Jeff Lehman

Kicking Back

Provided that the partnership has solid rules to diminish the chances of misunderstanding of its application (something to be discussed at end of this article), kickback is one of my favorite conventions.

The general reason for kickback being preferred over 4NT as the keycard ask is the saving of bidding space.  4NT generally works fine for keycard when the agreed trump suit is spades – there is usually room to follow up with a queen ask, for example, when one of the five keycards is missing, and you want to avoid bidding slam if the trump queen is also missing.  However, 4NT can often work poorly when the agreed trump suit is not spades – there is often no room to follow up with a queen ask without getting above the five level (for example, 1-2 [inverted and game forcing]; 4NT-5; what should asker do with one keycard missing when asker does not hold the Q?).

Although the subject hand arose in a matchpoint context, assume that it arose in an IMP-scored event.

Consider this hand from North’s perspective, who held the following:




and heard this auction (see notations for explanations):

(1) (playing weak notrumps)
(2) 15-17, denies four hearts, does not deny four spades
(3) XYZ, artificial and game forcing
(4) denies three hearts, promises four spades
(5) establishing trump suit
(6) no special agreements, presumably best description


Almost certainly, South’s distribution is 4=2=3=4.

Let’s consider some possible hands for South:

KJxx, Ax, QJx, KQxx.  6 is a great contract; 6NT can be down after just two tricks.

Kxxx, Ax, AJx, Kxxx.   6 is a good contract; 6NT is only fair.

KJxx, Ax, KQx, Kxxx.  6NT is a great contract; 6 depends upon finding the Q.

KJxx, xx, AKQ, Kxxx.  6NT is preferable to 6, since 6NT might make without guessing the Q, while 6 will not.

KJxx, xx, KQJ, KQxx.  Off two aces, slam is surely not making.

How to distinguish these hands from one another?

Remembering that North holds two of the five keycards (A and A), the samples suggest the following:

  • When South holds three or more of the SIX keycards (four aces, K, Q), 6 would often have extra chances compared to 6NT, since there is a possible extra trick available via a diamond ruff and/or a possible lesser loser in the diamond suit (or the establishment of the fifth heart by ruffing if missing the A). 
  • When South holds only one of the FIVE keycards, slam should, needless to say, be avoided.
  • When South holds two of the FIVE keycards, and is missing the Q, the slam with the best chance of making is 6NT.  In this situation, 6 will always depend upon picking up the Q, while 6NT might be made without picking up the Q.

Keycard, followed when appropriate by a queen ask, seems to me to be the route to identify whether 6 is the best slam or not.

Some favor 4♣ as the keycard ask (minorwood); while some favor 4 as the keycard ask (kickback).  I strongly favor kickback, because with a slam invitational hand, a responder who is using 4 as kickback can bid 4 and hear opener’s opinion about slam, without having to commit to a keycard ask.  Opener would sign off in 4NT over 4 on a hand such as KJxx, xx, AKQ, Qxxx (a hand with poor holdings in both responder’s heart suit and the potential trump suit of clubs), and opener would avoid signing off in 4NT over 4 on a hand such as Kxxx, Ax, Axx, KQxx (a hand with lots of working cards, especially in the rounded suits).  Responder would appreciate the distinction provided by hearing opener’s opinion over responder’s 4 bid inviting a club slam if holding a hand such as Ax, KQxx, xx, Axxxx.

About those rules to diminish the chances for misunderstanding in a kickback auction?  I like the following rules because they are pretty simple to apply:

  • The keycard ask is never the suit above the agreed suit, if such suit was mentioned on the first round of bidding by either partner. Accordingly, as an example, if an auction began 1-1, and later diamonds were agreed by each partner, a subsequent 4 bid would be excluded from being keycard, but rather a 4 bid would become keycard.
  • The keycard ask and 4NT swap meanings; that is, when the four level of a particular suit is defined above as the keycard ask suit, then 4NT becomes the four-level control bid for the keycard ask suit.

A bit off the subject, but partnerships with solid XYZ agreements might note a way for responder, with club slam ambitions, to distinguish the quality of responder’s club holding.  Responders’ bid of 3 over opener’s 1NT bid can be reserved for hands of 16-18 support points, with two or more honors in the club (X suit).

1 Comment

Scott NeedhamJune 4th, 2017 at 12:57 pm

Hey Jeff:

Thanks for taking the time to expound upon KB, which is one of those structures that requires clearly thought-out agreements. Yours are illustrative of the decisions involved.

However, the discussion of responder’s alternatives seems to me backwards: Shape should describe to the balanced hand. In all of your examples, if opener knows of the D short, the decision gets much simpler; there is XYZ stuff that enables this description.

How about a piece describing defenses to WNT auctions, another area in which I’m constantly trying to get my partners to upgrade….

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