Bridge Ethics

Greg Herman

When people think of improving their bridge play, one typically thinks of the three pinnacles of bridge play- bidding, declarer play, and defense- and for a good reason: these are all critical components to the game.  But a fourth pinnacle- bridge ethics- is arguably just as important and often woefully underrepresented in the traditional bridge curriculum.  Earning the respect of expert players is not purely about illustrating strong technical ability, but also, perhaps even to a larger extent, about demonstrating good table demeanor and a high standard of bridge ethics.  Ethics and the Laws are not always completely intuitive, and I find it rather unfortunate that advancing players are not taught proper table conduct.  It’s exceedingly difficult to follow good ethical standards unaware of what that even means!  For the first couple of years that I played duplicate, I didn’t have an appreciation for what it meant, and learned slowly by example.  There are also many misconceptions about one should or should not do during the auction or play period.  In this short lecture, I hope to help you acquire a good appreciation for what it means to be an “ethical player”, and help you earn the respect and appreciation of experts and the bridge community at large.

In the very early days of bridge, bidding was notably more primitive than it is in the modern game today.  Many bids were very wide ranging and poorly defined, and many sequences had no convenient forcing call available.  Frequently, auctions required a great deal of guesswork by the player.  Pre-1960s, even in high level tournament bridge, much of the uncertainty surrounding a call itself was alleviated through extraneous communication about ones assets through voice modulation, enunciation, tempo, and expressions.  In those days, though not really discussed, this was largely accepted to be part of the game.  In his groundbreaking Bridge World article “New Science”, the late Edgar Kaplan first called attention to this practice of communication, calling it “that Old Black Magic”.  Throughout his bridge career, he argued that this was not how bridge was meant to be played, and advocated a high standard of ethics that has become expected of tournament players today.


Quick Note: Role of the Director

The director serves several functions during any bridge session.  One role is to run a smooth, on-time, enjoyable game.  Another role is to, to the best of his or her ability, restore equity in the event of any irregularity at the bridge table, by enforcing the Laws of Duplicate Bridge.  It is important to note that a director call is absolutely not an accusation of cheating or unethical behavior; in many cases, although this is often ignored in many contexts, the Laws actually require that the director be summoned (by the offending side) in the event of certain regularities.


Unauthorized Information (UI)

Simply put, unauthorized information is any and all information that is not authorized information.  So then, what information is authorized? (Law 16)

·        Any general knowledge about a board known before you see your hand.  This includes, but is not limited to: knowing your seat and vulnerability, the event format, the number of remaining boards and your estimation of your current standing, your knowledge and/or perception of your opponents style and ability, information about your partner’s general style and ability, and the amount of time remaining on the clock.  This does not include, for example, overhearing the result attained on the same board at another table.

·        Any information derived purely from legal calls and plays to the current board.  By purely, I mean:

o       For calls made by you or your partner, your recollection of the agreed meaning of the bid, and in the context of your system, any available negative inferences from having selected that call over other legal alternatives

o       For calls made by your opponents, their agreement on the meaning of the call, any relevant observed partnership tendencies, and any available negative inferences

o       For plays, the rank and denomination of the card played, in the context of the information you know about the hand (the cards in your own hand and dummy, and the calls and plays previously made on the board)

·        Withdrawn actions by the opponents

·        Knowledge of legal procedures and their applicability to the current board.  For example, if partner opens the bidding in fourth chair as the first call to the auction, and it is not accepted, the information that partner will be required by law to pass throughout the remainder of the auction is authorized to the offender.

·        Inferences drawn from opponents’ mannerisms, demeanor, tempo, gestures, reactions, etc.  These inferences are, however, drawn at the player’s own risk.

