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Marching Towards Goofyville
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Recent changes in our bridge laws are contrary to common sense and will become detrimental to our game.

There has been a trend over my lifetime towards a world that refuses to believe in Newton’s Third Law. The world often seems to be acting under a notion that Nirvana is achievable in this realm if we all think happy thoughts, pretend actions do not have consequences, and we try to avoid anything that resembles negative reinforcement.

I would blame Dr Spock, but he is dead and I doubt he alone made this possible. Now, even our bridge world has joined the march towards Goofyville.

  • Exhibit A is our lengthy directives of the new L12 score adjustments.
  • Exhibit B is our “comparable call” directives.
  • Exhibit C is the new revoke laws.

I can live with the revoke law changes. This is because there can still actually be a penalty for failing to follow suit. But our new-age, feel-good types have since moved further. Imposing their view of a bridge world free of “penalties”, where our directors can simply “restore equity” and everything will be fine as long as we all think happy thoughts - or perhaps take the proper medications.

To explain why this is wrong and will not work, I will turn to a world renowned expert on human behavior: Mayberry

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Sorry, I will have to translate. Mayberry is a felis catus. When she climbs on the keyboard to type, she types in cat. A human might describe Mayberry as “Dave & Carey’s cat”. This is incorrect as cats do not have owners. Cats have staff.

Cats are more expert in human behavior than any of you. Unless you can acquire a house, heat, utilities, food, medical care and an entire staff of servants - chef, butler, doorman, maid, masseuse - all at your disposal without any money or income whatsoever, then Mayberry knows far more about manipulating human behavior than you ever will.

Mayberry’s point is that if you want any creature - be it a cat, dog or human - to conform to a specific standard of behavior, then there must be either benefits for compliance, costs for violations, or both. In absence of positive or negative feedback, creatures will do whatever the heck they feel like doing.

Do not suppose that just because humans can think, that they are rational. Thinking only confers the ability to rationalize. Something humans excel at, but as far as rational, just turn on the news.

If one constructs a game which requires certain procedures to be followed, there must be consequences for not following those procedures. Otherwise, procedure will deteriorate in practice and the game suffers. Mayberry goes on to note that penalties need not be draconian. But penalties need to exist and one needs to be consistent in application. Mayberry notes that in this process, dogs and even humans might become well behaved.

David notes that one can even condition a cat not the claw the sofa. But this is not done by buying the cat a scratching post. The cat will just look at the post, look at you, ponder the irony of his doorman calling others dumber than a post - and then go claw the sofa. If one had bought a water pistol instead, the cat world changes with a few squirts.

Somehow, people who cannot train a dog or correctly raise children want to write rules for adults.

“No Harm, No Foul”

The expression “no harm, no foul” came into being about sixty years ago in describing how basketball games might be officiated. This expression was probably a derivation of the older streetball expression of “no blood, no foul”.

Neither this author nor Mayberry has an issue with the concept of "no harm, no foul". But how did such a simple idea become twisted into a concept of “foul, but no penalty”? It is one thing to determine that misinformation did not contribute to the table result. This is simply an extension of "no harm, no foul" thinking. However, if UI/MI did influence the table result, then a directive to “restore equity” ignores the fact that an infraction occurred. By adjusting the score to reflect what someone else presumes would have occurred in absence of the infraction creates a world were there is no downside for players who do not conform to the standards that we wish to establish. In fact, we need to require players conform to certain standards if this game is to be viable.

The previous standard of assigning the least favorable result probable to the offending side had a lot going for it. First, the score adjustment is fairly easy to determine. Secondly, the score adjustment would be consistent across different cases with the same underlying issues. Thirdly, the offending side is penalized for the infraction.

