problems. They should not be fed to beginners, but later on the player should decide.

  22. Interesting to see 4th suit forcing bottom ranked by votes. It was in my top 5, and I think Larry has previously written its not really a convention, it should be a mainstream part of the game. A lot of open players at my club have abandoned weak 2's, yet I find them quite effective in scoring cheap contracts against even experienced pairs. Multi twos is a common cause of bidding mayhem at the club level.

  23. The road to hell is paved with good conventions!

    But what's a "convention"? Do we really count strong 2C and weak 2D, H, S as "conventions"? Sure, they are artificial, but practically universal among people who play anything like Standard American or 2/1 or anything like that.

    I think there are far too many doubles.

    I think that, for players like me and others, you can look at conventions on the following criteria:

    How often does it occur? A convention that happens once in every 1000 deals is a mess. You will forget. Or your partner will. Or you will forget if you play it with this partner. Or your partner will assume you forgot (but only when you remembered!)
    How obvious is it?
    What do you lose by adding it to your repertoire? Having 1S 4C be a splinter doesn't give up much.

  24. Frank Stewart and Jeff Rubens both agree with Larry's main point. Too many aspiring and intermediate players spend too much time learning "fancy" conventions for which the exact conditions for proper use of the convention are rare. (I have no idea what the "Ingberman" convention is, but out of every 100 random bridge deals, I'm willing to bet a Franklin that Ingberman would be right in maybe one or two deals - if even that many.)

    If you live, breathe, sleep, and eat bridge 24 hours a day seven days a week and/or play bridge at the highest levels like Jeff Meckstroth and Eric Rodwell; learning all 25 conventions may be worth your time. Most players can get by (and even do quite well) with the four "basic" conventions Lary names - plus maybe 2-3 more. (Weak Two Bids and a few others should probably be included in Larry's list.)

  25. Yes simple is essential - fundamentally we need to concentrate on positioning the points and cards of opponents and analyse each card played and lead by opponents - each extra trick usually will give you a top!

  26. 25 conventions are too many but 4 are Not enough!
    Perhaps 12?
    NMF - weak two - landy - Michaels - Gerber - blackwood - Reverses -
    negativ double - stayman - Transfer - cubids - trial bids

  27. Weak players can do OK with the basic conventions. Strong players can do great with the basic conventions. How often is your partner stronger than you? Playing good defense more important than a long list of conventions.

  28. The doubles for takeout, negative, responsive and support. I use Michaels so rarely that I forget what it means☹️ much to my partners' dismay.

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