Examples of unauthorized information:

·        Tempo in which partner selects an action

·        Manner in which partner selects an action

·        An unexpected alert or failure to alert by partner

·        Any inferences from questions asked or not asked by partner about the opponent’s auction

·        Utterances or remarks by partner during the auction or play period

·        Partner’s gestures or expressions

·        Withdrawn actions or plays made by partner

·        Comments, results, remarks, or analysis overheard or accidently seen pertaining to to-be-played boards

·        Explanations by partner about the meaning of a call

Implications on the Law

Logical Alternative (LA) (definition from Law 16B1(b)):

“A logical alternative action is one that, among the class of players in question and using the methods of the partnership, would be given serious consideration by a significant proportion of such players, of whom it is judged some might select it.”


Law 16B1(a):

“Partner may not choose from among logical alternatives one that could demonstrably have been suggested over another by the extraneous information.”


Implications to Ethics

Is it unethical to convey unauthorized information?

No.  Sometimes, for example, you judge you need to sit and think about an important decision for an extended period of time.  This will convey unauthorized information to partner, and, depending on your final decision, this may restrict partner’s future legal actions.  But sometimes it’s worthwhile and important to take the time to make the right decision; just consciously recognize the implications of the choice you are making.


Is it unethical to needlessly convey unauthorized information?

Not unethical, per se, but it is certainly very poor practice; one who needlessly conveys UI makes for a poor partner.  All players (including ethical ones!) should strive not to convey UI when possible.


Is it unethical to use and/or be influenced by unauthorized information?

Yes- this is what is actually considered unethical. 


My partner bids out-of-tempo.  After this, I make my bid, and opponent calls for the director.  Is my opponent accusing me of being unethical?

No, not necessarily.  The opponents potentially have legal protection under Law 16B1, and are likely just calling the director to 1) establish the facts, and 2) retain their right to redress, should it be appropriate.  It should be noted that it is good practice to volunteer that you recognize that partner’s call was out-of-tempo before making your call, especially if you believe that, without the opponent’s knowing your hand, your call may appear to be perceived as being suggested by the unauthorized information.


The Stop Card

What is the primary purpose of using the stop card?

a)      A friendly reminder to the opponents to protect their rights

b)      A wake-up call to partner that you are about to skip bid

c)      To protect your own legal rights

Answer: Mostly (a), partly (c)


Though not mandatory, the stop card is suggested to be used immediately prior to making a bid that skips one or more levels of bidding.  Competitive bidding decisions are often some of the most difficult biding decisions in bridge.  This is especially true following a skip bid for several reasons: 1) There is less room to describe one’s hand, so your call is both more ‘final’ and ‘important’ than in the absence of the skip bid, 2) The stakes are higher owing to the higher level, and 3) One has often planned responses over a typical or ‘expected’ auction; in general, a skip bid is ‘unexpected’, requiring the bidder to collect their thoughts and re-plan their auction.  For this combination of reasons, players typically need more time to determine their next call over a skip bid vs. a non-skip bid or other call.  Thus, regulations mandate a player take approximately 10 seconds before selecting a call immediately following a skip bid, regardless of whether the stop card is displayed, in comparison with approximately 3-4 seconds in a typical context.  The stop card is thus employed to remind LHO about their expected change in tempo following my imminent bid, regardless of whether LHO has a problem justifying the 10 second pause or not.  However, in the event that LHO does break tempo, using the stop card is considered good practice to ensure protection of your own legal rights.


Breaks in Tempo

Breaks in Tempo (often called BiTs) are one of the most common ways of conveying UI, albeit unintentionally.  In NABC appeals casebooks, BiT cases typically comprise a substantial proportion of the committee cases.  Breaks in tempo can be established in two ways: 1) bidding anomalously slowly, 2) bidding anomalously quickly.  Bidding slowly is frequently referred to as ‘hesitating’, while bidding too quickly is often referred to informally as ‘insta-bidding’.  Many people only think about the former manner of breaking tempo, but bidding too quickly can be just as real of a concern, and perhaps even more prevalent. 


Suppose all red at matchpoints, RHO opens a weak 2S bid as dealer.

