The Lebensohl convention is applicable in a wide variety of competitive situations, but most begin by learning it as a way of dealing with interference over a 1N opener. It can also be used after partner doubles a 2-level preempt or opponents interfere over a 2♣ opener, or after an opener’s reverse, and other competitive situations. We will begin with the defense to 1N overcalls, and cover the other situations later.
A transfer-based variant of Lebensohl, Transfer Lebensohl, is discussed in a separate chapter. This is sometimes called Rubensohl.
In this chapter we use the terms weak, competitive, invitational, and game forcing to describe hand strength. For a 12-14 point notrump, these are 0-7, 8-10, 11-12, and 13+ respectively. For a strong notrump, subtract three from these values. Shape may of course contribute to your classification – a five card suit is always a plus.
Lebensohl and transfer Lebensohl can be used in a variety of situations. What these seemingly different situations have in common is that a bidder has to make a bid in a situation with reduced bidding room, and needs to have a way to differentiate different hands but is running out of room to do so at a reasonable level.
Lebensohl After We Open 1N¶
Since life will usually be easy for us after we open 1N, opponents are motivated to interfere. That uses up the room we need to decide our strain and level. Lebensohl gives up one natural reply in order to effectively double the remaining space.
Suppose we open 1N and this is overcalled at the two-level. Natural bids have a marked weakness when responder has a suit lower than the overcalled suit. For example, suppose responder has a good club suit and enough values that he wishes to compete for a part-score. Consider this bidding sequence:
1N (2♥) 3♣
Responder has shown opener his club suit but not his strength. With just this one bid, we cannot distinguish whether responder has a competitive, invitational, or game-forcing hand. This is a matter upon which the partnership must agree. If it is game forcing, opener does not know yet if responder has a heart stopper.
On the other hand, life is easier if responder’s suit is above the overcall, say spades here. Then 2♠ is available as a bid. Assuming we take that to be competitive, we still have an ambiguity in the 3♠ bid: is it invitational or game forcing? And what about stoppers?
Assume the bidding has begun 1N (2x), where x is diamonds, hearts, or spades.
After 1N (2♣), Lebensohl has a potential complication, so we will assume a double is Stayman, and that otherwise systems are “on”, so 2♦ is a transfer, etc. See below if 2♣ is artificial.
Responder now must distinguish both what kind of hand he has, and if interested in 3N, whether or not he has a stopper in the opponent’s suit.
The 2N Relay¶
The signature bid in Lebensohl is 2N!(relay). This is an artificial bid over the overcall, and demands that opener bid 3♣!(forced). This 2N bid says nothing about responder’s suit, and does not show or deny that he has a suit or a four-card major.
Do not fall into the trap of calling this bid by itself “Lebensohl”. Lebensohl is the entire system described in this chapter. This bid is its signature, but it isn’t the only thing to know.
The presence or absence of the relay is used to show strength and clarify the stopper situation.
- If responder can bid his suit at the two-level, it is to play.
- If responder bids his suit after a relay, it is weaker than if he bids it immediately.
- If responder bids the opponent’s suit after a relay, he has game-forcing values and a stopper.
- If responder bids the opponent’s suit directly, he has game-forcing values but no stopper.
- If responder bids 3N after a relay, he has a stopper.
- If responder bids 3N immediately, he does not have a stopper.
When the responder’s suit is above the overcall, there are three possible bids: the two-level bid is competitive; the slow three-level bid is invitational; and the fast three-level bid is game-forcing.
- 1N (2♦) 2♥ is to play
- 1N (2♦) 2N! - 3♣! - 3♥ is invitational
- 1N (2♦) 3♥ is game-forcing.
When the two-level bid is not possible, we have no invitational bid. Using the relay is to play, a direct three-level bid is game-forcing.
Lebensohl players call a bid after the relay “slow”, and a direct 3-level bid “fast”.
The responder wishing to be in notrump typically denies a stopper with an immediate 3N, and affirms one with the slow 2N – 3♣ – 3N relay (“slow shows”), but some reverse these two meanings (“slow denies”).
- 1N (2♦) 2N! - 3♣ - 3N is to play, diamonds are stopped – slow shows.
- 1N (2♦) 3N wants to play 3N but does not have a diamond stopper. Opener will pass if he has one, or start suggesting suits to play in with 4♣.
