Puppet Stayman after a 1N Opener | Justin Lall
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Puppet Stayman after a 1N Opener September 7, 2011

Posted by justinlall in Articles.
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Many people, including myself, play the following basic NT structure when they open 1N:

2– Stayman
2/2– Transfer
2– Clubs
2N- Diamonds
3– ?
3 – 5-5 minors GF
3 – 31(54)
3 – 13(54)
4– Gerber
4/4– Texas

There are a wide range of views on how to play 3, including 5-5 minors weak, and 5-5 minors invitational. I suggest playing 3 as puppet stayman. The responses are simple:

3– No 5 card major
3/3– 5 of that major

You may be wondering why the responses are different than over a 2N opener, where 3 would promise a 4 card major, and a 3N response would deny one. The difference here is that with 4-4 in the majors, responder would bid regular stayman (which would not be available after a 2N opener). Since 4-4 majors is eliminated, there is no need to show directly whether you have a major or not, if responder has one he can bid 3 of the major he doesn’t have, and opener can bid 3N.

So, the 2 obvious questions are, why play puppet at all, and why use these responses if you do?

To answer the second question first, the goal is for opener to reveal as little about his hand as possible. Think about the auction 1N-3-3-3-3N. Playing standard puppet responses, opener is known to have 4 hearts, and responder is known to have 4 spades. Playing my suggested responses, it is unknown whether opener has 4 hearts. This is a huge gain that can help declarer make life difficult for the opponents during the play.

When responder has no four card major and is just looking for a 5-3 fit, the modified responses are clearly better as it will go 1N-3-3-3N and no needless information about 4 card majors has been given away.

It might seem like standard responses gain when the auction goes 1N-3-3N. With modified responses, the auction would go 1N-3-3-3M-3N, and the opening leader will know which 4 card major dummy has. That is true, and will help the opening leader if he has a lead problem, but for the entire rest of the hand standard puppet responses lose, because declarer will be known to not have a 4 card major, whereas with the modified responses the defense will not know if declarer has 4 of the other major or not. It is my strong opinion that the modified responses will work much better on average even in this situation, but I’ll leave it to you to decide.

If you agree with me, something interesting happens. Logically, you should not only be bidding puppet when you are interested in a 5 card major from partner, you should be bidding it any time you have a 4 card major and a choice of games hand! Compare the possibilities of bidding stayman with those hands vs puppet stayman:

1) 1N-2-2M-3N, vs 1N-3-3-3M-3N. In the first auction, opener is known to have 4 of one major, and dummy 4 of the other major. In the second auction, dummy’s 4 card major is known, but it is not known whether opener has 4 of the other major.

2) 1N-2-2-3N vs 1N-3-3-3M-3N. In the first auction, dummy’s 4 card major is not known to the opening leader. However, after the lead the defense will have an easier time because they know declarer has no 4 card major. This is analogous to the discussion earlier about why to play the modified responses in the first place.

3) 1N-2-2M-3N/4M vs 1N-3-3M-3N/4M. In this case, puppet has lost because the defenders will know opener has a 5 card major rather than 4-5. The gains from 1 and 2 will be much more common than the losses from 3.

So, one reason to play 3 puppet is that it gives away less information than on hands you would normally be forced to bid stayman with. I learned this from my partner Joe Grue when I noticed him doing it and had to figure out why. The more obvious reason is that it allows you to find 5-3 major fits after opening 1N. Don’t bid puppet with 4333, as 3N will probably be best without a fit anyways, but shapes like 4342 with 2 small, or 5332 with 2 small clearly benefit from playing in a 5-3 fit, and it is nice to have a way to find it.

The less obvious reason to play puppet is that it helps your slam bidding by being able to show hand types that are otherwise difficult to show in the common no trump structure I described. Specifically, 5332 with a 5 card minor is easy to show with the auction:


This shows exactly 5332 with the minor bid, because if you had a 4 card major and a 5 card minor and slam values you would start with regular stayman followed by 3m.  On top of that, if you have a 5-3 major suit fit you will find it immediately with puppet. This is a hard hand type without puppet because if you deal with it by transferring to the minor, it becomes hard to find other fits, and that typically shows 6 of the minor. If you deal with it by bidding stayman followed by 3m, you will not be showing a slam try necessarily, and will be implying a 4 card major. Now if partner is 4-4 in the majors everything gets murky and difficult to sort out.

Showing this hand type becomes slightly trickier if partner responds 3M over 3. If the auction goes:


This is pretty easy to sort out. Just bid 3 as an artificial slam try in hearts, and 4 of a minor shows 32(35) exactly (with 5 of the minor bid). However, if the auction goes:


The auction is trickier. You can use 4 as all slam tries for spades, but that is extremely bulky and leaves no room to maneuver. Since a slam try in spades will be by far your most common slam try, I recommend just using 4 as a slam try in spades, 4 showing 2335, and 4 showing 2353. This requires some memory work, but it’s worth it.

