A Single Stopper at No Trump

It all started with Dennis Clarke. He showed at least 6 HCP, I had 18 HCP, but I didn't have a stopper in hearts, which the opponents had bid. I showed a strong hand and gave him a chance to bid 2NT. He did not. I revealed the full strength of my hand and gave him another chance to bid 3NT. He did not. So we languished in part score. I was upset to see, as he played the hand, that he had a heart stopper.

I was embarassed to discover that 3NT did not make. I asked Dennis why he didn't bid no trump. He said he didn't want to bid 3NT with just one stopper.

That goes against standard beginner advice. Basically, the rule is that, lacking a major suit fit, you bid 3NT if every suit is stopped. Dennis was inventing a rule I hadn't heard of.

But he was right. The more points you have, the more likely you are to make 3NT. And if you have no stoppers in the opponents' suit, you aren't going to make 3NT no matter how many points you have. But for any particular amount of HCP, you are less likely to make 3NT if you have just a single stopper in the opponents suit. They lead the suit. They knock out your stopper. If you can take 9 tricks off the top, no problem. If you can't, you might make the hand, but your chances are not good.


Meckstroth and Rodwell came next. They are famous for bidding 3NT on air. One book said they don't think it is sporting to be in 3NT with more than 24 HCP.

I am no Meckstroth or Rodwell. I don't know what they do. I mean, I want to be able to tell when I have a lot of air so I can bid 3NT too. But what is air?

But I noticed sometimes that I was in 3NT without a lot of HCP and yet it was particularly difficult for the opponents to set me. I decided that these hands had a lot of air. Obviously, air was a secret weapon. And I set out on a quest to discover what the air was that Meckstroth and Rodwell used to bid 3NT. Meanwhile, I was still thinking about what you wanted as a stopper in the opponent's suit.

I still don't know what Meckstroth and Rodwell do. But I discovered a good candidate for air. Upon closer inspectation, it doesn't really look like air. It looks more like netting -- strands of rope that would trip you up and maybe even ensnare you if you tried to run over them.

Stoppers: No Trump Versus a Suit

Suppose you know that the opponents are going to attack spades. This occurs when they have bid spades; they are also likely to lead spades if it is the only unbid suit.

You could have

Ax xxx

That's a stopper. Compare that to

Qxx Jx

That's a stopper too. But they aren't the same. In the first case, your ace is always a trick. You can cash it when you want, or even use it for communication. The opponents give you nothing when they lead that suit. All they are doing is setting up their own tricks.

Now look at Qxx opposite Jx. The ace was 4 HCP. This is only 3 HCP. The first thing you will learn if you go beyond the simple point count is that aces are undervalued and quacks (queens and jacks) are overvalued. So the ace counts as a lot more than the queen and the jack. Offensively, the ace is much better. If you have to get a trick from Qxx opposite Jx, you are in trouble. First, you have to have the ace and king in the same hand. Second, it takes you two leads to set up the suit. And forget about using this combination for communication or control.

But what if the opponents are going to lead the suit? Now the queen and the jack are 1 trick. Same as the ace. You can't control when you win the trick, so they aren't quite as good as the ace. But they are almost as good. Meanwhile, you have a high card point somewhere else.

And, when the opponents lead this suit, they are setting up a trick for you that you wouldn't otherwise have. And how many tricks are they setting up for themselves? They start with two. If they attack the suit and it is breaking 4-4, they are only setting up 1 trick for themselves. (Of course, if the suit is breaking 5-3, they are setting up two tricks.) Qxx opposite Jx is not a particularly good stopper. But it is, for most purposes, as good as the ace even though it is 1 HCP worse and much worse than the ace at a suit contract of if the opponents do not lead the suit.

If your only stopper is an ace, you are probably better off in a trump contract. If one opponent has bid a suit, the stopper of Qxx opposite Jxx is horrible for a suit contract -- it probably won't take any tricks, because one opponent will ruff the third round. KQ10x opposite Jxx is even worse -- in a trump contract the opponents are liable to win the first three rounds of that suit too if it is breaking 5-1.


