Asking Bids

Asking Bids are one of the most effective ways of finding out exactly what partner has. Even horrendously complex systems such as Symmetric Relay Precision struggle for the clarity that an Asking Bid sequence can bring, the point being that Asker can specifically ask the questions that they think matter, and ignore issues that don't affect their understanding of the hand. Although not all Asking Bid sequences end in a slam, Asking Bids are generally only used once the values for slam are either established or potentially established.

The Asking Bids contained in this system are not "standard". These are a set of Asking Bids I developed with Jason Hackett in the 1980's and are heavily modified and extended from the originals with a number of additional Asking Bids not found in the normal scheme. There are a number of existing "versions" of Asking Bids for Precision. Some simple schemes refer only to Trump Asking Bids (TABs) and Control Asking Bids (CABs). The Super-Precision scheme uses letters of the Greek alphabet and that gives more scope, so I followed that since this scheme is more closely related to the Super-Precision scheme in any case. In any case, in a system where there are six different Trump Asking Bids, having a specific name for each one seems much more sensible.

Note: Asking Bids are an advanced topic and should not be attempted until the basics of Precision have been well and truly learned. The successful use of Asking Bids demands considerable concentration and, perhaps more importantly, an ability to take all the inferences available from the bidding. Above all you really do have to have a regular Precision partner if you want to start to learn Asking Bids, beacuse their use demands a great deal of discussion and practice. Jason and I spent several months discussing and practising these Asking Bids before we actually started using them in anger. (Practice can be a lot of fun, mind!)

You do not have to use Asking Bids in order to be able to play Precision well and effectively. The percentage of hands where you end up using Asking Bids where it really makes a difference is quite small and on a "bang for your buck" basis, you are probably better off spending the time concentrating on things such as extended use of Lebensohl, which potentially comes up in 85% of the hands you ever play. I will say this, though: Precision Asking Bids are huge fun to use and there is nothing quite like being in a position to write down dummy's hand before it hits the table!!!!

Asking Bid Summary

The following are the Asking Bids that OCP uses:
Alpha (α) Primary Trump Asking Bid in the strong hand's main suit. This is always the first Asking Bid in a sequence if it is used at all. It asks about whether or not Responder has support for Opener's suit and also about Responder's general level of Controls
Beta (β) A general control asking bid, Precision's equivalent of an Ace-Asking convention. In Precision terms, an Ace is 2 controls and a King is 1 control. There are various different ranges for Beta depending on Responder's known strength.
Gamma (γ) Trump Asking Bid asking about Responder's suit length and quality. The use of this Asking Bid always agrees Responder's suit as trumps.
Delta (δ) This is a very strong primary Trump Asking Bid asking about Responder's exact level of support for Opener's suit when Opener is very strong (usually 24+). It only occurs after a negative response to a 1♣ Opening.
Epsilon (ε) This is a specific control Asking Bid in a side-suit once a suit has been agreed as trumps. It asks the exact degree of control that Responder has in that suit (shortages as well as honour cards).
Zeta (ζ) This is a general control Asking Bid as with Beta and using the same ranges, but it also unconditionally sets the trump suit, guaranteed solid.
Eta (η) This is a trump Asking Bid in Responder's known 4-card suit and is only used when Responder's trump length cannot be other than 4-card.
Theta (θ) This is a secondary trump Asking Bid used after a low-level Beta Ask or as a repeat Alpha in the same suit. It uses identical responses to those for Delta and asks about Responder's exact holding in Opener's main suit.
Iota (ι) This is also a secondary trump Asking Bid uses a collapsed set of responses similar to those for Theta. It is most commonly used as a repeat trump Ask in another suit when Responder has shown insufficient support for an Alpha, Delta or Theta Ask.
Sigma (σ) This Ask occurs only immediately following a positive response to Alpha, and is used to clarify trump solidity by asking exactly how good responder's support for the Trump suit is.

Stepped Responses

Asking bids are usually but not always made in the suit to which they refer (if they do refer to a specific suit), but there are some generic and some specific exceptions to this (See action over intervention, Alpha, and some specific Asking Sequences over Intermediate Openings, for example). The response to an Asking Bid, however, is always in a stepped response "up" from the Ask and so the suit bid by the response is 100% artificial. Thus if 1 is the Asking Bid, then 1NT is the 1-step response, 2 is the 2-step response, 2 the 3-step response etc etc. For easy reference, a single raise of the Asking Bid (ie: 2 in the example above) suit is a 5-step response.

Throughout these pages a shorthand for a range of steps is used on occasion. Thus for Beta you might see a reference to the "normal" Beta Scale, which is 0-2, 3, 4, 5. This means that the 1-step response to "normal" Beta shows 0-2 Controls, the 2-step response shows 3 controls, the 3-step response shows 4 controls, etc etc. If, therefore, in a given sequence 1NT is a Beta Ask using the "normal" scale, then a response of 2 shows 0-2 Controls, a response of 2 shows 3 Controls, 2 shows 4 Controls, etc etc.

