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A bidding system is a collection of agreements and conventions describing the meanings of calls used during the bidding phase of contract bridge. The purpose of bidding is to describe the hand and, eventually, to propose a contract.
Each bidding system ascribes a meaning to every possible call by each member of a partnership, and presents a codified language which allows the players to exchange infomation about their card holdings. The vocabulary of bidding is limited to 38 different calls - 35 level/denomination bids  plus pass, double and redouble. Any bid becomes a contract if followed by three successive passes, therefore every bridge bid is a potential contract.
By the rules of the game, the agreed meanings of all calls must be public and known to the opponents. In normal club or home play, the opponents are entitled, at their turn to make a call, to ask the partner of the bidder about the meaning of the call. In high-level tournaments, where screens are used, the procedure is to ask the screen-mate about their calls as well as their partner's calls. In serious online tournaments, the procedure is for the player making the call to self-alert it, but the explanation is visible only to the opponents.
Bidding systems can be classified into two broad categories: natural systems and artificial systems. In natural systems, most bids (especially in the early phase of the bidding) denote length in the suit bid. In artificial systems, the bids are more highly codified, so that for example a bid of 1â™£ may not be related to a holding in the club suit.
Natural system(s) are the "lingua franca" of bridge players, with regional variations. Thus, a new partnership can agree to play a natural system and understand each other fairly well. Players sometimes alter certain aspects of a system, adding their specific agreements or preferred conventions.
Structure and meaning of opening bids are the common determining factor for system classification: in most modern natural systems, opening bids of 1â™£ through 2â™£ have the same or similar meaning, with level-one bids denoting length in a suit. Artificial systems typically reserve at least one level-one suit opening bid for special purposes, unrelated to the suit.
Strictly speaking, "natural system" is a contradiction in terms. A "system", an agreement that bids have certain meanings, is, by definition, not "natural bidding", where there are no agreements and bids mean exactly what they say. However, even in Captain Ewart Kempson's modification, the Direct Method, this is long extinct, and players are so accustomed to standard practices that they think of them as "natural".
The more exact name for these systems is Approach-Forcing, the name adopted by Ely Culbertson when he invented these methods in 1927. The Approach Principle says that most opening bids should be one of a suit. Forcing bids, which Culbertson invented at that time, are the other major component.
Natural systems nowadays generally use opening bids as follows:
- A bid of 1â™¥ or 1â™ shows at least 4 or 5 cards in the major suit, and 1â™£ or 1â™¦ shows at least 3 or 4 cards in the minor suit. The complete hand usually contains about (11)12-20(22) high card points. As between two major suits or between two minor suits, the bidder opens in the longer suit; with equal lengths, the higher ranking suit is usually chosen. If the opening bid of 1â™¥ or 1â™ promises 5 cards, the system is referred to as a "five-card major" system; otherwise, it is referred to as a "four-card major" system. The term five-card majors implies that an opening bid in a minor suit bid might show three card length only (for example, the hand pattern might be 4=4=2=3, so neither major suit is long enough to show with an opening bid).
- A bid of 1NT shows a balanced hand in a narrow high card points range. The common ranges are 15-17 or 16-18 HCP ("strong notrump") and 12-14 ("weak notrump").
- A bid of 2â™£ typically shows a very strong hand (22+ points).
- A bid of 2NT shows a strong balanced hand, usually 20-21 HCP.
- Opening bids of 3 of any suit are preemptive, showing a 7+ card suit and 6-10 points (mostly inside the bid suit).
- The meaning of 2â™¦, 2â™¥ and 2â™ varies. One common usage is that the bid shows a weak two bid, similar to a preemptive bid. Another is that the strong two bid, which is natural and shows a very strong hand (too strong for a 1-level opening). Yet another usage, popular in otherwise natural systems, is to use weak two bids in the major suits, and 2â™¦ as Flannery: four spades and five hearts in a hand of minimum strength.
3, 6 and some aspects of 1, 4 and 5 varied more in the past.
The most widespread natural systems nowadays are:
- Acol, featuring 4-card majors and nowadays weak notrump, originating in Great Britain
- Standard American, originally with 4-card majors but later adopting 5-card majors.
- Bridge Base Basic, based on Standard American and used in internet play
- 2/1 game forcing, based on Standard American and gradually superseding it. Some features of 2/1 game forcing originated from the Roth-Stone and Kaplan-Sheinwold systems of the 1950s and 1960s.
Various developments in the area of natural systems have resulted in systems that are natural in essence, but contain special features. Examples are systems like Romex, Boring club, Fantunes, and EHAA (Every Hand An Adventure).
Others important in the past include
- Culbertson, the earliest form of Standard American
- Goren, the next
- Baron, a British system, named after its inventor, many of whose features were later adopted into Acol
- CAB, another British system, standing for Clubs, Aces, Blackwood (2â™£ forcing opening, responder cue-bidding an ace in response, and Blackwood for slam bidding in place of the Culbertson 4-5 NT convention still used in Acol when the system was invented)
- Roth-Stone, Kaplan-Sheinwold, Stayman and Bulldog: a family of American systems starting in the 1950s sharing 5-card majors, forcing 1NT response thereto, sputnik doubles and controls for psychic openings
Artificial systems can be further classified into:
- Strong club systems are the most popular artificial systems, where opening of 1Template:Clubs shows a strong hand (typically 16+ HCP). Other 1-level bids are typically natural, but limited to about 15 HCP. This approach was originated by Harold S. Vanderbilt, the inventor of contract bridge. The most popular strong club systems are:
- In Small club systems, the opening bid of 1â™£ is forcing but not necessarily strong. It typically includes some range of balanced hands, some hands with long club suit, and very strong hands. Examples are:
- Vienna club (the predecessor), using 1NT opening for strong hands, and adopting and extending Culbertson asking bids
- Roman club, developed and used by famous Blue team
- Polish club, originating (and standard) in Poland but also gained certain popularity worldwide
- Dutch doubleton, an offspring of the Polish club system
- Strong diamond systems are similar to strong club systems, but the bid of 1â™¦ shows a strong opening, and the bid of 1â™£ is typically ambiguous, as in small club systems. An example is Leghorn diamond, played by some top Italian pairs in 1970s.
- Strong pass systems are highly artificial and fairly rare. In those systems, an initial pass shows a hand of opening strength (13+ HCP); as result, weaker hands (8-12 must be opened with a bid instead (normally one low level bid is reserved to show 0-7 HCP, that bid is sometimes called a "fert", short for fertilizers). Strong pass systems are mostly banned by World Bridge Federation and other governing organizations from all competitions except the highest-level ones, because opponents cannot be reasonably expected to cope with such an unusual approach. See: Highly unusual method
- Relay systems are based on relay bids – the artificial bids where one partner just bids the cheapest denomination (relay bid) and the other describes his distribution and high cards in detail (relay response) using a highly codified scheme. Such systems are out of the above classification (based on opening bid structure), as the relay feature takes place later in the auction. For example, relatively popular "Moscito system" has variants based on strong-club and strong-pass approaches. Symmetric relay is based on Precision club. Relay systems do not need to begin with an initial forcing pass or an initial forcing 1â™£ opening. The ACBL typically disallows relay systems, on the grounds that they are too difficult to defend against without a lot of advance preparation.
- List of bidding systems on ClaireBridge
- List of bidding systems in 'Full-disclosure' (BBO compatible) formatnl:Biedsysteem
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