The slow and fast cue bids are used for game-forcing Stayman, which show or deny a stopper. Note that regular Stayman is invitational or better; in the Lebensohl context we just don’t have the room to make an invitational Stayman. Again, slow shows.
- 1N (2♦) 3♦ is GF Stayman, but denies a diamond stopper.
- 1N (2♦) 2N! - 3♣! - 3♦ is GF Stayman and promises a diamond stopper.
After this the Stayman dance is modified in obvious ways. For example, in these auctions, opener lacking a four-card major will have to bid
- 3N if he has no four-card major and either has a diamond stopper or was promised one by responder, or
- 4♣ to show responder that we lack a major fit or a diamond stopper.
Lebensohl per se does not say what a double of the overcall means. Two choices are:
- A double is penalty-oriented, game-forcing values, or,
- A double initially shows competitive values and while takeout-oriented it promises 2 (or more cards) in their suit. This allows opener to pass if appropriate. Responder may bid again with a stronger hand.
A reopening double by opener of an overcall in fourth seat is for takeout.
Generally, playing a weak 1N, we play the second alternative.
Lebensohl has two weaknesses in this situation.
First, it is not possible to invite in a suit below the overcall because only two bids, “slow” and “fast” are available.
Second, if the RHO of the opener bids, opener does not yet know responder’s suit. For example:
1N (2♦) 2N!(relay) (3♦)
Now opener does not know what suit, if any, responder holds. If it is hearts or spades, responder has invitational strength. If it is clubs , responder is simply trying to compete; or, it is possible responder is game-forcing and intended his next bid to be a cue bid showing a major with a stopper in diamonds. The 2N bid has left opener with little useful information.
I believe it is not possible to solve both of these problems simultaneously. Rubensohl has variants that emphasize one or the other of these two facets, but none of them solve both problems completely.
Here are the available bids after we open 1N and they overcall two of a suit. Some bids require more detailed explanation in the following sections. Let O be the their suit (either the suit they bid naturally or one they showed artificially.)
Here are the bids after 1N (2O) or 1N (P) P (2O) P (P)
- A double initially shows competitive values and while takeout-oriented it promises 2 or more in their suit. This allows opener to pass if appropriate. Responder may bid again with a stronger hand.
- (Alternative) A double is penalty-oriented.
- A double by opener of an overcall in fourth seat is for takeout.
- 2 level suit bids are to play. Example: 1N (2♥) 2♠ is to play. These bids show a five or more card suit.
- 2N!(relay) starts a “slow” sequence; opener must bid 3♣. A subsequent 3N is to play; a cuebid of 3O is game-forcing Stayman; 3 of a suit below O is to play; and 3 of a suit above O is game forcing.
- 3 of a suit other than O is game forcing.
- 3O is Stayman but denies a stopper in O.
- 3N is to play, and denies any unbid major or a stopper.
- 4♣ is Gerber.
- 4♦! and 4♥! are Texas Transfers to hearts and spades, showing six card suits and values for game only. With a strong hand and a six-card major game-force at the three level first.
- 4♠! (rare) invites opener to pick a minor game.
- 4N is invitational to 6N and of course promises a stopper.
Lebensohl Over Artificial Overcalls¶
If an overcall shows a definite suit plus an unspecified suit, bid as if the specified suit were overcalled unless and until the second suit becomes specified.
If an overcall shows two definite suits, proceed as normal except that both of the opponents suits are available as cue bids. In that case,
- A slow 3N promises stops in both suits.
- A fast 3N denies stops in both suits.
- A cue bid therefore shows a stop in that suit but at most a half-stop in the other.
When we speak of the overcalled suit or suits, we mean the ones the bid meant, not the artificial one actually bid. For example, 1N (2N) shows the minors, so a response of 3♦ would show a stop in diamonds, no stop in clubs, and game-going values.
Over three-level overcalls:
- A double is for takeout, showing support for the other three suits.
- Bids at the three level are natural, one-round forcing, and
- 3N, 4♥, 4♠, 5♣, and 5♦ are to play.
If the overcall is in a minor, a cue bid is Stayman, or may show slam interest lacking a four-card major.
- 1N (3♦) 4♦ – 4♥ – 4N (to play)
- 1N (3♦) 4♦ – 4N(no major) - Pass
- 1N (3♦) 4♦ – 4? – 5♣ (slam interest in clubs)
Answering Takeout Doubles Of Weak Two Bids¶
When an opponent opens a weak two bid, and we double it, that shows a decent opening hand with shortness in their suit. The double is for takeout. But we run into a familiar dilemma. Consider an auction that begins (2♥) X (P) ? where the advancer holds a very weak hand with six diamonds. Advancer definitely wants to bid three diamonds and have that be that.