This last criteria is absolutely essential. For whatever reason, rule makers often seem to be oblivious to the fact that CHANGE CREATES CHANGE. This is noted by Isaac Newton in his third law. But we can go back to the I-Ching a few thousand years earlier to understand that for centuries people have understood that this is how the entire universe operates. Except perhaps in the minds of people who cannot train dogs, raise children properly or craft effective regulations. Now matter how much someone may want to believe in fairy tales or a static universe, the fact remains that when one changes incentives, one changes behaviors.

We are now creating a bridge world where not only is there no real downside for non-compliance, the players are now incentivized not to comply. This is because one can now gain every time the opposition does not seek redress. We have created a world of potential wins for committing infractions versus nothing in the loss column.

The lawmakers have given freerolls to players for introducing UI & MI.

The Taconic

I drive to the bridge clubs in White Plains on the Taconic State Parkway. The speed limit on the TSP is 55 MPH as we New Yorkers are still pursuing the whole beginning and end to Nixon’s energy policy. Perhaps ten years ago, I would set my cruise control for 63 and ride the left lane.

Nowadays, I try to set the cruise control for about 70-72 and ride in the right or middle lane. The left lane generally goes far too quickly traveling South. I simply am not in that much of a hurry to get to the club. Yesterday, I was traveling just over 70 in the middle. There was merging traffic coming in on the right. (UK readers may need to transpose this in their minds). The left lane was moving in the high 70s to 80. Some guy in a white Lexus wanted to do 90. So he shot up on my right to try to squeeze in front of me at the last second, and then cut across the three lanes to squeeze in front of Mr Doing Only 80.

There was nothing unusual about that. This is now the norm on my bridge commute. Over time, the drivers have learned that there is virtually no downside to speeding on the TSP. Tickets are rare. I have never traveled the speed limit unless traffic is a crawl. I have also never been pulled for speeding. And while there are occasional victims of traffic enforcement, the odds on a ticket have to be something like one in five or six thousand.

There is no upside for me to speed towards the bridge clubs and arrive early. However, returning home is a different matter. I am moving as quickly as possible. Riding the fast lane with others until some slow poke who is driving only 70 and needs to be passed on the wrong side by the rest of us.  If you are under some DELUSION that bridge players are magically going to conform to standards of behavior that the laws are not willing to reinforce, I have shares in a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

BTW, when a certain Ms. “T” was also exiting on my Route 132 exit off the TSP, I could almost never get there first. I was nearly always the first table finished. I would run to the car to beat the rush hour traffic, blast up the TSP and just as I would move over to exit - VRROOOOM! Here she would come screaming by. A red streak of an Audi sports car. I would think: “Damn! She hadn’t even started her second board when I left!” “T” is too much of a bridge addict to pass out the last hand regardless of holding. And Danica Patrick sure has nothing on her.

Conforming Behavior

Apparently there are those who believe that bridge players are such special people that we do not need “negativity” to produce proper behavior. After all, we are so smart! Or at least we like to think so.

Anyone can see how well bridge players handle procedure at the club. Like having properly filled out convention cards. Keeping a personal score. Passing boards. Making sure cell phones are turned off. Completing rounds on time. Being nice. Changing when the round is called. Tabling dummy before writing the contract in the CC if one actually is keeping score. Not calling out the results on the Bridgemates. Not discussing hands.

The last one - if memory serves - used to be written on the inside of the convention card. I am guessing the total number of players who were ever penalized for discussing hands is pretty close to zero - out of billions of violations. The ACBL apparently gave up trying on that one.

The bridge regulating authorities are now giving up on trying to eliminate - or at least limit - UI & MI. They just might not be smart enough to know it.

Oh! But you might say that taking advantage of the new incentives is like cheating. Yeah, and no one has ever cheated in this game, right? Just ask those three judges and the O.J. Jury. But there is a huge difference here. That form of cheating - prearranged, non-sanctioned, partnership communication - that was (allegedly, to appease those three not-so-wise men involved in these cases), is spelled out in the laws as “the gravest possible offense”.

