The foundation of the bidding system in this book is what is known as five-card majors. That is, when you open the bidding with 1 ♥ or 1 ♠, you promise a suit of at least five cards. One of the advantages of making this agreement is that it makes it much easier for you and your partner to find an eight-card fit in a major suit. Knowing that partner has at least five cards in the suits he opens makes competitive bidding easier as well.
This is not how bridge started out — nor is this the universal rule for opening in a major suit. In many European countries, notably Great Britain, four-card major openings are standard. Perhaps the most famous American bridge player of all time, Charles Goren, taught and played a four-card major system. One of the all-time great players in bridge history, Bob Hamman, is an adherent of four-card majors.
Dissidents notwithstanding, nearly every bidding system associated with Standard American teaches five-card majors. The popular bidding system known as two-over-one game force (usually written as 2/1) is based on five-card major-suit openings. It is what virtually everyone you are going to play against will be using.
Following the point-count rules and common sense, an opening bid of one of a major strongly suggests at least 12 high-card points but as many as 20 or 21, at least five in the suit and some defensive (quick) tricks. The bid is not forcing, which means that if the partner of the opening bidder is very weak, she can simply pass. The next chapter will describe responder's choices after an opening bid.
The 2/1 game force system is self-descriptive. If you open the bidding in one of a suit and your partner bids at the two level, you are forced to game. In the vast majority of cases, neither partner can pass until some game has been reached, the exception being when the partnership discovers that the hands are serious misfits.
Safety in Numbers
Why do so many players employ five-card major openings? It's partly because of the measure of safety that the system offers.
Most players, and certainly most new players, abhor the thought of playing in the dreaded 4–3 trump fit (declarer's hand has four cards in the trump suit, while dummy has only three). What that means is that the opponents have almost as many trumps as you do, and if both suits are less than robust, it can be a dicey affair (not to mention when the opposing trumps split badly). If you routinely open four-card majors, you will find yourself playing 4–3 fits much more often than your five-card-major counterparts. That makes many players nervous. They prefer the comfort of knowing partner has at least five when he opens a major.
When you are blessed with two major suits and enough to open the bidding, start with the longer suit. If they are of equal length, open 1 ♠. Do not violate this principle because you like one suit better than the other.
In the hand above, do not open 1 ♥ just because your spade suit is weak and your heart suit robust. Don't think there's a problem? Well, how about this scenario: Partner bids 1NT in response to your 1 ♥ opener. Now what? If you bid your spade suit now, it shows a much stronger hand than you have. Why? Because if partner has to prefer your first suit, he will have to do so at the three level. If you choose to rebid 2 ♥, you have told a lie about your heart length. Rebidding the suit shows six of them. You can see that you are getting into a mess.
If you open 1 ♠, as you should, and partner bids 1NT, you have an easy second bid of 2 ♥. You may even get a chance to bid your hearts again to show the extra length.