At this point it is perhaps worth mentioning that when opps intervene in our Asking Bid sequence then Double/Redouble and Pass also potentially become available as "steps". This does make counting the steps a little more complicated but does give significant advantages in terms of bidding space. For more details see the page on Coping with Intervention

Controls & Degree of Control

You will see numerous references to "Controls" and "Top Honours" on these pages. In this context we are normally talking about one of three completely different but related things:
In Precision an Ace is counted as two controls and a King is counted as one control. Thus the hand
AQJxxx, KQxx, Ax, x
is said to contain a total of 5 Controls. This kind of counting is of particular reference to the Alpha, Beta, and Zeta Asking Bids and Responses, which are all asking about how many Controls Responder has in their hand. In this context a singleton King is not normally "counted" as a control for these purposes, so the hand
AQJxxx, KQxx, Ax, K
would still initially be described as containing only 5 Controls. The only exception to this is when the singleton King is in the Askers' known trump suit (ie: they've already made an Alpha, Delta, Theta or Iota Asking Bid in that suit) or if they are known to be very strong balanced, in which case it is included in the tally of controls.
Degree of Control
You will also see mention of the degree of control held in a suit. This almost always relates to side-suits and is mainly of relevance to the Epsilon Ask, which is asking about the degree of control responder has in a side-suit once trumps have been agreed. This is concerned with not just Aces, Kings and Queens, but also with Voids, Singletons and Doubletons. Thus: These degrees of control can be combined. So a holding of exactly "KQx" is said to have 2nd & 3rd Round Control of that suit, but so is "Kx" and "KQ"(because you can ruff the 3rd round of the suit). Similarly "AQx(x)", "Ax" and "AQ" are all said to have 1st & 3rd Round Control. The only slight exception to this is that small shortages are always shown only as one degree of control, even though technically you also have other degrees of control as well. Thus a small singleton is only ever shown as 2nd round control, not 2nd & 3rd.

Top Honours & Terminology

Top Honours
You will also see "Top Honours" mentioned. This is normally in relation to holdings in a trump suit. "Top Honours" deals with Aces Kings and Queens only. A holding of "KQxxx" is said to have 2 of the 3 top honours (HHxxx), whilst "AKQxxx" has all three (HHHxxx), and a holding of "J109xx" has none of the top three honours (xxxxx).
When studying these pages it is important to distinguish between those occasions when a specific holding in a suit is being given (eg: exactly "AQ10xxx", as in a hand diagram or where the degree of control held in a suit is what is being discussed), and a generic holding is being referred to (eg: "HHxx", meaning a 4-card suit with 2 of the top 3 honours), in which case "HHxx" is shorthand for "KQxx, AQxx or AKxx". The discussions on Epsilon are almost always referring to exact holdings, whilst discussions of holdings in potential trump suits (eg: Gamma, Eta, Theta, Delta, Iota etc) are always dealing with top honours, as in the second example.

Secondly, in all of these pages dealing with Asking Bids I refer to Opener and Responder for reasons of brevity. In this context I mean Opener as the hand that is doing the Asking at any one time, and Responder as the hand that is answering the questions at any one time.

Order of Asking Bids

With the number of Asking Bids outlined above it might seem at first sight that you will become confused as to which of the Asking Bids is being used at any one time. In practice, there can never be any doubt as to which Asking Bid it is. There are various things that determine this, some of which are mentioned in the Summary above, but the overriding consideration is the matter of what information is the most important? This is not a straitjacket that forces you to use Asking Bids in a particular order, but where a bid could potentially be a Trump Asking Bid or a Control Asking Bid, this order of priority determines which it is.

  1. TRUMPS: The most important issues to be decided by an Asking Bid sequence is which suit, if any, is going to be the agreed trump suit. Despite the fact that low-level Beta Asks are almost always available in a 1 sequence, the most critically important thing to decide is not the level you are going to play at, but which suit you're going to play in. For this reason, trump asking bids take precedence over any kind of control-asking bid.
  2. GENERAL CONTROLS: The next most important issue is to establish the exact number of controls held by the partnership, because this usually decides whether game is the limit or whether it's worth pushing on towards a slam. It is for this reason that low-level Beta Asks are usually available and why high-level Beta are not generally available above the level of 4/4.
  3. SPECIFIC CONTROLS: The last item on our shopping list, and the least important, is controls held in a specific side-suit. This is dotting the i's and crossing the t's and fine-tuning exactly what level we can afford to play at in our chosen trump suit. It is for this reason that 4 Beta always takes precedence over 4 Epsilon if Responder's exact number of controls is not yet known. It is also the reason why Epsilon is never available until a trump suit has definitely been agreed (Epsilon is specifically asking about side-suits and if you don't know which is the trump suit, how can you define what a side-suit is?)
Specific Considerations
As mentioned in the summary, there are some specific considerations relating to each Asking Bid which help to determine which one is being used at any one time. Some of the more common ones are as follows: Hopefully the above, combined with the more general considerations outlined in Priorities above, will have reassured you that you should never be in a second's doubt as to what an Asking Bid is Asking about.