But if he has a much stronger hand with diamonds that wants to go to game, then he wishes he could ask partner whether he has hearts stopped.
The solution is to realize that (2♥) X (P) ? is not that different from 1N (2♥) ?. We can just play Lebensohl. The opener can refuse a 2N – 3♣ relay to show a hand with slam interest.
When They Overcall Our Two Club Opener¶
The auction 2♣ (2♥) is similar to 1N (2♥). We have the same dilemma of wanting to compete but not wanting to confuse partner as to our hand strength. Lebensohl can be used in these situations. If opponents play 2♣ (X) as showing the majors we would treat that as a two-suited bid in hearts and spades.
Lebensohl Over Reverses¶
Imagine this headache: partner opens 1♣, you bid 1♠ with a minimal four-card holding, and partner reverses with 2♥. This is forcing for one round. What to do? If you had five spades you could just bid 2♠. But let’s say you don’t, but you do prefer clubs or have five diamonds you by-passed in order to show your four-card major.
If you just bid 3♣ as a preference, that’s ok – until the next time when you have a better hand and can’t bid 3♣ because the partnership has decided it is weak. Hmm. This sounds familiar – it is the same dichotomy as 1N (2♥) 3♣ – what does it mean? And it has the same solution – Lebensohl.
So, for example, a direct bid of 3♣ over 2♥ is game-forcing. A “slow” trip to 3♣ via 2N, shows you want to stop there.
If you do not feel comfortable with full Lebensohl, use this simpler version of it. It covers most responder hand types.
The opposition has bid a suit 2♦, 2♥, or 2♠ over our 2♣!(11-15, six clubs) opener.
- Double is penalty-oriented with at least two of their suit.
- Two-level suit bids are to play
- Three-level suit bids are game forcing
- 2N! is a relay to 3♣!(forced), pass or correct. If responder corrects to a suit he could have bid at the two-level, it is invitational; otherwise, to play.
- 3N is to play with a stopper.
- A cue bid is game-forcing Stayman. Opener should show a major if he has one.
When you’ve been bitten enough times by the holes in the simplification, you can learn the rest of it.
You can get super-simplified by just remembering the 2-level is to play, and 2N is a relay to 3♣, pass or correct. Ordinary bridge logic should kick in from there.
Good - Bad 2N¶
This Lebensohl variant is explained most fully in Larry Cohen’s “To Bid Or Not To Bid” and in Marty Bergen’s “Better Bidding With Bergen”. There is a good explanation at www.bridgeguys.com.
In a competitive auction, it is your turn to bid and RHO has just bid 2x, whether as a raise of his partner or a new suit, after your partner doubled or made an overcall. For example, let’s suppose the auction went (1♥) - 1♠ - (2♥). Suppose you have a good diamond suit but no spade support. Then what does your 3♦ bid show? Most of the time of course you’re just trying to compete but other times you have a extras and partner may wish to go higher knowing that.
Enter the Good - Bad 2N, created by Larry Cohen in his book “To Bid Or Not To Bid”. Whenever we are in a competitive suit auction and our RHO has made a 2-level bid, 2N! is a relay to 3♣, pass or correct. Bidding directly on the three level shows extras.
Take for example this auction:
(1♠) 2♦ (2♠) ?
Without an agreement, a 3♦ bid here is hard to read. With Good - Bad 2N, 3♦ might be a good four-card diamond suit with 9 points, while 2N!(relay) - 3♣!(forced) - 3♦ might be only six points and partner will know not to compete further.
This convention also applies when you opened:
1♥(you) (2♣) Pass (2♠)
If you have a two-suiter in hearts and diamonds, you want to distinguish 3♦ giving partner a choice vs. 3♦ showing something like an 18-point 5-5 hand.
You must draw inferences when partner does not use the relay when he could have.
With some experience, you can use the Good - Bad distinction in many other competitive auctions. According to “Better Bidding With Bergen”, it is important that this convention be off in situations such as:
- where 2N is clearly Unusual 2N
- when either side has opened 1N
- when the opponents opened a strong 1♣!.
- when the opponents have made a penalty double
- when we have already found a fit
- when we are already in a game-forcing auction.