Evaluating a hand

Throughout the bidding process the players are communicating, via a coded language, information about the strength and shape of their hands. The goal is to exchange enough information to be able to find a good, if not perfect, contract.

The strength of a hand

To categorise the strength of a hand it is traditional to use a point count system.

High Card Points

High Card Points (HCPs) are calculated for the most powerful cards in a hand:

  • 4 for an Ace
  • 3 for a King
  • 2 for a Queen
  • 1 for a Jack

A deck of cards contains 40 HCPs and an average hand contains 10 HCPs.

It therefore seems logical that to make a contract of 1 NT you would expect a partnership to need at least 21 HCPs, and experience has shown that to make 3 NT requires about 25 HCPs.

Distribution and Total Points

To play in a suit contract a partnership should have a majority of the cards in the suit. A bare majority (7 cards) is insufficient since the other 6 cards are likely to be distributed 4-2 between the other two players. Therefore to play in a suit contract a partnership is looking to find a suit with at least 8 cards.

A suit where a partnership has at least 8 cards is called a Golden Fit. It is easier to make a contract where you have a Golden Fit in the trump suit an a contract at the same level in NT. For this reason you can count extra points called distribution points (DPs) for long suits, on the basis that long suits are useful for finding a Golden Fit. Count 1 point for each 5 card suit, 2 for each 6 card suit, 3 for each 7 card suit, and so forth.

The Total Points (TPs) for a hand is simply the sum of the HCPs and the DPs.

Because it is so advantageous to play in a suit contract (with a Golden Fit, of course) it is possible to make a part score with only 18 TPs. Experience has shown that to make game in a major suit (4♥︎ or 4♠︎) requires about 25 TPs whereas to make game in a minor suit (5♣︎ or 5♦︎) requires 28-29 TPs.

Hand Strength and contract levels

Let’s put all of this into a table to which we’ll refer frequently in future.

Bidding LevelNo TrumpsMajor SuitMinor Suit
Game3 NT
25-26 HCP
4♥︎ or 4♠︎
25 TP
5♣︎ or 5♦︎
28 TP
Part Score1 NT
21 HCP
1♥︎ or 1♠︎
18 TP
1♣︎ or 1♦︎
18 TP
Relationship between hand strength and ability to make a game or part-score contract

The shape of a hand

Whilst bidding the players are not only communicating information about the strength of their hands but also about the shape – or distribution of cards – within their hands.

The language of bidding is very limited and this restricts what can be communicated. Ideally a player would like to tell partner something like “I have 4♣︎ 3♦︎ 2♥︎ 4♠︎” but this just isn’t possible. So the bidding messages encode just one of two options: that a hand is either balanced or unbalanced.

  • A balanced hand has no six card suits, no singleton suits, no voids and at most one doubleton. There are three balanced hand types:
    • 5-3-3-2: A five card suit, two 3 card suits and one 2 card suit.
    • 4-3-3-3: A four card suit and three 3 card suits.
    • 4-4-3-2: Two four card suits, one 3 card suit and one two card suit.
  • An unbalanced is a hand with any other distribution. Examples of unbalanced hand types are:
    • 4-4-4-1: The only unbalanced hand type without a five card suit.
    • 5-5-2-1, 5-4-2-2, etc.
    • 6-3-3-1, 6-3-3-2, etc.

Imagine, for one moment, that you learn that your partner holds a balanced hand and recall that to play in a suit contract you need a Golden Fit:

  • If you hold 6 cards in a suit then a Golden Fit is certain, since your partner has at least 2 cards.
  • If you hold 5 cards in a suit then a Golden Fit is probable.
  • If you hold 4 cards in a suit then a Golden Fit is unlikely.

Now imagine that you learn that your partner has an unbalanced hand. Then you also know that they either have two 4+ card suits or at least one 6+ card suit.

Simply knowing if a partner’s hand is balanced or unbalanced conveys a lot more information than you might at first imagine.