It's also possible to open 1NT (one no trump), but that has very strict requirements. No trump contracts are difficult because, if the opponents have the majority of the power in a suit, you have no trump suit with which to gain control of the hand. No trump requires honor cards in all four suits, as well as enough cards in each suit to ensure that the opponents can't dominate it. So here are the requirements for a 1NT opener: You must have 16-18 HCP. That's a pretty strong majority of the points. The reason for such a strong hand is that your partner is unable to respond at the one level - you've bid over all of the one level bids. If your partner wants to describe a long suit in his hand, he'll have to bid at the two level. If your combined hands aren't strong enough to take eight tricks, you'll be in trouble. 16-18 HCP is a pretty good assurance that you're strong enough. Also note that 18 is the maximum for a 1NT opener. If you've got 19 or 20 HCP, open one of a suit and rely on future bidding to tell your partner how strong you are. I'll explain why in another lesson. No trump openers also require a balanced distribution - no voids (suits in which you have no cards) or singletons (suits with only one card), and no more than one doubleton (suit with two cards). If you have a doubleton, it needs to be strong. K-x or stronger, specifically. And you'll need to have stoppers in at least three of the four suits. It's hard to define a stopper, but aces are always stoppers, and kings and queens are likely to be stoppers as well. 9-7-6-3 of a suit isn't a stopper. A stopper is a card that will prevent the opponents from cashing lots of tricks in that suit at the start of the hand - you'll need to get control of the hand quickly, no matter what suit they lead. If you have the right distribution and stoppers, as well as 21-23 HCP, you can open a very strong 2NT, and 25-27 HCP is a 3NT opener. But those are incredibly rare and not worth worrying about. Your partner probably won't get too mad if you open one of a suit with any of those - and if you have five cards in a major suit, you probably should. You can always bid no trump later.
So those are all of the one-level opening bids. How about opening higher? There are two schools of thought about two-level opening bids. Some players play "strong twos", and others play "weak twos". "Strong twos" means that an opening bid of 2 of any suit indicates 22 or more HCP and a strong holding in that suit, while "weak twos" means that the opening 2 bid in a suit indicates 6-12 points and a strong holding (at least six cards, headed by honors) in that suit. This confuses many new players. Why would you open at a higher level with a weak hand? It's called "pre-empting", and this is why it works: Suppose the person to your left has 14 points and a decent diamond suit, and you have a weak hand with long hearts. You open 2H, a weak two. Now, if the opponent wants to bid diamonds, they have to bid a minimum of 3D. They have no idea what their partner has, and chances are that they'll be at the 4 level before they settle on a suit with a fit. They may or may not have the power to make a 4 contract. So, because of your bid, the bidding space that strong hands would have to determine the right contract has been pre-empted. You may have pushed them up into a contract they can't make, or prevented them from finding the right suit. It's common for opponents to discover, after they've bid game over a pre-empt, that they have slam-worthy hands but couldn't explore due to the decrease in bidding room. And if the opponents leave your pre-emptive bid alone and it becomes the contract, you've got a very long trump suit that will be good for a few tricks in addition to the power you and your partner have, so you won't be set too badly. And who knows? Your partner may have a hand good for no trump except for the suit where your power is, and your bid may reveal a 3NT contract ripe for the making.
In our system, we strike a balance between the strong and weak twos. A 2C opening bid is THE strong two in our system. As an opening bid, 2C says "I have at least 22 points and my distribution or point count isn't right for bidding no trump." Even if your partner's weak, you'll be looking for a game, and if your partner happens to be strong, it's time to explore slam. But remember - 2C is NOT a natural club bid and says nothing about the bidder's club strength. (But if the final contract turns out to be clubs, it's the 2C bidder who plays it.) An opening 2 bid in any other suit is the weak two as described above.
An opening 3 bid is even weaker, and is a "pre-empt" in every bidding system I know. Opening 3 of a suit promises 7 cards in that suit and 6-9 points. With 10-12 points, it's better to open at the 2 level (except in clubs) even if you have seven of the suit, to give your partner room to explore if he happens to be very strong.
It's possible to open even higher, at the 4 or 5 level, which signifies a freakish distribution where your hand has almost no power except in that suit. For example, I've had a hand like S A-K-Q-J-10-x-x-x H x-x-x D A C x where it didn't make sense to open anything but 4S. I've got nine guaranteed tricks in my hand, and the only way I can fail to make the contract is if my partner has no heart or club stoppers and the opponents cash three heart tricks and a club trick. (That's exactly what they did.) Note that I bid a contract one trick higher than I expected to make... that's a key to pre-emptive bidding. I need to bid as high as I can so that the opponents don't get to bid the game contract they can probably make. The higher I bid, the less likely they're going to risk jumping into the bidding at such a high level. It's better to be set one trick, even doubled, than to bid too low and let them find their game. If I expect to be set more than one trick, though, I'll tone down my bid a bit and bid 3 if I'm weak or 1 if I'm strong, like in the hand above.
4NT is a special, conventional bid that always has the same meaning - it asks your partner how many aces he has. That's called the "Blackwood Convention", and we'll learn more about it when we get to slam bidding. 4NT is higher than game in no trump but less than slam, so there's no reason to bid it as a natural contract bid. The same goes for 5NT or 5 of a major suit. Don't bid those as opening bids.
Bidding 6 or 7 of anything from the start means that you yourself guarantee that many tricks. If you've got S A-K-Q-J-10-9-7-6-5-4-3 D A C x, you can bid 6S. Then go buy a lottery ticket, because you've hit the jackpot. More likely would be a hand like S A-K-Q H A-K-J-10 D A-K C A-K-Q-J, which would be good for 6NT, because the only trick you might lose would be the queen of hearts. Slam opening bids are so rare that there's really no point in worrying about them at all - the real slams will require some more exploration to find. And that will be our next lesson - responding to the opening bid, and exploring low-level contracts up to game when the opponents are silent throughout the auction.
One more thing to keep in mind about opening - it's not every hand where one player has 13 HCP. After two or three passes, you can fudge your point count a little bit to make an opening 1 of a suit bid. Not by too much - remember, you know your partner has less than 13 points - but considering that your partner could have as many as 12 points and might have a good trump fit with you. And if he doesn't, you'll probably end up in a relatively safe 1NT contract. I usually open with as few as 10 HCP in fourth seat (after three passes) if I have a strong enough suit. With 12 HCP and a good, solid suit, you might even consider opening in first or second seat. This is just the first of many types of judgment calls you'll need to make on a hand-by-hand basis, or mutual agreement with your partner ahead of time. That's what makes Bridge so fun and interesting... no two partnerships will play the same way! In fact, there's a variation called Duplicate Bridge where teams take turns playing the same hands and comparing their scores - making a slam is meaningless if every other partnership makes the slam as well! But that's a story for another time.
As always, ask if there are any questions. Feedback dropped off a bit on the previous entry, so I have no idea whether people are understanding it or just not reading it. I may have to stop the lessons if people don't say something.