When one rewrites the redress for cases of the “unintentional” variation of non-sanctioned communication to eliminate any penalty for such a transgression, then one has legally reclassified the infraction. It will soon not be seen as a big deal because the law now says it is not a big deal.

Partner rolled his eyes, tanked for two minutes. Lets pretend it did not happen and just “restore equity”. The lawmakers are out of their minds.

If cheating is the bridge equivalent of first degree murder, then UI is an accidental homicide. In what universe does murder draw a life sentence, but homicide by depraved indifference get a complete walk? Well, perhaps in our current version of American justice. But mass insanity is still insanity.

IF AN INFRACTION DEFINED AS MINOR, THAT ACTION WILL BE SEEN AS NO BIG DEAL IN SHORT ORDER.

(Sorry for yelling, but there are apparently many people deaf to reality.)

That is what has happened to every other procedure that is now routinely not followed by bridge players. If you do not think that these new laws are not insane, what is the working definition of insanity? Doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.

Comparable Call

At the end of the Cavendish in 2002, I had the pleasure of dining with Tom Hanlon and Hugh McGann who were making their first trip to America. The tournament was in May and baseball was as ubiquitous as were the casino TV screens carrying the action.

Tom and Hugh had been trying to figure out baseball by watching the games. It was rather fun answering their questions. It was challenging too, because as really smart guys whose life is game theory and practice, they wanted the rules to be justifiable in their minds. I think we made it as far as the infield fly rule.

Our conversation started with Tom declaring that they figured out that the runners needed to travel the four bases in order and that completing this task “was good”. They were a bit puzzled was to why base runners would stay put or move. They noted that sometimes a runner would start to the next base and walk back. Sometimes he would start and run back. Sometimes he would stop and walk off the field. Americans learn baseball through osmosis.  Until meeting Tom & Hugh, it never occurred to me how complicated baseball can be.

While the Irish pair questioned the basis for some of the rules of our American pastime, the basic premise of the game was clearly understood and accepted. In baseball, the runner needs to advance the bases in proper order. Violating that procedure, by skipping a base or running outside the base path and the runner is out. There are 24 to 27 available “outs” in a regulation game.  And if a player ran bases out of order, he just blew one of his side's outs because the player failed to follow the basic premise of the game.

The fundamental premise of bridge is clockwise, rotational actions by one player at a time.  Without this procedure, the game does not exit. Therefore, it follows that we need to enforce the basic premise of the game.  Just as baseball and every other game is suppose to do and does.

In baseball, if a player bats out of order, the other team can appeal to the umpire and that player is called out.  Guess how many times players bat out of order?  At the major league level, I think it last happened in 2016 in a game between the Brewers and Nationals.  Before that, it may have been in 2013. Order violations occur in little league games a little more frequently.  But even 9-year old kids are willing to shoulder the burden of following the proper order, or else they are out!  The baseball diamond might be a trifle smaller than the big-leagues, but 9-years old kids can still handle "wait until your turn" rules.

Somehow, bridge players want to be less responsible than a 9-year old child. It used to be that if a player opened bidding out of turn, they were barred. The worst case scenario is that you might lose up to all of an entire board.   The bridge equivalent of an out.  Losing one of your 24-27 boards in play. And it is not even a guarantee that you will get a full “out”. On a good day, it went all pass and the offending side was the only non-minus score.  Granted, this is not a happy procedural violation as far as potential costs are involved. On the other hand, compliance is as easy as paying attention and looking at the board.  So simple, a child can do it.

My BOLS tip is: Pay attention and do not open out of turn.

But this BOLS tip has been apparently been judged to be too difficult for adults to handle.  The powers-that-be decided instead that we shall bring in the TD and argue some ridiculous variation of “comparable call”.  Perhaps we could improve little league baseball with our “New Improved, Kindlier & Gentler, New-Age Bridge Rules.” Get the umpire and instead of calling the batter out, apply the bridge inspired, “comparable batter rule”.

