Fantunes Revealed by Bill Jacobs – Review by Paolo E. Garrisi

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Fantunes ReveleatedBill Jacobs is an Australian champion and theorist who, fascinated by the system of Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes, analyzed it and now play it with his partner Ben Thompson. As acknowledged by the same Fulvio Fantoni, the Australian pair has kept up the whole style and almost all the original system; there are only slight differences that have been duly highlighted, as for example the response 2 to 1 and 1♠: in Fantoni-Nunes is game forcing, in Jacobs-Thompson just promises rebid. Therefore it can be assumed that the Italian and the Australian pairs play the same system.


The forcing opening at level one is the main peculiarity of the System. All the one-level suit opening haven’t upper limit and are forcing one round; all show the named suit fifth but 1♣, which is unbalanced by club or balanced by any; its minimum strength is 15 if balanced, 14 if not.

On the contrary, 1NT is weak; it gathers all the balanced 12-14 point hands, the 5422 too. There are two exceptions: 1NT also includes the unbalanced 4441 in the range 12-13, but does not the 5422 by both majors. Not even the 6322 enters 1NT; strictly speaking it isn’t unbalanced, as “unbalanced” means with void or singleton, but in the System is treated as if it were. About this shape Ely Culbertson wrote in 1935’s Bridge World Encyclopedia: “…the 6322 is merely an improved edition of 5422; only the 7222 has to be treated as unbalanced”.

There is a difference between Jacobs and Fantoni-Nunes: in the Italians’ weak notrump is included the minor 6322; another system with 6322 in weak notrump is that of the Canadians Eric Kokish and Beverly Kraft.

About the responses to 1NT, Jacobs annotates: “Your tools must be sufficiently advanced to locate a 5-card suit…”, and briefly suggests something, but it still remains woolly matter; the problem is that the standard 1NT only contains 4432, 4333 and rare minor 5332s, whereas here has to be located almost all the semi-balanced field, nothing saying of the minor 6322. On this point, the semi-balanced hands in weak notrump opening, have written the Australian Tim Bourke and the English John Sudgen; in their “Bridge Books in English, an annotated bibliography” (2010 Bridge Book Buffs), they have quoted a work of Andy Stark, “The Weak Notrump” – 2006 Master Point Press – criticizing it because “…He includes 5332s with a long major, 6322 hands with a minor, and 5422s in the chosen range when long experience suggests that this is a losing tactic, particularly with the last two shape.”

The two-level suit openings are in the range 10-13, with all the unbalanced hands and the 10-11 point 5332, 5422, 6322 shapes. There are no ways to show the six card one suiter in the range 0-9 points; the book doesn’t quote them, and the Fantoni-Nunes’ Convention Card demands the seventh for the pre-emptive three-level openings.

The 2NT opening is natural balanced or semi-balanced by 21-22.

1 and 1♠ are natural 5Card Major unbalanced openings; their lower limit is 14 points; with less, the opening must be by weak 2’s (or 1NT if balanced). A 5-4 major hand, however, is always opened by his five card suit starting from eleven points only, and also if balanced. Examples of major suit openings:

*1) ♠xx  AKQJxxx  A  ♣AKQ  Open 1♥. All the one-level suit opening are forcing; all others are passable, 2♣ too. The asterisk signals that this hand, as the others so signed, are drawn from Jacobs’ book or from other references always specified.

*2) ♠1093  KQ754  KQ  ♣A93  Open 1NT. All the 12-14 balanced hands (11-14 love) must be opened 1NT, careless with stoppers.

*3) ♠KQxx  KQxxx  Jx  ♣xx  Open 1. The 5-4 majors escape 1NT, and these eleven points are the minimum  needed to escape the weak 2’s as well.

4) ♠AQJ6532  109  A106  ♣4  Open 2♠; too weak for 1♠.

5) ♠AQJ653  109  A10  ♣642  Open 2♠. There aren’t singleton or voids, but the six card suit demands not to be opened 1NT.