Trump Agreement

This is also a crucially important point. I have made reference above to trumps being agreed and there are specific rules for each of the Asking Bids as to what constitutes trump agreement. A "positive" response to a trump asking bid is one that agrees the suit, not necessarily one that shows a stronger hand (see the responses to Alpha, for example, where the 2-step response is inevitably stronger than the 3-step response, yet it is the 3-step response that is the "positive" response while the 2-step response is a "negative" one. A Summary of the criteria for each trump asking bid is as follows: More details are given on the specific pages for each of these Asks.
Repeat Asks at Game Level
When we have ANY kind of repeat trump Ask in the trump suit at or above game level (whether it's Sigma, or a repeat Delta/Theta/Iota/Gamma in the same suit), the general rule is that it remains ambiguous.
  1. If Responder's exact controls are not known and not limited by an earlier Beta or Alpha Ask, then Responder will normally treat it as a repeat Ask unless they have a minimum positive with poor controls.
  2. If Responder's exact controls are not known but have been limited by an earlier Beta or Alpha Ask, then Responder will normally treat it as a sign-off unless they are maximum for the range of controls they've already shown, or better than minimum with some side-suit feature that they've not yet been able to show, or unless slam values have definitely been established
  3. If Responder's exact controls are known, then Responder will normally treat this as a sign-off unless slam values have definitely been established, or they have a previously unshown feature such as a side-suit void.
Since the use of Sigma is always aiming towards a slam rather than a mere game, the bits above about slam values being established will often be satisfied. Asker must always be aware, however, of the ambiguous nature of game-level repeat trump Asks in the trump suit. If they cannot afford to risk Teller treating it as a sign-off, they have to anticipate this possibility and find a different route if at all possible (eg: possibly make an invitational jump to the 5-level in a Major rather than an ambiguous repeat trump Ask at the 4-level).

Strategy & Tactics

(1) Experience: This is an area where only experience will help you. Crafting an Asking Bid sequence so that you conserve as much space as possible is not always easy. In many instances you will run out of room to ask further questions safely and either have to settle for a lower contract because there is no room, or you have to go with your gut feeling and "punt" the higher contract anyway. Quite often it is impossible to forsee an unexpectedly expensive response and so an element of luck does enter into things here. Really thinking about what partner's likely response is going to be and choosing your path accordingly does pay dividends, though.

(2) Planning: Similarly, it is sometimes worth planning your sequence on the basis of what the most inconvenient or unsatisfactory response might be. Often there is more than one way of ascertaining the information you need and frequently the lack of a control in one suit will pinpoint the existence of controls elsewhere. (Thus if you have a choice between an Epsilon in Clubs and one in Diamonds but only have room to ask one safely in order to find out which Ace partner has, think about which suit is the one you really need partner to have the Ace of and ask in that suit. That way if partner shows less than the Ace you are probably at a safer level and you are not risking finding him with a 3rd round control in the suit as well, in which he will be making a 6-step response and it's not the news you really wanted to hear.)

(3) Practice: One of the sure ways to developng a knack for steering a sensible course is discussion with partner and practice bidding (always the key to a good partnership in every way). Bridgebase has a fantastic but much underused Partnership Bidding facility where you and your partner can set up the conditions where Asking Bid sequences will occur on every hand (eg: set for 26+ combined points on every hand) and practice sequences for hours. You cannot possibly become adept at using Asking Bids without this.

Asking in Natural Sequences

For the most part natural sequences tend not to use Asking Bids unless Responder is completely unlimited and trumps have been agreed at or below the 3-level, except in those specific places where Asking Bid entry-points are defined by the system (eg: 1-2 Alpha, or 2-3 Gamma). Whilst in theory 4 Beta is available in any auction, prudence dictates that in practice the situations where it is used are quite limited. The rules surrounding Asking Bids in natural sequences are as follows:
  1. Except as specifically provided for in the system, Asking Bids are not used unless responder is completely unlimited and trumps have explicitly been agreed below the level of 3NT.
  2. Beta in a known singleton suit is always available
  3. 4 Beta is normally available over Intermediate Openings only when Responder is either known to be very strong or is still completely unlimited, and trumps have been explicitly agreed at the 2 or 3-level. If trumps have been agreed and responder is limited in some way, then 4/4 will be a cue-bid rather than Beta.
  4. Similarly in many instances 4/4 Beta is available to an unlimited Responder, but not to a "limited" Opener.
  5. In circumstances where trumps have been agreed and 4/4 Beta is used, then this establishes an Asking Bid sequence and subsequent side-suit bids are Epsilon.
  6. In natural sequences, unless 4/4 Beta is available and has been used, Epsilons are never available, and side-suit bids are cue-bids.


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