Versus Opponents' Preempts

Author: Larry Cohen
Date of publish: 05/01/2015
Level: Intermediate

Versus Opponents' Preempts

Welcome to the 23rd article in our tour of the convention card.

We've reached another important and often misunderstood area.


When your opponents preempt, there is a place on the convention card to mark whether double is "Takeout" or "Penalty."  (There used to be a box called "Optional" -- I lobbied hard to get that ridiculous choice taken out--what the heck is "optional?" -- anyway, it is now gone).

If you mark "Penalty," maybe your last name is Fishbein. Harry Fishbein invented a convention whereby a double of a preempt is for penalty (and the next suit is for takeout). What do I think of this unpopular convention? Let's just say that even Fishbein didn't play FISHBEIN!

When the opponents preempt, a double is for takeout. Period. Whether in direct seat or balancing seat, nobody plays double for penalty.

On what level? Surely on the 2- and 3-level everyone plays double for takeout. What about the 4-level?

4-Level Doubles

A double should still be takeout. Some teachers espouse that doubles of 4? are takeout but doubles of 4? are penalty. What do I think of that one?

Let's put it this way: What would you do if RHO opened 4? and you held: ?3
?A K 5 4
?A Q 7 4
?K 8 4 2
? You would double, of course. But, to call this a "Penalty" double makes no sense. You would be delighted to hear partner remove to 5? with, say, ?8 6 2
?Q J 10 8 7 2
?K J 2
.  You would make 5? instead of collecting (at best) a measly penalty. If your double of 4? is "Penalty," partner won't remove it. So, it is silly to define doubles of any preempt as penalty. (What are the odds that you will get dealt a trump stack when your opponent also has a very long, usually good suit? Infinitesimal!) If you ever do get dealt a penalty double, you have to calmly pass, hopefully in tempo, and pray that your partner doubles for takeout. You will then be able to convert (by passing) for penalties. If they buy it undoubled, so be it--you can't cater to everything. In case you are wondering, a bid of 4NT would show a 2-suited takeout (at least 5-5).

More on High-level Doubles

So, doubles of 4?, 4? (and 5? and 5? for that matter) are NOT Penalty. They are "takeout." Note the quotes around takeout. Your partner does not have to take out these high-level doubles. On low levels, partner will rarely convert  a takeout double for penalties. But, over 4?--Double--Pass, what is partner to do, with, say: ?8 6 4
?A 4 2
?J 8 7
?J 6 5 3
? He shouldn't take out to the 5-level with such flat shape. So, he will pass and hope to beat 4? doubled.  A high-level takeout double should be removed only if the partner of the doubler has lots of shape. Certainly a pull to the 5-level should not be undertaken unless the distribution is extreme (like a 6-card suit, or a big 2-suiter, or a void...). To take out on the 4-level (especially 4? over 4?), not as much shape is needed to pull.  In all cases, it is a judgment call -- that's why people preempt!


Overcalls of preempts show good hands--roughly opening-bid strength. Just because they are weak, doesn't mean you should come in with a weak hand. A jump overcall shows a good 6+card suit and at least 15-16 HCP ("Invitational").

Advanced-Level Methods

Lebensohl : After a weak-two by the opponents, most experts employ Lebensohl. This is the same name as the popular convention that is used after we open 1NT and the opponents overcall.  This can be confusing. When used after a weak-two is doubled, a pull to 2NT is artificial and shows weakness. It requests the doubler to bid 3?-- then the partner of the doubler can pass to play in 3? or remove to 3 of a new suit to play there. A direct bid by the partner of the doubler (without going through the 2NT puppet) is value-showing (forward going). The 2NT bid is made with hands containing less than 8 HCP (approximate). With about 8-9-10-11 HCP, the double can be taken out directly to the 3-level. There are many variations and nuances to this convention--I have given only a brief summary here.

Roman Jump Overcalls: Many experts play that a jump to 4? or 4? after the opponents' 2? or 2? is conventional. It shows at least 5 cards in that minor, plus 5 or more cards in the other major. It is forcing to game; partner can't pass. It is also on in balancing seat. You can click the link for more details.

Cue-bids: What does it mean if you bid 3? over the opponents' weak 2??  If you haven't discussed it with partner, it is probably best not to wheel out this bid. If you are using Roman Jumps (see above), there is no need to use the cue-bid as Michaels. Instead, it should probably be played as stopper asking, a hand such as : ?K 2
?8 3
?A 2
?A K Q 10 8 7 6
--partner will bid 3NT with hearts stopped. Without hearts stopped, bid 3♠ with a decent suit, otherwise, 4♠ (pass/correct).

A cue-bid of the opponent's minor-suit preempt should show both majors. For example, 2♠ (3♠) or 3♠ (4♠). Both show at least 5-5 in the majors and a good hand.

If you enjoyed this article you might consider Larry's webinar on this subject found HERE.

Larry's Audio Tour of the Convention Card