The fourth and fifth hands are my deductions, note they lack of the asterisk; but there are many examples in the book, and an auctions’ index too.

It must be underlined the consistency of the sound one-level opening with the constructive 10-13 two-level one: so the weak 2’s allows the 1’s to be sound because contains those distributional hands with many playing tricks but by few honours. This is also in the Neapolitan Club’s style, which also has sound openings, but its weak 2’s has a lower minimum: 7-12; same principle but more pre-emptive.

The 1 opening is unbalanced with 14+ points and no upper limit, forcing as others; the suit is fifth or longer, but might be fourth in the shapes 1-4-4-4 or 4-4-4-1. The balanced diamond hands are opened 1NT in the range 12-14, 1♣ if 15+. Examples:
*6) ♠K  KQ104  AKQJ8  ♣J65  Open 1.
*7) ♠AQxx  KQxx Axxx  ♣x  Open 1; it is one of two cases of suit opening with only four cards.
*8) ♠QJ10  65  AKQJ2  ♣A108  Do not open 1; there aren’t voids nor singleton, then must be opened 1♣.

The 1♣ opening, as already said, contains all the balanced hands from 15 points and all the unbalanced ones with club from 14; in the former case the suit could be by two cards. Examples:

*9) ♠AKQxx  AQx  KQx  ♣Ax  Open 1♣, not 1♠: it’s balanced.

10) ♠AKQxxx AQ KQx  ♣Ax  Open 1♠, not 1♣; are both forcing, but the 6322 is equalized to unbalanced.

*11) ♠AJ10x  xx  ♣AKJ10xx  Open 1♣. Only 13 points but very good; it’s worth more.

*12) ♠x  xx  KQ10xx  ♣A109xx  Open 2. It’s worth more than 9.

The one-level responses to 1, 1, and 1♠ are natural with the named suit, 1NT too, in the range 0-9. They aren’t forcing. This should be the first important system with non forcing One over One response since the heyday of the Sydney Lenz‘s Official and London Portland Club‘s Natural, in late twenties of the past century.

The one-level responses to 1♣ are all transfers, thus forcing one round; 1NT is game forcing with 10+ points (remember that the Opener has 14+). When the opening is 1♣, the upper limit for the one over one response becomes 11 instead of 9, but there are some “arbitrary” choices (the word is by Jacobs): there are suit responses  by 13 points, and 1NT responses with a four card major.

All the two-level suit responses to all the one-level suit openings, with or without jump, are game forcing by 10+ points. All but 2♣ show the named suit but deny the 5332 shape, which response would be 2NT (but 2 over 1♠ can be a 5332). 2♣ is by clubs, or balanced, or supporting; 2♣ over 1♣ is unbalanced with clubs.

The two level responses over a major opening, that is 2♠ over 1 and 2 over 1♠, are game forcing with the same strength as the others, 10+; but the 5-4 major openings start from only 11, not 14, then the pair might become committed to game with a minimum of only 22 points.

Natural bidding, Conventions, Treatments. A convention is a bid that doesn’t show the named suit. A system is called “natural” when at least its basic auctions – openings, first responses, main sequences – indicate the named suits or the willing to play notrump. Jacobs asserts that the Fantoni-Nunes’s system is natural because it lacks of the artificial strong 2♣ and because the one-level suit openings but 1♣ are highly indicative: always a five card suit, diamond even, in unbalanced hand. In part it’s true, but it must be noted that 1NT is as vague about its suits as 1♣, and that the responses to 1♣ are transfers. Furthermore, the Opener’s rebids and the further sequences might have some natural character, but most are treatments, i.e. bids that convey other information besides the named suit. It means that, between conventions and treatments, a pair has to be very careful to not lose the meaning of what has been unsaid. For example:
South    North
1            2♣
2♦            2♥
After 1 and 2 South is known he holds 14+ and diamond, or 14-17 with diamond and club; North’s 2♣ has shown club, or balanced, or supporting. All until 2 is clear enough; just it has to be noted that 2♣ is a convention, and both 1 and 2 are treatments. It now springs up the North’s 2, an apparently meaningless relais which bears important information instead: it denies spade-club, or good diamond support, or a long club suit. And after 2, South’s responses become absolutely conventional, by steps: 2♠ (diamond, 18+), 2NT (6-3 diamond-club), etc. All this might be usual inside the world class bridge environment, but it’s not natural nor easy to untangle; Jacobs suggests that the system could be played by anyone just simplifying some parts, as he and his partner have actually done, but there are other complexities into its foundations.