As it turns out, Qxx opposite Jx is not particular good netting. There are two features that create good netting. One is having a four-card suit. The other is having good spots. I think you should always pay attention to tens, but they are always useful. I usually don't upgrade my hand for having nines, but they help create good netting when they are in a four-card suit. Even 8's can be relevant. Okay, let's start with Qxx opposite Jx. In this case, the spots don't help -- Q109 opposite J8 produces the same trick. That's because there is no four-card suit.

With just the queen and jack, but no spots, changing the distribution to 4-1 doesn't help much either.

QJxx x

is slightly better than Qxx opposite Jx. You have two stoppers if the ace and king are onside. That would be great netting. If opening leader has Kx and leads the K, you still have two stoppers. If opening leader has king third and leads small, then you might be able to win a trick and block the suit. So this is a substantial improvement when the defender in front of this combination is long in the suit. If the defender behind is long, or the suit is 4-4, you have just the same one stopper.

Now lets add a 9 to this 4-1 distribution:

QJ9x x

That changes everything. Typically, RHO will play a high card and return the suit. You play your Q and LHO erroneously wins. Now LHO cannot continue the suit without giving you two tricks. LHO can shift and wait for partner to come in, but you can try to keep RHO out. And if RHO does get in, you have the boss card in the suit. That of course assumes that the 10 is offside. If it is onside, then you have two stoppers and they are setting up your winners when they attack the suit.

The point? Something magical happens when the opponents try to attack a 4-card suit with good spots. They have trouble setting up tricks. They tend to be setting up as many tricks for you as they are for themselves.

What if LHO has K10xxx and ducks the second trick? That's the worst-case scenario, and you still have the fact that LHO is a safe hand to lose tricks to.

Defining Good Netting

So what is netting? Netting is a card combination that is good for when the opponents lead the suit -- they tend to be setting up your tricks, not theirs. Two features that are good for netting are having a 4-card suit and having good spots. QJ109 is a double stopper with only 3 HCP and the opponents are setting up your tricks when they lead the suit. QJ109 is also reasonable offensively, so maybe we should give QJ9x the highest award for netting. It isn't worth much on offense, but defensively it is liable to be two tricks. If the opponents don't give you that second trick, it is still a major stumbling block -- they will have lost all tempo.

How does this work? My partner bids a suit, I bid a suit, my partner bids a suit. I have KQ10x in the unbid suit. I bid 3NT. If we have 24 HCP we will make. If we have 23 HCP, we will still probably make 3NT. If I had Axx in the unbid suit, I am more likely to be conservative or look to play in a trump suit.

On Defense

This issue also comes up on defense. Mike Lawrence noted this is one of his books, though not exactly using the concepts I am using. Normally, against 3NT, you try to attack a suit you are long in and they are short in. Ideally, you have a five card suit and their longest holding in the suit is 3-cards. No matter what happens on the first three tricks, you are potentially setting up your fourth and fifth trick.

But sometimes you have to attack a suit that they have four-card length in. If you do, be swayed by the 8's, 9's, and 10's. I cannot find Lawrence's example, but it is something like this. If declarer has a 4-card heart suit, it is a waste of time to lead a heart from A6532. However, A9874 is attractive.


Today, my partner opened 1D, I bid 1H, and my partner bid 1S. I held

Normally, with 12 HCP, I jump to game opposite an opening bid. I actually evaluate this to 11 1/2 HCP, because of the unsupported jack of diamonds and no tens (see Half Points). That gave me some hesitation, but I can't invite to game expecting partner to go if he has an extra half-point.

One other thing gave me pause -- my lack of netting in clubs, the unbid suit. Yes, I had four clubs, and yes I had a club stopper. But my spots were very bad -- something like K642, or maybe even K542. My fourth club was not going to bother anyone. And partner probably did not have a 4-card club suit, so he wasn't going to have good netting, and it probably wouldn't add up to much netting.

I bid 3NT anyway. The opening lead was a club, and my partner came down with

Yes, partner had great filler cards in clubs, but they disappeared on the first three club tricks and 3NT was down.

Note that if I had just had the 9 of clubs, I would have had a second club stopper (even without the 87 from partner). Notice too that the 9 in partner's hand would not have been much help -- K6xx opposite 1098 is only one trick unless the 7 is in the short hand, and K5xx is only one trick unless both the 7 and 6 are in the short hand.