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TD Corner: Polling Players
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Situations where TDs have to use judgment are abundant. Let's take two of the most frequent ones:

1 - A player receives unauthorized information (UI) and takes some sort of action that the opponents consider questionable.

2 - A player gives a wrong explanation of an action and the opponents act on it. Afterwards, they consider that they would have acted differently given the right explanation of the action.

These two situations frequently involve the need to poll players in in order to determine the likely/possible course of action, absent of UI or of the wrong explanation.

Let's view a typical example, from the 2008 Boston NABC:

 

West
87
J10632
A
AQ872
North
KQJ65
84
QJ103
95
East
A932
7
K8752
KJ4
South
104
AKQ95
964
1063
W
N
E
S
P
P
1
1
2
P
2
P
2NT
P
3
P
P
P
D
3 West
NS: 0 EW: 0

West (about 2): I´m taking it as Drury

Final result: 3 making, +110 EW

The director was called at the end of the auction. E/W had not discussed whether Drury applied in competition. East said that he believed he had another call based on his hand, not the UI. The opponents think that a "Pass" is automatic given East's hand.

Because the appeal committee uses the TD's decision as the starting point, the ideal situation would have the TD and the players warp in time and space in such a way that the TD could see what the four players at the table would do with the UI removed. Of course, that is not possible. The closest substitute is for the TD to base his judgment decision on the opinion of other, "equivalent" bridge players that are given the situation with the UI removed. "Equivalent" is a myth because no two bridge players are completely alike, and different players frequently have different opinions. Therefore, to get the most unbiased decision possible, we replace the myth with a group of players of approximately the same level and using the same methods. How? Polling these players on the bridge problem that arises from the situation. Does East have really a bid? Or is pass a logical alternative? Is the bid suggested by the UI?

At the time four players were consulted and none considered pass a logical alternative. The AC therefore decided to maintain the score. The casebook discusses this case extensively and some of the opinions expressed seem to point otherwise. What is the correct decision? Did something go wrong with the poll?

This case (as many others) shows how important it is for the TD to conduct the poll in a manner that yields the most solid, objective, and correct result possible.

So, how to organize and conduct the poll?

1 - Gather all the information needed.

Try to anticipate all the questions that the polled players might be asking and be prepared to answer objectively. In the example above, questions like: "what is the range and style of E-W weak two bids?", "does 1 always show five cards?", "what's the minimum strength for opening one of a major in front of a passed hand?", "what would 1NT and 2NT by East show on his second call?", are examples of questions that players might be asking. The TD should never reply with what he guesses the answer to be, because according to Murphy's Law he is most likely to be wrong. So, before starting the poll, it is necessary to find from the players all the relevant information about their system, methods, approach, style, and any other factors that might affect the bridge decision to be taken.

2 - Have no opinion.

Of course, when you analyze a case, you form your own opinion, but conceptually when the TD goes about asking players, he is asking THEIR opinion and not asking if they agree with HIS opinion. Regarding the case above, do I think that East has another bid or not? As a TD my opinion in that doesn't matter. What matters is what the players think. Having an opinion beforehand can very easily lead to the director to subconsciously coach the players polled into agreeing with his own opinion, by the way the questions are asked or information is given.

3 - Set up a poll size.

This may be covered by specific NBO regulations, but from a logical point of view and taking into account some regulations pertaining logical alternatives, five seems like the minimum adequate size for a poll to be meaningful.

Given this, should the TD ever change the poll size during the poll? I have a very hard time with this one.

The standard technical answer is definitely "no".

The temptation to change the poll size usually comes associated with the TD's opinion on the case and the way it matches or not the player's opinion. Let's say that we set up a poll size of five, and the first three players polled think that the case is very clear and their answer matches what the TD thinks. The TD is busy, rushing, and it seems to him that it's a clear case! Players even agree with him! Should he stop the poll or keep on with it? Many a TD will say "that's enough."

Now let's suppose that the TD decides to stop, the case goes to AC and the AC asks a simple question: "Why did you poll only three players?"... It can easily happen, for example when one of the AC members has a different opinion. Unlucky? Not at all. Consider two possible answers, A and B. You think A is clear. The five players to be polled are, in order, on the AAABB fields. It looks unanimous, when you ask the first three, because you get AAA. But if you had reversed the order of the asking, you would get BBA and you would not think of stopping after three. The other way around happens when for example the TD's opinion is that B is a logical alternative and after five players the TD gets AAAAA. Many TDs start thinking: "Wait a minute, there must be something wrong here. Maybe I'm asking the wrong players, I should poll more players. I'm sure I'll find somebody that agrees with me."