The Weak 1NT opening (12-14), isn’t new. It was already in the embryo of Contract Bridge since 1919-1920, still in the reign of the Auction Bridge, and entered later in many systems of the Contract, for example the One Over One of the Four Horsemen (1931: David “Burstine” Bruce, P. Hal Sims, Willard S. Karn, Oswald Jacoby). However the other main systems – Culbertson, Lenz, Portland – adopted it love only, granting 16-18 to the vulnerable situation. “Weak notrump”, today, means 12-14 1NT careless with vulnerability.

To understand how much this opening could be dangerous it just suffices to consider the use of the double: against the strong notrump it has today become part of suit showing conventions as DONT, Cappelletti, Astro, etc; against weak notrump, instead, it still has the natural meaning of “same strength”. This because against weak notrump “…it pays to be more aggressive in trying for game…” (Amalya Kearse’s Bridge Conventions Complete; 1990 Devyn Press), then it’s recommended to double with balanced hands. In this way, in facts the same Fantoni-Nunes treat the other weak notrumpers, and such takeout doubles, by West overcalling or by East balancing, have many chances to become for business.

Most weak notrumpers have rescue devices against the double, as SOS redouble or bluff raises, but not Fantoni-Nunes: when the opponents place the red spot on their hand, they go to pay with British phlegm. This is to be appreciated: the life savers are unwieldy and occupy bidding room. Kokish-Kraft have written about: “There is a price to pay for opening with a bid as pre-emptive as 1NT with a hand as non-offensive (not inoffensive) as a 4333 12-count. Your side may be in trouble. There may be no way to escape a penalty, no matter how clever you (think you) are”.

Bill Jacobs doesn’t hide the problem. He quotes an interview to Norberto Bocchi by Laura Camponeschi, published in September 2010 by Neapolitan Club online magazine. Bocchi played the weak notrump in third position with Giorgio Duboin; Ms Camponeschi asked him why he had changed it in his new system with Agustin Madala; Bocchi replied that he had been rid of it because was very dangerous and aggressive, and that great pairs needn’t to be very aggressive to win. (Read Bocchi’s interview >>)

Jacobs has forwarded the response to Fantoni, who has replied: “Certainly it is risky. But our system requires this opening. In fact, we cannot put a weak 12-14 balanced hand in any part of our system, so we are obliged to open 1NT even when vulnerable, which certainly involves elevated risks…”. But the outcomes, concludes Fantoni, are positive, and the figures, says Jacobs, confirm it: in 754 hands from BBO vugraph, only three times the Fantoni-Nunes weak notrump has suffered penalties.

The reasons of Fantoni are next – next, not the like – to those of the English player and theorist Leo Baron, who in 1948 wrote: “It is an essential link in the complete scale of No Trump values…” (The Baron System of Contract Bridge, 1948 Contract Bridge Equipment Ltd). Baron, with his partner Adam Meredith, used the weak notrump to fulfil the scale of the balanced hands from 12 to 21, avoiding the three point range:
1NT: 12,5-13,5 (in his system the ten was worth half point)
1x-1y; 1NT: 14-16
1x-1y; 2NT: 17-18
1x-1y; 2z-any; 2NT: 18,5-19 (z was forcing even if lower than x)
1x-1y; 2z-any; 3NT: 19,5-21
The reader should note that, thanks to such narrow ranges, the game tries as 1NT-2NT become almost useless: the Responder already knows if pass or call for game. This was, then, the main purpose of Baron’s weak notrump, whereas the Fantoni-Nunes’ one ranges within 3-4 points. It has to be reported another feature of Baron-Meredith’s system, although in a quite different matter: the forcing Opener’s new minor; it was a theoretical novelty that today has become widespread, even if not always properly applied.