Another good hand type is (43)42. You start with puppet. If partner bids 3, you show your 4 card major. If partner bids 3N, the auction has now gone:


4m now shows your 4 card minor, and implicitly, your entire shape. With (43)(51) you would have started with regular stayman followed by 3m, showing a 4 card major and a longer minor GF. You would still be able to find a 5-3 fit in the other major since partner would bid it twice. Being able to show your 4 card minor below the slam level is important, as often a light slam can be made in a 4-4 fit, but a quantitative auction will have you playing 4N. And of course, if you had a fit in either major, you would discover that easily after puppet.

Judging this convention on my 4 criteria that I described in this post, puppet is extremely frequent, costs little (losing 5-5 minors invite is not something I cry myself to sleep about, in fact the main cost comes when the opponents double 3 on a 1N-3N hand), is effective when it comes up (finding 5-3 fits and giving the opponents less information on normal stayman hands are both nice, and the slam hands take care of the few problem shapes, though those are infequent). The basic responses could not be simpler. The extra slam hands that are added in add a lot of complexity, but if your partnership is not ready for them then just forget about it. You will still be gaining frequently for very little memory work if you choose to do so.


1. Rahul - September 8, 2011

Excellent — haven’t come across a convention where you give up so little and gain so much! I am sure this will catch on quickly amongst serious players.

Noble Shore - September 9, 2011

Or play 2NT Puppet and 3c transfer to diamonds. You lose the invitational diamond hand, but now they can’t double Puppet and the extra step you gain when opener has no 5-card major is actually pretty useful.

sclarry69 - April 6, 2012


I could care less about the bad guys not being able to X clubs, but the extra step gained, is facinating. Using Kentucky windage, I came up with a rather makeshift extension, however I’m sure yours is better. Would you share it with me or direct me to a Meckwell extension?
Larry Harris

2. Mike Fish Bell - September 9, 2011

So – what do you play 1N:2C, 2M:3N as? Or do you find playing this as ART too forgettable? Agree with you on not giving info about opener’s hand, we transfer and bid 3NT with four cards for that reason.

3. justinlall - September 11, 2011

Noble, I am pretty sure meckwell does that. I think they include (31)(54)s in their 2N.

Mickyb: I have never played it as artificial, but choice of games seems like a good approach (gives more precision of getting to 3N when a fit is discovered). Also, perhaps if you give up on an immediate 4m keycard bid, you could do something like 3N balanced slam try, 4C/4D 5+m and 4 card support, I always thought being able to show your long minor when you have a fit would be important.

That said, perhaps you’d want to stayman with xx KQxx Kx AJxxx, and if partner bid 2D bid 3C, but if partner bid 2S bid 3N. I am not sure, using it as artificial if you don’t ever mess it up is probably going to be best, and would be another advantage of playing this way.

Hemant - September 11, 2011

Played in a Fort Worth Sectional today with Bart Bramley. He surprised me by saying he never saw the value of playing Puppet, but he has become a convert after reading this article. So we played it this way.

Nagey Kamel, our teammate, expressed similar feelings.

I think this version of Puppet is going to catch on.

4. Amnon - September 14, 2011

Hi Justin,

How do you bid invitational hands that are 5-5 in the majors?

5. Han - September 17, 2011

I don’t understand that there are people out there that didn’t know about this. I’ve been playing this for years, in fact ever since Justin told m.. oh never mind.

6. Ken Rexford - September 28, 2011

If you are abandoning the 3NT rebid (1NT-3C-3NT) as a call to deny a four-card major, which seems to have serious merit, then it seems like you are missing an opportunity not defining this call.

The problem auction that you mentioned is the one where Opener has five spades. Perhaps solving the problem earlier with Opener’s call makes sense? Maybe have 3S show five spades and a maximum but 3NT five spades and a minimum? After 3NT, 4H would seem to logically be a re-transfer, but slam might of course still be bid. After 3S, 4H would be unnecessary as a re-transfer, which allows this to still be a slam move. But, even if this is just Last Train, you would then have:

3NT = minimum with five spades (slam ugly); retransfer
3S…Decline 4H = eh, maybe
3S…accept 4H = POWER, BABY!!!

That takes MUCH less memory work than the structure you mentioned. Natural is good.

7. Bob Elliott - November 20, 2011

What does responder do with 3S&5H or 5S&3H…..?

8. Bud Hinckley - November 23, 2011

If the partnership allows a 1NT opening with five cards in either major, then responder when holding 3-5 or 5-3 in the majors has difficulty in finding if an 8-card major suit fit exists in either major.

I have an easy solution to this problem thanks to the use of this form of 3C Puppet Stayman that Justin has described. And the 1NT opening bidder will be declarer in all cases.