Well, this is the part that gives me a hard time. Because, after all, we might actually be asking the wrong players or, by chance, be collecting a set of players that does not reflect statistically the whole collective. These are two valid arguments, but they do not relate to the opinion of the TD about the case. Varying the sample size is, in my IMHO, more dangerous than to accept the fact that sometimes one will pick up the wrong set of players to poll. And this brings us to the next point.

4 - Pick your players.

One should be very careful about which players to poll. Don't forget that you need answers as close as possible to the ones that the original players would have given. So, it follows logically that the chosen players should:

1 - Play the same or similar methods as the original player(s) in question, or at least be familiar with them.

2 - Have the same style, when possible. With all due respect, juniors, for example tend to bid more aggressively than the so-called "norm".

3 - Have about the same strength, or be able to think as a player of the same strength as the original player(s) in question. Some very strong players are able to do this beautifully...

From a pragmatic point of view, the players polled should not be related to the original player(s) in question. For example, they should not be teammates or the captain. Polling them may lead to very uncomfortable situations.

Ideally, but not always possible, polled players should not know the hand because that makes it harder for them to be completely unbiased.

5 - Give the players a bridge problem.

This means removing all the information that the player would not have at the table, like for example the hands of the other players, and also the possible irregularities committed that were the origin of the problem. This is easier said than done, because often players can guess what is the TD's problem on the hand. There are some tricks to mitigate this. One is, when possible, to give the problem as a movie. In the example above, I would tend to give the polled players East's hand and the auction "Pass Pass 1 1" to start with." What is your choice of action?" I guess that most would say 2. For those that chose something else, I would steer them into "Would you ever bid something else?" A player that does never bid 2 with East's hand would probably not be a good candidate to be polled on this specific hand. Continuing, "action proceeds as Pass 2. If North passes, what would you bid?"

If we give the whole action up to the critical point and just ask what is the player's choice, the player often knows what happened at the table and his opinion will be biased.

Following the multi-stage approach, it's way harder for the player to know what happened and therefore his opinion is more genuine.

Another approach that I sometimes use is to feed the polled players with the impression that the problem is on the other side.

For example, if the TD says nothing the player will know that there was an hesitation. But if the TD inserts in the problem, explicitly, the meaning of a bid by the opponent like for example in an auction where the opponents bid 3 at some point asking for a stopper, and the TD says "If 3 is alerted as asking for a stopper, what would you bid?", the hesitation issue doesn't pop and the answer is, again, more objective.

This also sums up an important point, which is to *ask the right questions in the right way*, in order to get the right answers, and to not skew these answers towards any of the options available.

6 - Alternatives!

Always ask the polled players if they have alternative choices that might be considering seriously, and which ones they are. This has to do with the way that we establish logical alternatives. 

Law 16B1(b) : A logical alternative action is one that, among the class of players in question and using themethods of the partnership, would be given serious consideration  by a significant proportion of such players, of whom it is judged some might select it.

It is not enough to ask "What do you bid?"... Also, avoid asking the players if "action X is a logical alternative" for them, because the concept of LA might be different for the player. It is up to the TD to judge if some action is a LA, considering the inputs he gets from the polled players, not for the players to say if the action is a LA in itself.

This point is intimately related to the *ask the right questions in the right way* above.

7 - Multiple polls

The TD might need more than one set of players for the same problem, namely when the bridge problem has more than one critical actor. East took one of possible actions, and now West can take one of several others depending on East's action. The TD cannot give both hands to the same polled player, because his answer will be in influenced by seeing both hands.

In this type of cases, one poll set for each critical actor will be needed.

8 - Avoid the crowd factor.

Try to give the problem to the players in isolation, so that they don't receive any input from their peers and buddies. Never ever ask two players in the same spot (for example teammates having a coffee at the bar) for their opinions, because most often the second one will conform with the opinion of the first one. Gently separate the player from his group and ask him privately.

Also, try not to ask players that are rushing for something because their answer will frequently not be well pondered. 

9 - In writing.

In ACBL land it is mandatory for the poll to be made in writing, and it is logical to do it that way. I would go one step further. When the TD has access to a tape recorder, why not record the answers? With some players, when we poll them, they give not only the answer but also their reasoning to get there, and this may be very useful information that otherwise goes to waste or gets lost in translation...

10 - Don't say too much...

When giving the decision, the TD should always say that he polled suitable players, and how many, but not tell the involved parties who the polled players were. The AC committee can and often does ask about who specifically were the players polled, to judge if the poll was adequate, and that is information that the TD has to give to the AC if requested, but not to the involved parties when giving a decision.

---

To conclude, tournament directing has evolved a lot in the last years. Polling players became a crucial part of a TD's job. It is just fair that the TD does his best to get from the polled players objective and unbiased answers in order to be able to give the best possible ruling to the players. The points raised in this article need to be addressed by the TD. I'm sure I'm forgetting one or two other important aspects... but if all of the ones above are taken into account, the average quality of polls will be much higher!

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