In 1958, ten years after Baron-Meredith, other great champions issued a system with weak notrump: the Americans Edgar Kaplan and Alan Sheinwold. Here also there was a theoretical novelty, even if partial: the first 2o1 Game Forcing response. About Kaplan-Sheinwold, Bourke and Sudgen have written: “Perhaps the system never got as wide support as it deserved because of advocating a weak notrump”. The Kaplan’s reasons for weak notrump were substantially to avoid the four card major openings with minimal strength, 12-13, and the complications of the Preparedness Principle, i.e. to open “prepared” to a good rebid over any response. Since the matter of the Preparedness was so sorted out − Kaplan wrote − there weren’t reasons to not open by five card major. Kaplan also underlined the pre-emptive effect of weak notrump and the advantage of minor opening always by a good suit or 15+ points, like Fantoni-Nunes, Jacobs-Thompson, and Kokish-Kraft.

Between Baron-Meredith and Kaplan-Sheinwold, came in another champion and theorist: the American Alvin Roth. His system, in 1953, resumed the five card major opening from the oblivion where it had been consigned after its defeat in the 1930’s “Battle of the Century” between Culbertson and Lenz. Roth didn’t feel the need of weak notrump, in facts his 1NT was a sturdy 16-18, but needed the 5CM in order to “…remove one headache of contract bridge…”; which one out of so many? Precisely the Preparedness Principle. Roth also introduced cardinal novelties: the forcing 1NT response to major openings, and the 2/1 response which promises rebid within 2NT, whereas in the preceding standards sequences as 1♠-2♣; 2/♥, or 1♠-2♣//; 2♠ were passable.

In 1969 the Chinese Charles C. Wei presented his Precision System, with the weak notrump, at the Bermuda Bowl sieve: he lost against Italians, but won against North America, France and Brazil, getting the second place. The Wei’s weak notrump was by 13-15, but David Berkowitz and Brent Manley now recommend 14-16 (Precision Today, 2010 new edition, DBM publications).

The Austrians Norman De Villiers Hart and Paul Stern in 1935 deeply revised the Vienna System. The new edition was played by both the male and female Austrian national teams; both defeated all in Europe; both won the 1937 World Championships in Budapest, the men beating in final the Americans of Culbertson. Their names were:
Men – Udo von Meissl, Eduard Frischauer, Walter Herbert, Carl von Blűdhorn, Hans Jellinek, Karl Schneider.
Women – Gertrude Brunner, Ethel Ernst, Rika (Rixi) Markus, Marianne Boschan, Liesl Klauber, Hella Mandl, Gertrude Schlesinger.

The gale in Europe scattered them in 1938, so they couldn’t keep longer their flag flying. The Vienna System organized its one-level openings in a way that the same Paul Stern admitted to be “…sui generis…”: 1♣ for all the 11-16 balanced 4432 and 4333 hands; 1,,♠ natural fifth, same strength, semi-balanced and unbalanced; 1NT any shape from 17, forcing. (Stern used the Robertson point count: 7531; I have translated it in the more familiar 4321).

The whole structure might look outlandish in 1935, but we today well recognize it; it’s nothing else but a modern 5CM style ante litteram, that is fifteen years before Alvin Roth, and for the same reason afterwards advocated by Kaplan: to avoid the pass with the 4432 borderline hands and to ensure a good rebid to the 15-16 ones. Stern used the limited 1♣ opening to get the same results of weak notrump.