You hold:

xxxx                                     x                                           xx                                         xx

xxx                                       KQxx                                    Qxx                                      KQJTxxx

xxx                        OR          K9xx                      OR          Jx                           OR          xxx

xxx                                       Jxxx                                      AQxxxx                                x


Further, suppose you would pass with all of these hands (would you?).  Clearly some of these hands are much better than others.  But, passing with each of these, partner is not entitled to any clues about which hand you may hold.  This is why it important to call with the same tempo and demeanor on each hand; take your ~10 seconds and appear to be thinking about your decision (don’t just sit there looking like you’ve made your decision, but are just waiting now- that does nobody any good) before pulling out the pass card, regardless of which of these hands you are holding.


Suppose partner holds:






And the auction proceeds (2S)-P-(P)-? to him.  What should he bid?

2NT looks normal.  Opposite the first hand, though, bidding 2NT will almost surely go for at least -1100.  Opposite the 3rd hand, 3NT offers very good play.  If partner insta-passes with the first hand (consciously or subconsciously), and takes some time with the other hands, 4th chair is left in an uncomfortable position of having a good idea of how well their ‘normal’ action will work out even before bidding it.

Now, suppose 4th chair holds:






The auction again goes (2S)-P-(P).  Here, I think doubling all red at matchpoints is not insane, but probably fairly anti-percentage.  However, it could work- give partner:





and now 3H has good play, while 2S is also very likely to make.  However, the insta-pass tends to advertise a hand with considerably reduced playing strength, perhaps something more like:





And now bidding will be disastrous. 

Though it is often difficult to accurately determine what logical alternatives are at the table, it is often necessary to do so when given unauthorized information by partner.

In the above example, even though under normal circumstances I would pass holding the xx KQx Kxxx Qxxx hand, I consider x to be a logical alternative to P.  If partner insta-passes here, tending to advertise an especially poor hand in context, which suggests that further bidding on my part is unlikely to be successful.  Applied to this case, the UI from the fast tempo of partner’s pass demonstrably suggests that passing will be more successful than doubling.  Considering both actions to be logical alternatives, an ethical player feels compelled to double in this case, knowing it is not likely to be successful.

On a similar vein, suppose partner holding the xxx AJxxxx Ax Jx hand takes a 30-second tank over the 2S opening before choosing to pass.  This tends to suggest a reasonable holding, as the balanced Yarborough would not need 30 seconds to decide to pass. Now, lets make balancer’s hand a bit better, say:





Now, I consider doubling to be the clear percentage action, though passing could very well still be the more successful action (compare this hand opposite partner’s xxxx Axx Jxx Kxx hand), and I would still at the table consider pass to be an LA.  The ethical player, although he or she would typically choose to double with this holding, in the presence of the UI from the tank, feels compelled to pass.  Unfortunately, this means they miss an excellent heart game, but his is why one strives not to convey UI.


In Summary: RHO has made a skip bid- what should I do?

Answer: Take 8-10 seconds studying your hand, appearing to be contemplating your decision (whether you are or not).  Then, once you’ve made a decision on your call, reach into the bidding box and make your selection.  Though many players do not do this, it is proper to pause before selecting a call even in situations in which you are unlikely to bid, such as after (1NT)-P-(3NT) to you.