If the batter who went to the plate and got a hit was a subset of the batter who was supposed to appear, then the at bat stands because it was a comparable batter.  But if, say, the clean-up player batted in front the three-spot, we should call him out.  After all, why teach children to act in turn if grandpa does not want to follow those rules at the bridge club?

Restoring Equity

Quick question:  if we actually knew what was going to happen on a hand, why are we playing it?

The whole point to bridge is that we really do not know what is going to happen. We know what might happen. But when we willing to risk betting our lives on the outcome - (bad idea, BTW, for you may die) -  guess what? There was no damage because this was a boring hand. Cue Joey Silver: “NEXT!”

However, if there are alternatives, then “restoring equity” is - by definition - not bridge.   Neither was what happened at the table if there was MI/UI etc. Bridge is a game of restricted information. When that condition was been violated, whatever happened at the table was not bridge. It might not have been damage (“No harm, no foul”). It might have been the same result. But it was not bridge.

Real bridge takes place without MI and without UI and without obvious and telling BITs. The only way this comes about is if players are conscientious about conforming behaviors. That does not happen without penalties for noncompliance.

I can give you hands that you will never guess the bidding. I can give you hands that you will never guess the contract. I can give you results that can never be predicted in advance. How about one of the best pairs in the world deliberately bidding a grand slam off a cashing ace because one of the best players in the world is going to be talked out of leading it?  (No one saw that coming.)

The bridge world needs to stopping being a bunch of old ninnies and sissies. If a hockey player trips another player, he goes to the penalty box. It does not matter that it was accidental. If a player in American football moves too soon, it is a penalty.  Even kids know that if they run bases in the wrong order, they are out.  And for my European audience, is there any more severe infraction than a penalty kick?  I would say a red card, but in your football, no one ever seems to score even with a man advantage.  However, it should be noted that it is precisely these penalties which limit the contact and violence on the field to a mere fraction of that occurring in the stands.  Because, if people can be rowdy, unruly and act without consequence, they will.  

What the bridge world should be doing is move to quicker, easier and automatic penalties for infractions. Yet we are marching in the opposite direction. How about we create some nebulous rule about “comparable” so that we can violate our most basic procedure and now individually litigate every possible bidding situation?  How about guessing probabilities of different outcomes and needing a calculator to produce what is supposed to be a bridge result?

Oh, wait - we did that already.

Restoring Equity in Baseball

A runner is not supposed to leave the base to advance on a fly ball until that ball has been caught. If he does not "tag up", the opposing team can appeal by throwing the ball to a player at the original base and the umpire will call the runner out if he left early.

What baseball assesses as a penalty for not tagging, is automatically assigning the worst logical outcome as the result for the procedural violation of starting too early; the runner is thrown out attempting to advance to the next base.  This is what makes sense.  This is what we used to do in bridge.  But somehow, in our march towards Goofyville, the least beneficial outcome that was probable is is now considered an outmoded, medieval "punishment".

Baseball should be updated to reflect the newly improved, bridge way. “Restore equity!” Lets figure out what would have happened had the runner not started early.

OK, so the right fielder did not throw to the plate. He saw the player leave early and threw to third base for the appeal. But we can go to the video tape and measure the time it took the runner to get home. We can also measure the speed and accuracy of the defenders arm. Lets calculate the probable outcomes from the distance and assign a weighted score!

Thrown out at the plate: 33% Adjustment for catcher dropping ball: -5% Runner beats throw: 67%

Therefore, we will assign a weighted score adjustment of 0.72 of a run. This might not sound like a baseball result, but a score adjustment to -475 is not a bridge result in any world other than a deluded mind. (Check the scoring tables, it is true,)

BTW, it was determined there was a 6% chance of a passed ball on the throw. This would have allowed the runner on first to take second base. To restore equity, we will let that runner start 6% closer to second base. (Get the measure tape out, that would be 5.4 feet).

Anyway, batter up. There are 2.28 outs!

I would rant some more, but Mayberry informs me that it is time for her massage.

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