Eric Kokish and Beverly Kraft define their system as: “Modified Kaplan-Sheinwold; weak (11+ to 14 HCP) notrump…” which include some minor 6322 and some unbalanced hands with singleton honour. Also there are these two statements:
“(1) ‘Five-card Majors’ works best with the weak notrump and a strong two-over-one-of-a -major style. In this method, opener will have a three-card minor only when he has a good hand (at least a 15+ HCP notrump type)”.
“(2) If you choose to play the weak notrump, it is better not to open a four-card major on a good hand, since you will not know what to do when your partner raises your major or responds 1NT. The big advantage in the weak notrump occurs when you DON’T open one of them. Suit openings and rebids have better definition. You are better placed in competitive auctions. The weak notrump is worst for accurate part-score bidding, but that is true of THEIRS as well as yours. The penalty factor also works both ways.” The case letters are in the original.
Needless to say, again a problem of Preparedness.

The Preparedness Principle. We have seen so far how the 5CM and the weak notrump (or Paul Stern’s 1♣) were thought in order to ensure sound suit openings and to avoid the complicate Preparedness Principle. This principle consists in a way to open very rare today, but was the core of Culbertson’s Approach and widespread until the sixties; it takes care of the stoppers and differentiates the minimum opening, 12 to bad 13, from the one by good 13 to 15. Suppose to have this hand:
*13) ♠KQxx  Jx  AQxx  ♣xxx (from Kaplan-Sheinwold’s book)
If the opening were 1♦, after the natural response 2♣ the Opener wouldn’t know how rebid: 2♠ would reverse, 2NT would show good 13-14 points and, furthermore, it would grant the heart stopper. Well, then let’s open 1♠ (playing 4Card openings), but how to go on after the 2 response? Not 2NT for the same reasons: it lacks of strength and a stopper, now in club. So the care of the Preparedness would force to not open at all. But the same hand, inverting diamond and clubs:
14) ♠KQxx  Jx  xxx ♣AQxx
has now an ease 1♣ opening, prepared to every response.

And analogue dilemmas arise when a good hand is opened by a 4-Card major, as written by Kokish and Kraft.

Now, let’s abrogate the Preparedness Principle and promulgate weak notrump; all appears easier: 1NT can receive the balanced borderline 12-13 point hands, saving them from being passed or being forced into awkward NT contracts, while the 15-16 ones can now be explained by suit opening and NT rebidding, as done by Fantoni-Nunes and the others already quoted. And, of course, there aren’t reasons to not open by 5CM, as written by Kaplan-Sheinwold.

Admittedly, all appears easier; nevertheless, I still hold the view that it is intrinsic to the bridge bidding a complexity which rarely allows shortcuts. But this is another story.
Two world class players who nowadays use the Preparedness Principle are the Manchester’s twins Jason and Justin Hackett: they play a 4Card opening system where 1 or 1♠ followed by a minor can be either 5-4 or 4-5.

Forcing Opening. An ancient debate. In late twenties of the past century there were three ways to bid a strong hand. One, defined natural, was the strong three-level opening by Sydney Lenz and the Portland Club; one and two-level showed respectively minimum 12-15 and intermediate 16-22.

Ely Culbertson adopted instead the “numeric selection”, that is an entire opening level, the two-level, was selected to be forcing; this was a part of the Forcing Principle we still obey: never pass a jump. The forcing two-level was deemed a convention, and criticized for it, because it opened at lower level the strongest hand, however the inversion strong-two with weak-three was used since 1910, still in the times of Auction Bridge, when it was less necessary because the game and slams were awarded also if not called. Thus the sheer naturalists were the rearguard of an already lost battle.

The third way was the “suit selection”: it wasn’t selected an entire level but one opening only; it was the Club Convention, which we today call Strong Club, published in 1929 by Harold S. Vanderbilt and criticized even more strongly than the forcing-two; in facts it’s a true convention, whereas the Culbertson’s one was at least a treatment. But Vanderbilt sharply replied that without convention any slam would have become a stake.

