The Sparts Convention
Written by Fred Hamilton and Bob Ciaffone
Bridge players who like playing 2/1 game-forcing enjoy setting up a game force with responder’s first bid because they can exchange a lot of pertinent information at a low level when exploring for a possible slam. Identifying the trump suit and showing a potential trick source are key ingredients of slam bidding. Being able to do both of those things below the game level ought to be possible in any slam-friendly bidding system.
After a standard 1 opening bid, when responder has game-going values and 3-card heart support, responder has a more awkward time bidding when he holds 4 spades than when he does not. When responder's long suit is a minor, responder can make a game-forcing 2/1 and show 3-card heart support on the second round. But when responder's long suit is spades, a 1 response makes it difficult to set the trump suit below game level when responder has a game-forcing hand in support of hearts.
For example, when 1 opener after a 1 response has rebid 2-of-a-minor, a 3 jump preference by responder is needed as an invitational bid. So when responder has a game-forcing hand, he is left with the unappealing options of jumping to 4 or bidding 4th suit forcing (4SF) in the other minor. Both of these options have serious drawbacks when either player has slam aspirations.
Responder’s jump rebid to 4 is inappropriate when he has slam interest because partner may well pass. Even if the bid of 4 is a reasonable description of responder’s hand (because he has little slam interest), if opener has slam aspirations, he is forced to start exploration beyond the game level. The lack of bidding space is a handicap in transmitting information, and there is the possibility of going down at the 5-level because of a poor fit or bad breaks.
If responder’s hand is too good to jump to 4, he is forced to fall back on 4SF. But after using 4SF, responder’s trump holding and hand strength are often ambiguous. Responder may hold trump support of 2, 3, or even 4 cards on certain auctions, depending on the exact sequence and/or partnership agreement. Game and slam bidding accordingly suffers from this imprecision. Furthermore, when responder's bid of the 4th suit takes place at the 3-level (as opposed to a level lower), the bidding can be hampered by the lack of space. For example, after 1-1-2-3, if opener now bids 3NT, responder cannot set the trump suit except by bidding 4, so he did not fulfill his desire to set the trump suit below game any better by using 4SF.
We see that when partner opens 1 and you have a game-going hand with a heart fit, it is hard to describe your hand after responding 1. Concealing spades is riskier than concealing a minor suit because spades may be a better trump suit than hearts. Furthermore, when responder has only 3-card support, he does not even have the option of concealing his side suit by resorting to use of the partnership’s game-forcing raise.
It does not make bridge sense that 1––the most economical space-saving response to a 1 opening bid––should be the least comfortable of the new-suit responses to 1 when the partnership has a major-suit fit. The “Sparts Convention” is designed to make showing spades the most comfortable, by getting the suit and fit off responder's chest immediately.
Using Sparts, over 1, responder bids 2 to show a spade suit and game-forcing values in support of hearts. Essentially the Sparts convention allows responder to make a 2/1 in spades (with a heart fit). We feel this use of the 2 jump-shift fulfills a basic bridge need for accurate slam bidding, and is a better use of this sequence than playing it as the most common alternatives of either a weak jump-shift or a strong jump-shift just to show a certain type of spade holding.
The Sparts jump to 2 may be made on a chunky four-card spade suit or a decent five-card (or longer) spade suit. Responder may have either 3-card or 4-card heart support. After 1-2, opener with four-card spade support must show it right away, to set the trump suit. His minor suit cards will be either 2-2 or he will have a singleton or void. With shortness, opener jumps to 4 or 4 as a splinter bid. If opener is 2-2 in the minors, he bids 3 with a minimum and 3NT with extra values.
There are a lot of structures that could be used with the Sparts Convention, depending partly on how much complexity you want. Here are five suggested principles for a good framework after 1-2 for using Sparts.
Opener with 4-card spade support for responder shows this right away, as above.
Opener without a spade fit and holding a bad hand for slam jumps directly to 4.
Opener with good 3-card spade support (at least one high honor) immediately raises to 3.
Opener without spade support and holding a minimum but reasonable hand for slam bids 3.
Opener with extra values but fewer than three good spades shows this by making a bid below the level of 3.
Here is the chart showing what we think is a good system to use.
2NT: Extra values, slam interest. Opener may or may not have spade support.
3 or 3: Opener’s side suit. (Alternatively, could be instead used as a splinter bid if you prefer.)
3: Minimum hand, less than three spades, at least one top spade honor (A,K).
3: Minimum hand, 4522 or high-honor third in spades, no singleton or void.
3NT: 4-card spade support, at least one high spade honor (A,K,Q), 2-2 in the minors.
4 or 4: Singleton splinter, 4-card spade support.
4: Minimum hand, six-card heart suit, less than 3 spades, no top spade honor (A,K).
4: Minimum hand, 4-card spade support, no singleton, no high spade honor (A,K,Q)
4NT: Key-Card Blackwood for hearts.
If opener rebids 2NT showing extra values but denying 4-card support, there are choices for responder's continuations, depending on whether you favor simplicity or accuracy. Simplest is to have responder bid 3 or 3 as a splinter bid, and 3 to deny a singleton. More accurate is a Hamilton favorite––Fred already uses a similar idea with the Jacoby 2NT forcing raise––of having responder show his strength before showing his distribution, as follows. 3 shows a minimum hand; 3 shows extras. Over either response, opener makes the cheapest rebid, asking responder to step-response his distribution. The cheapest step response is “no singleton.” The next two responses identify a singleton, using the lower bid for clubs and the higher bid for diamonds. Responder saying up front whether he has a minimum or extras is better than having responder show shape with an immediate splinter bid and leaving his strength unclear.
This idea of the Sparts Convention is in its infancy, and we admit to not having much experience with it as yet. But we can at least draw attention to a defect in Standard American bidding that occurs whether or not you play 2/1 game-forcing. The 1 response to 1 presents difficulties in slam bidding because the responder with a heart fit has a problem showing his fit and establishing a force below game level. How does your partnership handle this problem? Should you be taking up the Sparts Convention?