Bridge teaching (No 2): How to teach… bidding

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The standard modern teaching technique suggests to start teaching bidding with the 1NT opening and responses. In a recent “Teaching on cruises” course (run by Sue Maxwell in Aylesbury, for the EBU Teaching Association) the idea came up that it may be best to start teaching bidding with 1 of a suit openings instead. Let us explore advantages and disadvantages of each approach. 

Advantages of teaching 1NT first:

It introduces the important concept of limit bid, students work with a small point range and can figure out quickly partnership’s strength.

Disadvantages of teaching 1NT first:

The responses on unbalanced hands are not intuitive:

a) the game-forcing jump to the 3 level (1NT-3any is GF in standard Acol, the most popular system in UK) introduces the concept of game-forcing sequence too soon. The sequence 1NT-3m is even harder than 1NT-3M, because it shows a slammish hand.

b) The weak-takeout is an extremely hard concept for beginners to understand. Students normally react by asking: “how can a higher-level contract be better than a lower level one?”. This can be answered and understood only when students grasp the crucial difference between suit contracts and NT contracts. Such grasp can only come after students have been playing for a while.

Advantages of teaching 1 of a suit first:

This is an intuitive opening, you have that suit, you bid it, it makes it clear to the students how bidding describes hands.

Disadvantages of teaching 1 of a suit first:

1 of a suit openings are wide-ranging, thus students have a harder job calculating where the contract is going, responses (especially changes of suit and 2/1) are complex although basically natural.

Opener’s rebids are difficult and cannot be taught at the very beginning.

There are ways around the disadvantages of both methods. For instance, in the case of 1NT one could decide simply to skip responses on unbalanced hands to start with. Thus dedicate one (or two) classes to the sequences: 1NT-P, 1NT-2NT, 1NT-3NT, 1NT-6NT, then change topic and go back to more complex responses later on.

In the case of 1 of a suit, one could skip change of suit responses to start with. Thus dedicate one (or two) classes to the sequences: 1M-2M, 1M-3M, 1M-4M. The hands should be such that opener passes the response, thus not generating rebidding problems. More complex sequences can be taught at a later stage.

Thus it seems both approaches are roughly on a par. Let us see if there are any reasons to go one way or the other. One reason to tip the balance in favor of opening one of a suit first is that beginners normally find it harder to play NT contracts, and prefer suit contracts. However the second crucial reason is the following. It is important to remember that the first bidding class comes after several weeks of minibridge. In minibridge partners describe their hands by telling each other how many points they have, and, if they have at least 20, the weaker hand becomes dummy. Thus both points and shape are revealed directly. The main obstacle when switching from minibridge to bridge is to understand how it is possible to disclose hand’s features without simply telling or showing the hand itself. This is the crucial step and the purpose of teaching is to help students overcome it. Given these remarks, what seems to sway the balance in favor of teaching 1 of a suit first is that it is intuitive. Beginners do not think in terms of distribution yet (balanced/unablanced/single or two-suited), they simply think in terms of cards in each suit (“I have a lot of cards in this suit and not a lot in that suit”). Thus letting them bid the suit they have and hear back the same suit again from partner allows them to understand the mechanism that associates each bid to a way of describing a hand. It seems that opening 1 of a suit is the most concrete opening, because it shows a precise suit. On the contrary it is far less clear to a beginner’s mind what exactly 1NT shows.

***

May 10, 2012

Laura Cecilia Porro

Laura Cecilia Porro was born in Milan in 1986, then moved to Dundee (Scotland) in 2008 in order to attend a PhD course in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. In 2007 she started playing bridge at the Bridge Institute in Milan, with teachers Giagio Rinaldi and Franco Di Stefano. In 2009 she became a qualified EBU teacher, and in 2011 she became a professional teacher. Since 2009 she has been teaching various courses in Eastern Scotland, including a course for the University of St Andrews with nearly 40 students. Starting October 2012, she will start teaching at London’s Acol Bridge Club, run by Andrew McIntosh.

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