Hesitation Blackwood and Planning Ahead

Sometimes it is necessary to take some time to think about what bid or play to make in a given situation.  In a technical sense, all breaks in tempo convey unauthorized information- partner is not allowed to know that you took your action anomalously quickly or slowly.  However, oftentimes, the fact that UI was conveyed is irrelevant, since the UI of the tempo does not suggest or favor any action over another compared with the authorized information of the call or play selected.  If you wait until the crucial juncture to think about an important decision, it will be clear to the entire table (including partner), what you are thinking about, and a clear connection between the unauthorized information and partner’s subsequent action(s) will be established.  For this reason- and there are many other non-ethics related reasons to do this also- it is highly recommended that you think about your decisions as early as possible.  When you open the bidding, plan your rebids over expected responses by partner, and if possible, plan for some likely competitive auctions (by doing this, you may even find that a different opening will work better!).  On defense, after the opening lead is faced and dummy is tabled, take a healthy amount of time, say around 45-60 seconds, assimilating what you know about the hand and planning your defense; plan how you will signal in each suit (provided nothing highly unexpected occurs beforehand), whether or not you will cover specific honors played by declarer, and, if you are an experienced defender (and it’s absolutely okay to not be here yet) determine whether there are any falsecards you ‘must’ make.  After trick one, having already decided how to play under most foreseeable developments, try to play in an even tempo until something unexpected occurs (e.g. someone shows out earlier than expected), you are about to win a trick, partner has made his or her first discard, or several tricks have elapsed and a multitu de of new information has become available about the hand.  This practice will not only alleviate ethical problems for your partner, but will avoid giving declarer ‘tells’ to help them declare the hand, as you will have already made your important decisions.

In the bidding, there are many situations where planning ahead can help avoid giving UI that demonstrably suggests one action over another.  Two of the most common:

1)      Hesitation Blackwood.  There is a rather vast body of law on this particular situation dating back for many years.  The situation is: one player employs some flavor of blackwood, receives a normal (non void-showing) reply, and then thinks for a long time before taking their next call (most often, and most problematically, bidding 5Trump).  Unless you have a documented written partnership agreement specifying that Blackwood responder is obligated to force to slam holding the higher number of keycards after giving a 0/3 or ¼ response, he or she may not continue to slam after the slow signoff, regardless of what their hand looks like, and regardless of whether he or she had been planning on continuing to slam before the hesitation.  Moral of the story: before bidding Blackwood/RKC/Gerber, decide what you’re going to do over each ‘normal’ response (not too difficult- there are only four of them).  If, over some Blackwood response, you don’t know what to do next, perhaps you should not employ Blackwood and seek more information through control bidding instead.

2)      Responding to NT.  Most responses to 1NT (Stayman, Transfers, etc.) ask opener to select one of a limited number of descriptive calls.  As responder, before making your first call, decide what your will do over each expected response.  Deciding this before making your first response rather than before your second will help sever the connection between the UI (the pause before bidding) and whatever the UI could potentially suggest.


Other methods of UI transmission

Unauthorized information is not just about partner’s tempo.  There are many methods of UI transmission that I see performed unintentionally by beginning players, and occasionally even by more advanced players as well.  Common examples include:

·        Reaching for the bidding box, then retracting or moving one’s hand to a different call

·        Fidgeting, or expressing particular unease with a call or play

·        Verbal remarks, like “Let’s see how this goes”, or “Oh, what the hell” before making a call

·        Folding one’s hand and placing it on the table or otherwise indicating a lack of interest in the future developments on the hand

·        Placing a bidding or playing card on the table with special emphasis (often taking a little extra time with the card in hand, followed by a deliberate seeming ‘flick’ or release), occasionally even coupled with eye contact.  This one is common and especially egregious; it is typically used as a message: “wake up partner, this is a conventional bid” or “wake up partner, this is an important signal”

·        Doubling.  Somewhat related to the bullet above, but there is often a lot of UI transmission surrounding doubles.  I think it’s usually subconscious, but many players pull out the double card slightly differently when they double something for penalty vs. T/O (ex. Flicking vs. placing), including in situations where the partnership agreement on the meaning of double may be murky.  Or, though tempo often contributes here as well, when making a penalty double, players often (again, mostly subconsciously) tend to slap down a penalty double (indicating “this is flaming partner- don’t remove this”) holding a juicy trump stack, and double with less fervor when more content with a removal.  This is not really intended as a criticism of player tendencies, but rather a reminder to consciously think about how you pull the double card out of the box, and to slow down and take a few seconds to make a penalty double that you know is going for a telephone number.

