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Alert rules behind screens

Bridge is not a game of secret codes and messages. Quite to the contrary it is based on the principle of full disclosure. Every player is at all times entitled to base his bids and plays on a full understanding of the meaning and inferences of his opponents’ bids and plays.

To further this principle tournament bridge enforces the alert procedure. The basic idea is to alert opponents to bids that may not be readily understandable. And here it becomes tricky. What is obvious to one person may be just Bohemian villages to another. For non-native German speakers: Bohemian villages means it is Greek to me. Funny how not understanding something seems to assume different nationalities in different languages.

Coming back to the subject every bridge organization typically has their own set of rules for what types of bids are alertable. Full disclosure is the underlying principle, but other elements like tradition and probably more than anything else unauthorized information come into play. Ideally what one would like to avoid is for a partnership to alert each other to the fact that there may be a misunderstanding about a bid one of them has made. For that reason for example doubles generally are not alertable, so a partnership cannot alert each other to whether a double is meant as penalty or not.

When playing behind screens transmitting unauthorized information is no longer a concern. Both WBF (World Bridge Federation) and EBL (European Bridge League) have consequently adapted alert rules behind screens to take this circumstance into account. In their tournaments every conventional bid, every conventional pass, every conventional double and redouble has to be alerted when playing behind screens.

In ACBL territory there are only very few occasions when screens come into play. It was only at the recent Nationals in San Francisco that I noticed that ACBL basically enforces almost the same alert rules behind screens as without screens. And I was left wondering whether this was the best approach. Consider this example: Under ACBL alert rules cue-bids are generally not alertable. That may make a lot of sense, if a bid is easily recognizable as a cue-bid. But what about an auction like this:

1S – 2D

3S – 4H

1S is limited playing Precision, 2D is not game forcing and 3S shows a maximum for not opening a strong club. Is 4H a cue-bid or natural? You may think: how can this not be a cue-bid? Trust me, there are people in this world who play it as natural. Seeing that 4H could be either a conventional or a natural bid shouldn’t it be alerted when it’s not natural?

What is an opponent supposed to do under the current ACBL alert rules? Let’s say if 4H is a cue-bid he would like to double for the lead, but if it is natural he cannot afford to double. He needs to ask about the meaning of the bid and then pass when being told it is natural. But the question itself gives away information to his opponent, namely that he has a heart holding that would have doubled a cue-bid. Otherwise why would he have asked about the meaning of an unalerted bid? Naturally a player can avoid that dilemma by consequently asking about every single bid in every auction. But who wants to do that? Wouldn’t it be much easier to simply make every conventional bid alertable? As there are no unauthorized information concerns behind screens it seems to me that would be an easy and efficient way to focus more on full disclosure. What do you think?

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