Remember that a minimum game forcing hand with a single 4-card major would use 3C Puppet Stayman. Therefore, the auction 1NT-2C-2D-3NT shows two 4-card majors and the auctions 1NT-2C-2H-3NT and 1NT-2C-2S-3NT will never theoretically occur. We can use these last two auctions with the “impossible 3NT” to our advantage.

If you hold 3-5 or 5-3 in the majors, plan on faking a Smolen hand if opener bids 2D as if you were 4-5 or 5-4 in the majors. If opener instead bids your 3-card major, then bid the impossible 3NT to show 3 cards in his major and five cards in the other major.

1. With 3-5 in the majors, use regular 2C Stayman and here are your three auctions:

(a) 1NT-2C-2D-3S (shows five hearts via fake Smolen)
(b) 1NT-2C-2H-4H
(c) 1NT-2C-2S-3NT (choice of games with 3-5 majors)

2. With 5-3 in the majors, you use regular 2C Stayman and here are your three auctions:

(a) 1NT-2C-2D-3H (shows five spades via fake Smolen)
(b) 1NT-2C-2H-3NT (choice of games with 5-3 majors)
(c) 1NT-2C-2S-4S
If the partnership forgets the impossible 3NT bid over 2 of a major, you could land in a 4-3 Moysian game, but it won’t be any worse than that.

Also, 1NT-2C-2D-3M (Smolen) would need to be alerted and explained as “3 or 4 cards in the bid major with 5 or more in the other major”.

Bud Hinckley

9. Bud Hinckley - November 24, 2011

Here is a table of the responses I have constructed for several major suit distributions held by responder when he holds a game forcing hand without slam interest after partner opens 1NT:

One or two 3-card majors

3C, then raise opener’s 5-card major to game or over 3D bid 3NT

One 4-card major (possibly with a 3-card major)

3C, then over 3D bid the 4-card major you do NOT hold

3-5 or 5-3

2C – 2D – 3 of your 3-card major (fake Smolen)
2C – 2 of your 3-card major – 3NT (artificial) showing the 3-5 or 5-3
2C – 2 of your 5-card major – 4 of the major


2C, then raise opener’s major to game or bid 3NT

4-5 or 5-4

2C Stayman, then Smolen over 2D or raise opener’s major to game

4-6 or 6-4

2C Stayman, then raise opener’s major to game or over 2D use delayed Texas; or use Texas directly and give up on the possible fit in the other major


Transfer to 2S and bid 3H (if you play 2D Forcing Stayman, you’ll have to bid 2D or you could bid 3D if used as 5-5 in the majors)

Bud Hinckley

10. Andrew Gumperz - November 29, 2011

This is pretty close to the original concept of Puppet. Puppet was originally created explicitly for the purpose of concealing opener’s shape in Stayman auctions, not for finding 5-3 fits.

11. Jan Sohl - January 25, 2012

I wonder how to invite game without a 4 card major? From all the reading I got the impression that bidding stayman promised a 4 card major but what other call can I make with a balanced invite other than bidding stayman and rebidding 2NT? Does it make more sense to allow these hands to bid stayman or to give up on the invite with these hands alltogether?

Bud Hinckley - March 4, 2012

If you need to use (regular 2C) Stayman to invite game with a balanced hand that does not include a 4-card major, it is my opinion that on average against good opponents it costs 1/4 to 1/3 of a trick to invite game this way. There are three reasons for this:

1. Opener’s response to the 2C bid gives the opponents information about opener’s hand.

2. The opponents on this auction know that a passive lead is often best and they won’t want to blow a trick on opening lead for fear that it will be the 9th trick in a close contract.

3. On rare occasions, an opponent might double 3NT after an invitational sequence but not double if you jump immediately to 3NT.

Particularly when you are vulnerable at imps, if holding a reasonable looking 9 HCPs, just bid 3NT and don’t bother inviting. And if you hold an average 5-card minor, be aggressive in bidding 3NT because often if this suit doesn’t produce tricks, 2NT isn’t making either.

You will find that there are experts, especially when playing imps, that don’t ever invite with a balanced hand without a 4-card major. With a fair looking 9 HCPs they bid game. With an average 8 HCPs they always pass facing a 15-17 1NT opening. (If you pass those 8 counts in tempo, you are occasionally given a 300 or 500 point gift by aggressively balancing opponents!)

Bud Hinckley

Jan Sohl - March 23, 2012

Thank you, this solves the problem for me, I am just not gonna invite anymore and thus making life more difficult for the opponents.

Bud Hinckley - June 15, 2012

I forgot to mention #4.

4. Jumping to 3NT prevents your LHO from doubling 2C or from making a lead directing 2D, 2H, or 2S overcall.

Bud Hinckley

12. bob elliott - July 10, 2012

In the auction 1NT-3C-3D-3M-3NT-4D…you state this shows responders exact shape (43)42…why can’t responder be (42)43 ???

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