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Diamond Article - Part one of Assessing Distributional Hands

Hands fit into categories: I’ve a minimum for what I’ve bid, I’ve an intermediate hand, I’ve enough for game, I’m interested in slam, or I’m slam forcing. These categories are how we decide how high to bid.

Balanced hands (much as we hate them) are very easy to assess. They draw their strength entirely from their high cards, so we simply add up the HCP total and slot it into the appropriate point range, and we know how high to bid.

Distributional hands derive their strength from both their HCP and their shape. Shape is much more difficult to quantify.

One of the more useful tools in our toolbox for distributional hands it the Rule of Twenty. If a hand meets the Rule of Twenty (the number of HCP + the number of cards in our two longest suits = 20 or more), it is an opening hand.

This is useful for more positions than just opener. Overcaller needs an opening hand to make a takeout double. If Responder has an opening hand, she will usually force to game. Both of these positions can use the Rule of Twenty to decide whether or not to upgrade the hand based on their shape.

What makes shape so difficult is sometimes it is good and sometimes it is bad. Is your void a good thing? Is your long suit helpful? Lots of people just arbitrarily add points for these shape aspects and slot the hands according to their new point values. This is a vast oversimplification. In order to really determine how good or bad our distributional shape is, we need to use our bidding judgment.

Let’s talk about some less obvious aspect of our hands that dramatically affect how our shape affects our strength.


The single most important part of shape is fit. Does my hand fit well with my partner’s? Does it fit poorly? We might dramatically upgrade a hand that we feel is fitting very well and we might dramatically downgrade a hand we feel is a misfit.

How do we know? We listen to the auction.

Notice how different we feel about the very same hand in two very different auctions:

Did our partner open 1h when we have five? That’s a great fit and we should upgrade our hand.


Did our opponent open 1h when we have five? The hand is a misfit and we should dramatically downgrade the hand.


Here are some basic thoughts when evaluating fit:

-Having more than 8-card between your hand and partner’s improves your hand.

-Having a fit in more than one suit with your partner improves your hand.

-Having strength and length in the opponents’ suit weakens your hand.

-Being short in partner’s suit weakens your hand.

-Having high cards in a suit you know your partner is short in weakens your hand.

-Having low cards in a suit you know your partner is short in strengthens your hand.

You might open a distributional hand and think that it is great, but as the auction goes on and the opponents bid your long suits and your partner bids your short suits it gets worse and worse and worse.

If you like what you hear, you will upgrade the hand and be more aggressive. If you don’t like what you hear, you will downgrade the hand and bid conservatively (if at all).

Spot cards:

Sport cards are the cards that support our honor cards. They are the cards we don’t get any points for having, but that can make all the difference between succeeding or failing in our contract.

Compare these two hands:



Which one would you rather have? If you count losers in the first one, you only have six losers. If you count losers in the second one, you have twelve losers! What a difference higher spot cards can make.

Where your high cards are:

We want our high cards in our long suits, not our short suits. Compare these two hands:



Notice that the shape and HCP value of both hands is the same. How does the placement of high cards affect the hands? If we compare them by counting losers we find that in the first hand, we have nine losers and in the second hand, we have seven losers. Just shifting the high cards to our long suits has gotten rid of two losers!

How distributional your hand really is:

There more cards you have in one or two suits, the stronger your hand is. It’s easy to see that having two five card suits is better than having a four card suit and a five card suit. Having a six card suit and a five card suit is better than having a six card suit and a four card suit.

The more length you have, the better. But, there’s more to distribution than just length, there’s shortness too.

We would much rather be 5-4-4-0 than 5-4-2-2. Even 5-4-3-1 is better than 5-4-2-2.

Remember that length is useful to us. Having three suits is much better than having two suits. Also, don’t forget that having a fit in more than one suit with partner is a really good thing. If our shape is 5-4-4-0 , we could have three 8-card fits with partner even if her shape is a balanced 3-4-4-2.

How do we make use of these tools? We upgrade or downgrade the hand. If your hand is near the top of a point range and you like your shape and what you’ve heard on the auction, upgrade it. If it is near the bottom of a point range and you don’t like what you’ve heard or your shape, downgrade.

And remember that we tie how aggressive we are to how strong our shape is. With extreme shape, be extremely aggressive in your bidding. With balanced shape, be very conservative.

The next step is: If you think your shape is fitting well with partner, be more aggressive. If you think the hand is a misfit and you are not fitting well with partner, be more conservative.

In my next article, I will go over a process that is invaluable in evaluating distributional hands.

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