This list is not meant to try to scare you.  We can’t all be perfect all the time, but try to do what you can to reduce these kinds of UI transmission.  The goal is to bid and play the same way every time, regardless of your hand.

UI From Alerts, Questions, and Explanations

When you make a bid, you are entitled to know what you think it means.  Referring to the definition of authorized information enumerated above, you are not, however, entitled to know what partner thinks it means, either from his alert or lack thereof, or by an explanation he or she provides to the opponents.  Pretend you are playing online or behind screens, where you do not hear or see his or her explanations and/or alerts.

Let’s briefly explore some common examples:





In 1st chair, you choose to pass.  Opponents passing throughout, partner opens 1S in 3rd chair, back to you.  You choose to bid 2C, by agreement an artificial S raise, showing invitational values (Drury).  Partner doesn’t alert, and now rebids 2S, systemically his weakest action.  Having a good hand, but with nothing particularly special in context, you now must pass, even though with the UI you know your game prospects have likely improved with partner suggesting a sixth spade.  Or, consider the case where partner rebids 3H.  Since partner may have slam aspirations, I believe it appropriate and ethical to cuebid 4D.  The unethical action here would be to bid 4S in an attempt to clarify your previous call, ‘knowing’ partner did not correctly interpret it.  Another Drury example- in 1st chair, you hold:





P-(P)-1S-(P) to you.  You bid 2C, intended as natural and constructive, but partner alerts (both verbally and visually, as required by regulation)!  He now rebids 3S.  You now have unauthorized information that your partner believed your call was a good S raise (is there anything else the alert could mean?) while you did not at the time of your call.  It doesn’t matter what your agreement really is as to whether you play Drury or not; you may not be ‘woken up’ to either your agreement or to the misunderstanding by the, in your eyes at the time you made the 2C bid, unexpected alert of 2C.  Therefore, in your eyes at the time you made the natural 2C bid, partner’s 3S rebids would suggest some extras with extra trump length.  Both 3NT and 4S seem like plausible rebids here.  However, you have the unauthorized information that partner was expecting a 3rd spade for your 2C bid, and may not actually have a sixth spade.  Thus, the UI suggests that bidding 3NT is more likely to be successful than a 4S call, and the ethical player, complying with law 16, must select the 4S call. 









Another common example is NT interference:

Partner opens 1NT (15-17).  RHO overcalls a natural 2D.  Now you x, intended as a penalty suggestion.  Partner alerts this and explains it as showing hearts (or worse, announces ‘transfer’), and bids 2H.  With a hand like:





You now have a clear 4H bid, thinking your partner knowingly removed your penalty double to show hearts.


“So, when partner and I have a misunderstanding regarding a convention, as ethical players, are we always destined to make ourselves favored to get a bad result?”

No, not always.  You can always use authorized information to inform your bidding decisions.   Sometimes the authorized information is sufficient to ‘wake you up’.  In some cases, this is clearly so, in other cases, it is a bit murkier.  Here’s one example where it’s fairly clear:

In third chair, you pick up:





Partner opens 1S, RHO x’s, and you choose to bid 2NT as a forcing spade raise with at least 4-card support, but partner does not alert.  LHO passes, partner passes (!), and RHO now bids 3C.  Though you initially got unauthorized information from partner’s failure to alert 2NT, you have authorized information that partner passed 2NT, which overwhelms the unauthorized information in indicating that you and partner are not on the same wavelength.  You may thus now bid 4S to clarify your original intentions knowing from the authorized information (the auction) that partner did not interpret your call as it was intended. 

A side note on this case: if your partnership agreement on this call was natural and invitational, and you just misbid on the first round, you would be permitted to bid 4S now, and RHO would have no redress.  If, however, your agreement was a forcing spade raise and partner forgot, then RHO was misinformed by partner’s failure to alert and would be permitted to retract his 3C bid. 


