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Active Ethics and the Alert Procedure
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Most experienced players are well aware that partner’s alerts and explanations are intended for the opponents’ benefit only. They are also aware that they must strive not to take advantage when the “alert and full disclosure” procedure offers them unauthorized information (UI).

Newer players, and even some very experienced players, often seem to lack education on this subject. When partner’s alert, failure to alert, or explanation of your bid gives you information, that information is unauthorized to you.If this concept is new to you, Ed Barlow’s article on Page 4 of this newslettermay be helpful.

Bending over backwards to act properly isn’t always easy, even for those who have a sincere desire to do so. An effort is required in order to play the game fairly, especially when there are no screens in use, as is usually the case in the ACBL, in all but the later rounds of major team events.

Along these lines, at the recent NABC in Philadelphia, I encountered three situations which I’d like to share and discuss with the Bridge Winners community. All were in nationally-rated events, but not the "majors."

A note to my students: These issues are complex, and I am not writing this article in teacher mode. Please don't be concerned if you lack the experience to follow much of this discussion.

Case 1:

I hereby present an Active Ethics Award to Corey Krantz, a bridge professional from Philadelphia. Since I’ve never known of a follow-up to an active ethics nomination, I’m skipping straight to the award.

The prize.......... my admiration (along with his own self-respect, I assume).

In the first session of the Wernher Open Pairs, Corey held:

North
AQ72
Q543
KQ94
3

Nobody vul, his partner opened a 15-17 1NT in second seat. RHO doubled, showing either diamonds, or a major + clubs. Corey bid 2, Stayman. His partner bid 2, and Corey bid 3, showing a spade slam try, with unspecified shortness. A 3 bid by partner would ask him to disclose his shortness.

Corey's partner failed to alert 3, and then bid 3NT. Imagine yourself, an actively ethical player, in Corey’s shoes. How might you think about this?

You pretend that partner alerted 3 (and perhaps even explained it accurately when asked), and then chose to bid 3NT. Partner seems to be expressing a desire to play in 3NT, regardless of your shortness. The field will surely be playing in spades, but if you trust partner, this could be a top! After all, you have no distributional values beyond what you’ve “shown.”

If you are human, somewhere in your mind will be the thought that partner didn’t understand your bid, and that playing in 3NT is likely to be the opposite of a top. And if you are an experienced player, you may also realize that you would almost certainly “get away with” a 4 bid. But if your ethics are of the highest standard, that will only cement your decision to pass 3NT.

Sure enough, passing 3NT is what Corey did, and the result was the not-unexpected near-bottom.

Had Corey bid 4, and I’d called the director seeking redress, I’d have expected to be laughed at. If I’d taken it to committee, I wouldn’t be surprised to get my own “award”, of the Appeal Without Merit variety. In fact I would not have called the director in such a situation.

The next day, I confirmed with Corey his reasoning was along the above lines, and expressed my appreciation for his (non)action.

Case 2:

Vul vs. not, you hold:

North
Q863
K6
KJ952
98


No interference: Partner opens 1 in fourth seat, and, you, in accordance with your partnership agreements, bid 3, a fit-showing jump (that is, spade support and a side diamond suit). Your partner fails to alert, and bids 3. What is your call?

Can anyone really blame you for bidding 4? After all, you have no keycards. Your hand isn’t great for slam, but is good for game if partner is making a try. You aren’t trying to avert disaster, you are simply making a normal bid, right? Anyway, if not 4, what am I suggesting you should do?

Let’s suppose my contention is that you are obliged to control-bid 4 at this point. Yes, this is likely to lead to a disastrous result, since your partner's failure to alert presumably means he doesn't know you have a spade fit. Do you think any director or committee would agree? Or would I get laughed at, as I’d have expected to in case #1, had I faced a player less actively ethical than Corey, and elected to pursue the issue (by insisting they should be forced to pass 3NT).


Okay, that was just a hypothetical. The real story is as follows.

An expert, playing with a non-expert (at least not known to be), held the above hand against me, in the Mixed BAM. In fact, 3 was alerted by the expert’s partner. Over 3, the expert bid 4, and subsequently reached an excellent 6 contract (which, granted, might have been reached even if 4 had been bid over 3).

Am I saying that this player shouldn’t be allowed to bid 4 once his partner alerts? Not at all. However, I feel certain that few players would bid 4 if 3 were not alerted. And I'm even more certain that no director or committee would compel them to. If someone did bid 4, she might well be told by her partner/teammates that this is “taking active ethics to an unnecessary extreme.” Something feels not quite right, when players can comfortably bid 4 after an alert, but never be compelled to do so after a failure to alert.

Case 3:

Playing in the National Open Swiss Final, an experienced, but not expert, player held:

North
Axx
Axx
xx
Q10xxx


Nobody vul, his partner opened 1 in third seat, and RHO doubled. Believing that his long-established partnership played thatDrury still applied over double, this player bid 2. It was not alerted. The auction proceeded:

W
N
E
S
P
P
1
X
2
3
P
4
4
X
P
P
P

This 4 bid is a clear, and typical, example of blatantly taking advantage of partner’s failure to alert. In this situation I would expect any director to disallow the 4 bid. If it came to it, I’d be virtually certain a committee would disallow it. Unlike the first two cases, this is a specific recurring situation, for which there is plenty of precedent. And generally, disallowing a bid is much more palatable to committees than requiring an imaginative bid which sometimes would have been made without the UI (like the 4 bid in case #2).

While I find it sad that an experienced player would take the above action, since I am confident that the opponents would routinely be given proper redress, what is the problem here?

Well, one problem is that this pair will surely be playing at times against players who do not understand that they were damaged. I'm not sure what we can do about that, beyond better education.

In the actual event, my expert teammates chose not to call the director before the play because the facts were not in dispute. The Drury bidder announced the failure to alert before the opening lead, though did not call the director when doing so. (Law 20F5(b) says one must, but almost nobody ever does). My teammates knew if they got 500 or more defending, there would be no need for “redress,” even assuming 4 was making.

In fact, they got only 300 when it should have been 500, and elected not to call the director after the play, in part because they felt their misdefense might forfeit their claim for redress. There may also have been some doubt about whether 4 would have made. In other words, they weren't clearly "damaged."

Earlier this year, a Bridge Winners threadincluded a number of comments expounding on the obligation of players to call the director whenever an infraction occurs. The discussion focused largely on whether or not players have the right to waive a penalty for a revoke or the like, and there were many strong feelings on both sides.

I don’t feel strongly myself about the resolution of that particular issue. It seems trivial, compared with the blatantly unethical acts hurting the integrity and (at least for me) the enjoyment of our game.

Many insist that we must call the director when an opponent accidentally revokes, yet I am confident that it is NOT standard practice to routinely call the director when one is sure an opponent has blatantly taken advantage of UI. Most won’t call unless they are “damaged,” and many won’t call even then. Surely blatant use of UI qualifies as an infraction. However, I believe most directors will not take any action, and are likely to resent the call, if the non-offenders are not seeking redress in the way of a score adjustment.

So, should we start having mandatory penalties for this sort of infraction? I believe blatant use of UI through the alert procedure is more often ascertainable with certainty, than use of UI through hesitations. Therefore it should be easier to police.

Should it be made clear to the bridge community that non-offenders have an obligation to call the director in all such cases, whether or not they are damaged? Or should we continue to insist on mandatory director calls only for things like revokes or bids/leads out of turn? In my opinion, these questions are badly in need of clarification. And I would very much like to see this clarification go in the direction of condemning egregious violations of ethics, at least as much as we penalize accidental illegal plays.

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