Useful space principle

Useful space principle

The Useful Space Principle, or "USP", was first articulated in a series of six articles in The Bridge World, from November 1980 through April 1981. (The International Bridge Press Association awarded its 1981/1982 award for Best Article or Series on a System or Convention to Jeff Rubens for this series.) The USP is expressed succinctly in [ The Bridge World glossary] as: "a partnership's assigning meanings to actions so that the remaining bidding space matches the needs of the auction."

The articles on the USP were the genesis of widely used conventional methods such as Kickback and transfer advances of overcalls. The USP tells bidding theorists that bidding space should be allocated where it is most needed.

A USP Example: Kickback

The Blackwood convention, as originally formulated, violates the USP. Suppose that the agreed trump suit is spades. After the Blackwood "asker" bids 4NT, "teller" can convey four separate messages without bypassing the safety level of 5Spades – four aces or none with 5Clubs, one ace with 5Diams, two aces with 5Hearts and three aces with 5Spades.

But what if the agreed trump suit is clubs? Suppose that asker and teller each have one ace. Then, after 4NT, teller bids 5Diams to show his ace, and the partnership has to play 6Clubs off two aces (or possibly 5NT, which could be worse than 6Clubs, if it has the machinery).

The problem can also occur when the agreed trump suit is diamonds, although it's less likely because there's more space available for responses than when the agreed trump suit is clubs. But if the partnership is using Key Card Blackwood there can be similar problems. Suppose that hearts is agreed, asker has one ace and teller has one ace plus the king and queen of hearts. Asker bids 4NT and teller bids 5Spades to show two key cards plus the trump queen, and the partnership is again too high.

The problem is that Blackwood ignores the USP. The lower in rank the agreed trump suit, the more space that is needed if the partnership is to stay at or below a safety level.

The Kickback ace-asking convention deals with the problem by adjusting the asking bid according to which suit is agreed as trump. The ask is always one step above four of the trump suit. So, if clubs is agreed, the ask is 4Diams; if diamonds is agreed, 4Hearts asks; if hearts, 4Spades; and if spades, 4NT.

The responses to the ask might be similar to Blackwood, but instead of associating a specific suit with a specific number of aces, the responses are in terms of the number of steps above the ask. If spades will be trump, 4NT is the ask, and then 5Clubs, one step, might show zero or four aces, according to partnership agreement. If diamonds will be trump, 4Hearts is the ask, and then 4Spades, one step above the ask, might show zero or four aces.

The effect is to allocate bidding space where it's most useful in the context of the convention. If clubs is agreed and each partner has one ace, asker bids 4Diams and teller bids 4Spades to show one ace. The partnership can now easily sign off in 5Clubs.

There is a cost, of course: the partnership that plays Kickback loses the ability to cue-bid the ace of the suit above trumps. That is, assuming that hearts will be trumps, asker can no longer bid 4Spades to show first round control of spades: that would be the Kickback asking bid.

The solution is to use 4NT to show a first round control in the Kickback asking suit. With diamonds agreed, 4Hearts is the Kickback ask, and 4NT shows the HeartsA or, if credible in the context of the prior bidding, a void.

The agreement that 4NT is a cue-bid still entails a cost, but Kickback users argue that there is a net gain. For example, with clubs agreed, South would bid 4NT to show a first round control in diamonds. This bid not only bypasses the Kickback ask (4Diams), but also prevents North from cue-bidding 4Hearts or 4Spades. Kickback users believe that the gain in space from adjusting the ace-ask outweighs getting in the way of "partner's" cue-bid.

Notice that the Gerber convention, the use of 4Clubs to ask for aces when NT is the likely final strain, is really a special case of Kickback.

Note also that the foregoing is meant only to illustrate the USP. It describes neither additional understandings that Kickback can accommodate, nor the special problems that can arise (for example, the question of which is the agreed trump suit).

The USP at Lower Levels: Transfer Responses to Overcalls

Suppose that North opens a strong NT, North-South are playing Jacoby transfers, and South holds BridgeHandInline|KQ965|6|8752|854. South bids 2Hearts, hoping to pass North's 2Spades. But South would also bid 2Hearts with BridgeHandInline|KQ965|6|8752|A54 (South will force to game) and BridgeHandInline|AKQ65|6|8752|A54 (South will explore slam).

The transfer gives the partnership plenty of space for any continuation it might have in mind. In contrast, the traditional bid of 2Spades as a signoff over 1NT means that the partnership must give up bidding space in order to make forcing bids that start at the three level. It's when South wants to sign off by bidding 2Spades directly that the smallest amount of bidding space is needed, but that bid takes away three steps (2Clubs, 2Diams and 2Hearts). Transfers, whatever costs they entail, tend to conform to the USP.

Now consider competitive bidding. Suppose that West opens 1Spades, North overcalls 2Hearts and East passes. South holds BridgeHandInline|854|6|KQ9653|854. Now:
*If 3Diams is "non"forcing all is well. South describes his hand and leaves the rest to North.
*If 3Diams is forcing South must pass and possibly miss a good diamond contract. The 3Diams bid takes up so much space that, if it's forcing, South cannot show a weak hand with a good suit.

Again after 1Spades – (2Hearts) – P, South holds BridgeHandInline|854|6|KQ9653|KJ4. Now:
*If 3Diams is "non"forcing South must cue bid 2Spades to prepare a rebid in diamonds. The hand is too strong to bid a nonforcing 3Diams. But North's rebid, very often 3Hearts, may well prevent South from showing the diamonds below 3NT.
*If 3Diams is forcing all is well on this hand, and if South has a heart fit and a good hand he can cue bid 2Spades. In this sequence the cue-bid takes up minimal space – but how is that space to be used effectively when South has already shown a heart fit in a strong hand?

Regardless of the agreement on the forcing nature of 3Diams or 3Clubs in this auction, there's a problem caused by the misallocation of bidding space. If 3Diams is forcing, a good diamond suit in a weak hand is problematic. If 3Diams is nonforcing, the ambiguous 2Spades cue-bid may well prompt a rebid by North that preempts South's diamonds.

The USP suggests that in responding to overcalls, a hand with at least invitational strength plus a fit for overcaller's suit make the highest level non-jump bid available. This frees lower bids to be used as natural and forcing, or as transfers – and the transfer buys space to show a weak, a game forcing, or even a slam invitational hand, just as do Jacoby transfers. So doing puts the bidding space where it is most needed – to complete the transfer and possibly to further describe the hand, and to make a natural, forcing new-suit bid below the cue-bid.

Those who play transfer advances of overcalls usually agree that the transfer bids begin with the cue-bid of opener's suit. Bids between the overcall and the cue-bid may be treated as natural and forcing; transfer bids are available to handle weaker hands with their own good suit.

For example, after 1Hearts – (2Clubs) – P, some play this structure:
*2Diams is natural and forcing
*2Hearts, the cue bid, is a transfer to spades with strength to be clarified later
*2Spades is a transfer to clubs – that is, a strong raise of partner's overcall
*2NT is natural and nonforcing
*3Clubs is a limited natural raise

After 1Hearts – (1Spades) – P:
*2Clubs is natural and forcing
*2Diams is natural and forcing
*2Hearts, the cue bid, is a transfer to spades (this is the strong raise)
*2Spades is a limited natural raise

Again, the point of the foregoing is to illustrate how application of the USP can make bidding agreements more effective, not to define an optimal structure for responding to overcalls.


The Useful Space Principle, The Bridge World, November 1980 – April 1981.

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