Exploring the game of bridge one hand at a time.

Theory Thursday - Relays Part 1

  •   Thu 28 November 2019
  •   Theory

One of my goals for this site is to have some weekly series of articles on various topics. I have dubbed the first of these categories "Theory Thursday", where I will discuss some bidding theory.

I'm going to kick off the series by talking about relays.

Most bidding is a two sided conversation. We say something about our hand, wait for partner to say something about theirs, and we go back and forth until we have an idea what the final contract should be. The exception to this style of bidding is a one sided bidding conversation, where one side simply asks questions and the other side answers robotically. We call this style of bid a relay bid.

Relays have historically been a voodoo topic in the ACBL, with "relay systems" being banned under most conventions charts. Relay bids, however, are not the same as relay systems.1 Some of the most popular conventions of all time are in fact Relay bids: Blackwood and Stayman.

Consider Stayman: It is an artificial bid, typically the cheapest possible response (common in relays) asking a question without showing much (or anything) about the bidding hand. Some people play that 2♣ shows 8+ HCP, but if you play an escape or garbage style of Stayman even that need not necessarily be true. There are those2 who would routinely bid 2♣ on ♠ xxxx ♡ xxxx ♢ xxxx ♣ x planning on passing the response. They can do this because the expectations are scripted; opener is expected without exception to respond one of 2♢, 2♡ or 2♠.

Blackwood (including RKC varieties) is even more clearly a relay. We know nothing extra about the 4NT bidder's hand other than they are looking for slam. The bid itself says nothing, the 4NT side now being "captain" of the auction. That is a common element of may relay bids -- especially extended relays -- where the asking side continues to ask questions until they place the contract.

Other examples of asking bids include other staples such as Jacoby 2NT, New Minor Forcing, 4th suit forcing and so on. Relays are a hidden cornerstone of modern bidding, and many "advanced" or "expert" systems employ many such relays in many situations.

Next week we will continue exploring this topic more fully.

  1. Relay systems are no longer banned under the new revised convention charts, although individual bids may be allowed or disallowed. Check the charts for more details. 

  2. Including me. 

Welcome to Tom Carmichael's bridge website.
Tom is an ACBL Grand Life Master, Bridge Teacher and Professional Player.
His hobbies outside of bridge include tabletop games and computers.