Thus the one-level forcing opening by Fantoni-Nunes is a numeric selection of a unusual gender; not new, but unusual. Jacobs says that it necessitates to be forcing because it hasn’t upper limit, but the Roth-Stone system had sound one-level openings starting from 14-15 and without upper limit, exactly like Fantoni-Nunes; nevertheless they weren’t forcing, nor were forcing his two-bids, not even 2♣.

A peril of all the numeric selection is to get too high score contracts; the System has tools to minimize this drawback, like the Gazzilli, but the score contracts are hindered by the weak notrump as well, so it might be a problem all but negligible.

The Eastern Front. It is unquestionable that the System’s openings 1, 1 and 1♠ are less suitable to be overcalled by West thanks to their soundness, and less damaged by his interferences thanks to their quality to be indicative. This stated, let’s turn toward East and his chances after South’s forcing opening, West’s pass, and North’s One over One response.

Consider first the situation when East plays against standards: South opens from twelve points; North responses with a minimum of five, thus the opening side’s minimum is 17 (12+5). East’s intervention – after standard 1x, pass, 1y – is rather dangerous: the game is far, and the contract probably belongs to opponents; the risk is to not find support in minority of strength, a situation in which it’s not rare to be doubled. Say that, in a scale of danger one to five, the intervention of East after the standard one over one response is worth three.

Suppose now that the opponents play Precision (strong club from 16), and South opens one by suit, not club, West passes and North responses at one level. The opening side has an higher minimum, because, having South no more than fifteen, North should have passed with less than seven. Thus the minimum in the Precision pair not opening 1♣ is 19 (12+7). East’s intervention has now become more dangerous, say four in the danger scale – five is reserved to the intervention after the 2/1 response.

The same South of the Precision pair now opens 1♣ (16+), and North responses 1 (0+): the opening side minimum falls to 16, and East’s overcalls becomes safer, two in our scale of danger. Here it must be noted that Culbertson criticized the Vanderbilt’s Strong Club right for this weakness toward the East’s onslaught after the response 1.

These three situations show how the danger to enter the auction between opponents both active, as does East after the one over one response, doesn’t depend on the strength of the Opener, as for West’s overcall, but from the strength of the Responder; and Responder’s strength his higher when the Opener’s maximum is lower. The corollary of this principle, or also a simpler way to say it, is the following: stronger the Responder easier for him either to double for business or stay fixed on Opener’s takeout double.

Back to Fantoni-Nunes system. After their opening 1 and the response at level one, East faces a minimum of 14 (14+0); not only the danger to bid is lowered to one (zero, or the safe call, doesn’t exist), but now arises the other gender of risk: that the contract belongs to E-W, and, if East passed, they would miss it. In these conditions it becomes possible enter the auction even with balanced hands, starting from the 4432 and good 10-11 points, which would be insane against standard systems.

Still on Fantoni-Nunes: when the opening is 1♣, then with the same minimum of 14 (14+0), the one over one responses are transfers; this opens another lane to East’s intervention, who can bid the North’s real suit – practically a cue-bid – remaining within the one level and enriching the meaning of the other choices. Eventually, Fantoni-Nunes open 1 or 1♠; these are exceptions to the sound opening: with majors 5-4 the points might be only 11, but still North cannot pass, not even with zero. In this situation East could bid so freely that even his pass would become specific.

The Bill Jacobs’ book Fantunes Revealed has the merit to be an analysis, also with statistical data, of a system which isn’t innovative but has peculiar structures. The Jacobs’ work is not only necessary to play the system, but it is worth for itself as a general guide to study the logic behind bridge bidding; therefore it is worthwhile to be read, as a tool of bridge culture, also by who isn’t going to play the System. Nevertheless it is my opinion that, also with this help, the complexity of the System makes it unapt to be played by less than advanced and long lasting partnerships.

Fantunes Revealed, by Bill Jacobs. © 2012 Bill Jacobs, Master Point Press, Toronto. ISBN: 978-1-55494-522-1. Also sold as E-book:  click here >>


Paolo Enrico Garrisi

January 30, 2013


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