A Key Question

0314 or 1430: Which set of responses
to Roman Key Card Blackwood is better and why?

by Eddie Kantar
(ACBL Bulletin, January 2003)

Some players use 0314 respones to Roman Key Card Blackwood, other 1430. Is one really better than the other and if it is, why isn't everyone playing that way? These two approaches--the latter commonly dubbed "fourteen-thirty"--refer to answers given to a 4NT key-card ask. In the 0314 scheme, 5C shows zero or three key cards, while 5D shows one or four. Playing 1430, however, the meaning of these two responses is reversed.

The third- and fourth-step responses to Roman Key Card Blackwood--two keys without the queen of the agreed suit and two with the queen--are identical, so we need only concern ourselves with the first- and second-step respones.

First, a few givens:

    1. In most key-card auctions the stronger hand asks the weaker hand.

    2. A "0" response usualy leads to a sign-off.

    3. A "4" response, which is rare, usually leads to the moon (a small or a gland slam).

    4. A first-step response is preferable to a second-step response because it allows the asker an extra step for a lower-level queen-ask as well as for other lower-level asks. One of the beauties of using Roman Key Card Blackwood instead of regular Blackwood is that it allows the 4NT bidder to ask partner whether he holds the queen of the agreed suit, as well as for other goodies. To do this economically the asker needs room. The optimal response to 4NT, therefore, is 5C (as opposed to 5D) allowing a follow-up bid of 5D to become the queen-ask.

Clearly then, the best method for responding to Roman Key Card Blackwood caters to increasing the likelihood of a first-step response regardless of what bid is used as the key-card ask. Keep in mind that 4NT is seldom used as a key-card ask after a minor suit agreement.

Let's start by assuming the most likely scenario, the stronger hand asking the weaker hand. Playing 0314, a 5C response shows zero or three. "3" is a highly unlikely response when the stronger hand asks the weaker hand, so the 5C response figures to show "0".

After a zero rsponse the asker usually signs off. The end result is that a 5C response seldom leads to any further asks.

Playing 1430 the 5C response shows one or four. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that it shows "1". Now if the asker wishes to ask for the queen, 5D is available. This lower step is especially important when hearts is the agreed suit. Now the queen-ask can be made beneath the five level of the agreed suit.

Playing 0314, the "1" response is 5D, preempting the asker out of a lower-level queen-ask if hearts is the agreed suit. Clearly 1430 works best when the strong hand asks the weak hand.

Note: All serious 0314 players use 4S ("kickback") to ask for key cards when hearts is the agreed suit. They have to in order to avoid the queen-ask problem. Kickback is the name of the agreement some players have to ask for key cards by using the four-level bid directly above the agreed suit. For example, 1H -- 3H (limit raise), 4S is Roman Key Card Blackwood for hearts playing kickback. Kickback is especially useful when a minor suit has been agreed. After, say 1D -- 2D (inverted raise, game forcing), 4H is key-card asking.

Playing 4S as kickback gets around the queen-ask problem, but it opens up other cans of worms when spades is a previously bid suit. There are times when a player would like to bid or jump to 4S naturally, or perhaps cuebid 4S, or perhaps make a 4S splinter jump. Expert partnerships have rules to avoid these confusions, but it can get tricky.

For example, most use 4NT as a replacement 4S cuebid or as a replacement 4S splinter. When you use 4NT as a substitute cuebid or a substitute splinter, however, it becomes a little awkward for your partner to ask you for key cards.

So, if we agree that 1430 is better when the strong hand asks the weak, what about the other way around, when the weak hand asks the strong? No one knows the exact percentages, but let's say this occurs a generous 30% of the time.

Playing 0314, the 5C response shows zero or three, obviously "3". The "3" response is far and away the most common response when the weak hand asks. After all, the weak hand figures to have at least one key card, asking with zero key cards is rare. So playing 0314 the 5C response is just what the doctor ordered.

Playing 1430, the "3" response of 5D is not good since it wastes a step. The 5C response showing "4" leaves the asker better placed in theory, but in practice it's a hollow victory. The frequency is low, and even when it comes up, the room factor is usually not critical.

Conclusion: When the strong hand asks the weak, 1430 is superior, but when the weak hand asks the strong, 0314 is much better. If you can't handle playing both ways at once, it makes more sense to play 1430 on frequency. If, however, you insist on 0314 throughout, at least learn a simple version of kickback.

All this may sound reasonable, but you still have to know which is the strong hand and which is the weak hand. In most sequences it is obvious. Sometimes, however, the strength can be rather equally divided, so it doesn't hurt to have a few rules. You and your favorite partner can set up your own, of course, but you might consider these for starters.

The opener is considered the strong hand unless she has limited her hand showing a minimum range bid by

    1. Rebidding 1NT.
   2. Giving partner a single raise—even though the raise may be considered unlimited and forcing.
    3. Rebidding her original suit at the cheapest level.
    4. Making a non-jump rebid after partner bids the fourth suit.
    5. Passing in a competitive auction when a pass would not be considered forcing.
    6. When opener has preempted.
    7. When opener has opened 2D (or 2H), Flannery.
Responder is considered the strong hand if

    1. She has made an original jump shift.
    2. Opener has done any of the seven things listed above.

It is possible for the stronger of the two hands to make a key-card ask but by the rules it is still considered the weaker hand. Confused? Try this example. Say you open 1NT (15 to 17 high-card points) and partner eventually makes a key-card ask. By the rules, you have more than a minimum opening bid and are considered the strong hand. But what if partner's hand is even stronger? No matter, the weak hand is still asking the strong. Live with it and remember you are playing 0314. This doesn't come up very often and if it does, it's hard to imagine anything bad happening. I mean, how bad can it be when a hand that is stronger than a strong notrump makes a key-card ask regardless of which set of responses one uses? Give me a break. Chances are you are going to get a "2" response anyway.

It would be nice to hear different opinions on this subject.

Note added 21 Dec 2006 by the author

[In case] the “weak-hand/strong-hand” scenarios at the end of this article...scare away the reader, there is an alternative method that is easier and almost as good. It works like this:

When the opener asks, it is a 1430 ask—period.

When the responder asks, it is also a 1430 ask unless opener has shown extras by:

In each of these scenarios when responder asks it is a 3014 ask.


Kantar can be reached by e-mail at ekbridge@earthlink.net. His web address is http://www.kantarbridge.com.