Always Have a Rebid
Or. why I always open a balanced 15-17 point hand with a 5-card major with 1NT
One of the cardinal rules of duplicate bridge is to seek a 'golden fit' in a major suit. It is our first priority, or so it seems.
But consider that Standard American has two distinguishing features: The "five card major" requirement, and the no-trump structure. While the 5-card major is the 'star' of the show, it is the no-trump structure that provides the skeleton on which everything else hangs.
What is the no-trump structure? Why, I am glad you asked! It is a bid (or two-bid sequence) that allows opener to give a limit bid early, and limit bids are the most valuable bids in bridge! To use the no-trump structure to frame your bidding, you have a balanced hand, which is generally defined as having no voids or singletons, and at most one doubleton. This means only these distributions are considered "balanced":
Now for the exceptions. The ACBL, under pressure from more adventurous players, now allows hands with a singleton to be counted as "balanced", but only if the singleton is an ace, king, or queen. I do not recommend this for novice players! A little less risky, but still something for better players, is to consider hands with two doubletons (5422 distribution) as balanced, but I strongly recommend that both doubletons have a protected honor (an ace or a king).
But I digress. The point of defining "balanced" hands is that they are eligible to open 1NT, or 2NT, or to have a no-trump rebid. In fact, once we sort our hands and discover that we have a balanced distribution. our opening bid (or bid and rebid) SHOULD involve a no-trump call. And the beauty of this kind of bid is that we narrowly limit our strength, and we also give partner an idea about our shape.
Here is the no-trump bidding structure for opening hands for players using the SAYC yellow card, and for most players who play some flavor of Standard American with strong notrumps:
High Card Points Opening Bid Opener's rebid
12-14 1 of a suit cheapest NT (usually 1NT)
18-19 1 of a suit jump in NT (usually 2NT)
22-24 2C cheapest NT (usually 2NT)
As you can see, balanced hands allow opener to limit his/her hand quickly, thus putting responder in the role of being the captain; Responder, upon recognizing the limit bid, now adds his/her points to opener's stated range and can know how high the partnership should bid: Part-score, game, or slam. If there is a bit of doubt, responder can throw the captaincy right back to opener by making an invitational bid, or starting exploratory bids to sniff out the likelihood of slam.
OK, but how does this get us back to the title of this post? Well, as discussed in the beginning paragraph, there is an oft-stated requirement that we seek out eight-card major suit fits at all costs. And that requirements makes some players unwilling to open a 5332 shaped hand 1NT if the 5 card suit is hearts or spades, even if their point count falls in the range for a NT opening bid!
In my view, the power of making a limit bid early outweighs the need to disclose the five-card major. But even beyond that, if you DO open a 15-17 point hand with a 5-card major in anything other than 1NT, you have a serious problem.
You have no valid rebid.
Consider this hand:
If you open that hand 1NT, the full power and range of the bidding tools that follow are 'on'. Transfers, stayman, smolen, you name it... a powerful array of bidding tools, combined with a precise knowledge of opener's hand strength, makes it easy for responder to place the contract.
But if you open that hand 1H, what is your rebid if responder bids 1S? You don't have one! At least not one that is honest. Le'ts look at all the possibilities:
1NT would understate your strength -- it promises only 12-14 points
2H would promise 6 hearts, and ALSO understate your strength.
3H would also promise 6 hearts, but at least it would show your strength.
2NT would overstate your strength -- it promises 18-19 points.
You can't support partner's spades with only two, and you can't bid a minor with only three cards.
There is no rational reason to open that hand 1H. There are boatloads of reasons to open it 1NT. But, how do we ensure that we don't miss a potential 5-3 heart fit? There is a convention for that! The convention is called "Puppet Stayman", and if you add this to your partnership's bidding toolbox, you will never hesitate to open those 15-17 point hands as 1NT, even if they have a 5-card major.
Puppet Stayman is very much like regular Stayman, but it requires that you have game-forcing strength (10+ points). I like to retain 'regular' Stayman as the traditional 2C response to 1NT, and I use 3C as "Puppet" Stayman. So, 1NT - pass - 3C is a game-forcing bid sequence, asking opener if they have a 4 or 5 card major. Note that responder only needs to have a 3-card major to use this bid! In response to Puppet Stayman, if opener has a five-card major, they bid it at the 3-level. So,
1NT - 3C - 3H Opener shows 15-17 points and a 5-card heart suit. Responder can bid 3NT without 3 heart support, or bid 4H if they do have 3 or more hearts.
1NT - 3C - 3S Opener shows 15-17 points and a 5-card spade suit. Responder can bid 3NT without 3 spades to support, or bid 4S if they do have 3 or more spades.
To show a hand with no 4 or 5 card major, opener simply bids 3NT:
1NT - 3C - 3NT shows 15-17 points and no 4-card or longer major.
OK, that part is easy. But, finding 4-4 major suit fits is a little bit more complicated. One of the goals of tools like Stayman is to ensure that the strong hand is the declarer. So, we want opener to bid a major suit first, thus ensuring that their hand remains hidden and responder's weaker hand is dummy. How then do we discover 4-card majors? Well, we start by opener bidding 3D to show one or more 4-card majors (and thus denying a 5-card major).
1NT - 3C - 3D Opener shows 15-17 points and at least one 4-card major.
If we also have a four-card major (which is not required for Puppet Stayman!), we bid the other major. This tells partner which major we have indirectly, and allows opener to declare that suit as trump if he/she also has four of them. If they don't (thus no eight-card major suit fit), opener will bid 3NT. For example,
1NT - 3C - 3D- 3H Opener 's 3D bid indicated that he/she had a 4-card major. We have 4 spades, so we bid the OTHER major, hearts, to show our spades. If opener has 4 spades, he/she will bid game in spades; if not, he/she will bid 3NT.
That is the only tricky part of Puppet Stayman. Let's look at a few complete rounds of bidding:
1NT - 3C - 3D - 3S - 4H Opener indicated at least one 4-card major with the 3D response to Puppet Stayman. Responder shows hearts with their spade bid, and opener had 4 hearts to go with them! Game is in hearts.
1NT - 3C - 3D - 3S - 3NT Same as above, with responder showing hearts. In this case, opener had spades instead of hearts, so without the 4-4 major suit fit, the game is in no-trump
1NT - 3C - 3D - 3H - 4S This time responder shows spades, and opener had 4 spades also. Game is in spades!
1NT - 3C - 3D - 3H - 3NT Responder shows hearts, but unfortunately opener had spades instead of hearts. Game is in notrump.
OK, one more twist. If responder has 4 or more cards in BOTH majors, he/she can show this by bidding 4D over openers 3D rebid. Opener then can safely bid game in their promised 4-card major:
1NT - 3C - 3D - 4D - 4H or 4S Opener indicated at least one 4-card major with the 3D response to Puppet Stayman; responder then showed TWO 4+ card majors with the 4D bid; this allows opener to bid game in whichever major they have 4 cards in.
Puppet Stayman allows you to find the 5-3 major suit game even if you open 1NT with a 5-card major. That eliminates the only objection to opening such hands 1NT, so I strongly suggest you add this convention to your toolkit!