Conduct and Etiquette

Being a polite and respectful player is also a critical part of being a good player and good partner.  General courtesy and respect are important, but there are also several bridge-specific practices which are strongly frowned upon, and also prohibited by law (Law 74).  These practices can, in addition to being very poor form, present UI issues for partner.  Some of the most important examples outlined in Law 74 include:

·        Paying insufficient attention to the game, or displaying disinterest in the developments and/or outcome

·        Making gratuitous comments

·        Detaching a card before it is your turn to play

·        Being disrespectful to the director, or being rude about calling the director

·        Looking intently at another player during the auction or play

·        Comments indicating the expectation on which side will win a trick, calling special attention to an occurrence, or verbally noting the prospects on fulfilling (or setting) the contract


Asking and Answering Questions

What may a player ask?

A player may ask information about the opponent’s system, including calls made in the auction (regardless of whether or not they were alerted), positive and negative inferences (including meanings of alternative sequences), partnership style, defensive signaling agreements and style, and any other relevant partnership agreements.  You may not, however, ask questions of the opponents solely for partner’s benefit.


When may a player ask questions?

Some players get the misconception that one may not ask questions during the play; this is not true.  One waives (Law 41) their right to review the auction after playing their first card, but may continue to ask questions about their opponent’s methods at the player’s turn to play throughout the entire play period.  During the auction period, one may ask questions at (and only at) their turn to call.  After the auction has ended, the player on opening lead may ask questions and/or ask for a review of the auction.  Their partner may ask questions only after leader selects a lead and places it face down on the table.  The purpose of this procedure is to minimize the opportunity for 3rd hand to communicate unauthorized information to their partner before the opening lead is selected.


How should a player ask questions?

In general, try not to indicate exactly the specific clarification and/or distinction you want made.  When you want a general explanation about the call(s) made by an opponent(s), it is typically best to simply say “please explain”.  If that doesn’t yield an answer that addresses your question/concern, then ask a more pointed question.  Strongly try to avoid emphasizing the artificiality of a particular bid, or calling attention to a particular suit when possible; doing so tends to introduce UI that you have a strong holding in the suit questioned or suit of the artificial call.


Answering Questions

This probably goes without saying, but the same is true when answering questions, just from the opposite perspective.  Opponents are entitled to information about your agreements on calls made and not made, observed partnership style with regards to both bidding and play, and any other general partnership understandings.  When asked questions, closely tied with the notion of active ethics in bridge is the notion of full disclosure, namely, providing all potentially significant information (outlined above) without requiring the opponent to ask a series of directed questions about specific agreements and style.  More accurately, the principle of full disclosure- adhered to by ethical players to the best of their ability- states that the opponents should be as informed about calls and plays as the partnership making them.  When you have had an artificial sequence or have some non-standard inferences from your auction that are not alertable and you are on the declaring side, it is an example of good ethics to volunteer the information at the end of the auction without waiting for the opponents to ask.  It should be noted that this is not a legal requirement.  However, if the opponents have been misinformed previously in the auction, either from an improper alert or lack thereof or an inaccurate explanation of your partnership agreements, this legally must be disclosed after the auction by the declaring side, and after the play by the defending side. 


‘Policy’ on asking?

The question of what ‘policy’ to adopt with regards to asking questions is somewhat tricky to answer.  Plausible policies range from asking all the time at your first possible opportunity to only asking during the auction period if you believe the information to be relevant to your immediate call.  The latter policy can occasionally give your partner UI from the inferences of asking vs. not, while the former is much slower and can give rise to situations where the opponents have the capability of receiving and being influenced by the UI of their partner’s response without detection.  During the auction, I tend to only ask when the answer will affect my decision, recognizing the downsides of this policy.  I do, however, tend to ask many style questions after the auction but before the opening lead is faced, generally unaware of whether this will directly influence my play or defense.