My last article was about consistent tempo. I described how some players are skilled at reading hesitations and provided tips for improving your tempo.
Uneven tempo conveys extraneous information to the table (information that comes from something other than your bid). Many players are confused about how to react ethically when extraneous information has been transmitted. They have a tough time understanding when extraneous information is authorized information (AI) or unauthorized information (UI) and how to respond appropriately. I will attempt to clarify these issues.
Is It Unethical To Hesitate Because It Communicates UI?
Absolutely not. You have every right to take all the time you need to make your decisions. A hesitation is only unethical if intentionally made for the purpose of communicating UI to partner. A slow penalty double which was intended to encourage partner to remove with a little shape is against the rules. A slow penalty double which happened because you needed the time to decide on your best bid is not.
Though it is your right to break tempo (abbreviated as BIT for Break in Tempo), be aware that it will always communicate that you had a difficult decision to make. That extraneous information is authorized information (AI) to the opponents: they are allowed to consider it when making their decisions so your hesitations may help them make better choices. A BIT is unauthorized information (UI) for your partner, so partner must avoid using the extraneous information. Indeed, the rules go further. When in doubt, partner must actively choose the bid not indicated by the BIT. If a director believes that your partner's bidding decision was influenced by UI he may revert the final contract to what he believes it would have been without the UI.
While communicating UI is not an ethical violation, exploiting received UI is. So although your hesitation is not unethical, you may present partner with an ethical dilemma when you hesitate.
What Should I Do When An Opponent Points Out That I Have Broken Tempo?
Acknowledge it. You have done nothing wrong and your opponent is not trying to insult you or steal a good result somehow. He simply wants to establish that a BIT occurred, in case a disagreement arises later. It is often easier to get agreement that the BIT has occurred immediately after it happens, rather than waiting until later. A director is not necessary if you acknowledge the BIT, but if you feel uncomfortable with how your opponents are behaving, call one anyway. His job is to make sure the situation is handled equitably and inoffensively.
What Should I Do if My Partner Breaks Tempo?
If you notice a hesitation, or any other action from partner that communicates UI (such as a meaningful grimace or comment):
Can I ever make my normal bid/lead after partner hesitates?
Sure. If there is no logical alternative to your call then go ahead and make the bid. For example, in a competitive auction, your partner's slow pass indicates some cards. If you have the opposing contract beat in your own hand and no realistic contract of your own to bid, then a penalty double is perfectly OK, even though your partner's hesitation suggested he holds some high cards. However, in the same situation, a speculative double based on a couple of tricks and a trump void, hoping that partner holds 5+ trumps, would not be OK. Pass would be a logical alternative to double. Partner's slow pass probably indicates he holds the 5 trumps you were hoping for and considered a double himself.
When there is an LA to your preferred call you may still make your normal call if you feel that it is an overwhelmingly better bid. For example, if your partner makes a slow invitation, and you hold full values for an accept, then simply bid game anyway. Even though pass is an LA, if your hand merited accepting any game try, then you are fully justified in bidding game despite the UI.
What about the 75% rule?
At one time, the ACBL had a rule of thumb that you could only make a call in the face of UI if 75% of your peers would also choose that call without the UI. That rule has been put to bed mostly because it is too much to ask players to think about this in the heat of the moment at the table. The modern attitude is: "Do your best to choose a call not indicated by the UI. If the directors feel that UI did affect your decision, the call may be reversed but it won't be held against you."
I believe this attitude represents a healthy trend towards a less punitive attitude from the bridge governing bodies. Few players who exploit UI are actively attempting to cheat, and a great many otherwise solid citizens--even expert ones--have unintentionally exploited UI at the table. It is difficult for even the most honest to fully counteract the impact of UI because it can affect decision-making below the conscious-thought level. Consider this hand:
What would you bid? The options would seem to be 5♠ and 6♠. 6♠ is a double shot that might make if partner bid 4♠ to make, will often a good sac when he bid 4♠ as a pure preempt on: ♠AQJxxxxx, ♥xxx, ♦x, ♣x and may spur an ill-judged 7♥ from the opponents.
Now consider how your thinking would be affected if your partner had opened a slow 4♠? The slowness indicates partner had alternative openings to consider, most likely 1♠. You can now virtually rule out that he holds the preemptive hand type. 5♠ is likely to make but 6♠ is probably against the odds since 2 red losers seems likely. A 5♠ call becomes more attractive ... maybe the opponents will let you buy it.
Many players bid on a sort of unnamed feel. Their sensors would be saying, "be cautious," after the slow 4♠ and they might not even consciously realize that partner's tempo set the sensor ringing and caused them to pull in a notch by bidding just 5♠. The directors realize this type of unconscious effect is part of the game. So, they no longer take a punitive attitude towards these players, although they may correct a final contract if they agreed that UI had motivated the conservative call.
What Should I Do if My Opponent Hesitates?
When the hesitation occurs, point out the BIT by saying politely, "Do we agree that North's bid was out of tempo?" As long as you get agreement, you are done for the moment. A BIT is not an offense by itself, so make an effort to be polite when you point it out.
As the auction continues, form a theory of what the hesitation meant or indicated, i.e., did it suggest values in a particular suit? Did it show strength? weakness? defense? This information is AI to you. You may use it, if you choose to, in formulating your subsequent calls. The same information is UI to your opponent, and you are entitled to redress if he has exploited it.
At your first legal opportunity, examine the hand belonging to the partner of the hesitator. Ask yourself what his LAs were after the slow call. If there was no LA or his call seems clear based on the merits of his hand, thank the opponent and put the hand away. Suppose the auction was:
After the 3♠ call you might ask if we can agree that 3♠ was out of tempo. Your presumption at this point is that the slowness indicates that opener considered bidding 4♠ himself rather than only inviting.
When the dummy is tabled, judge whether you think the 4♠ bidder made their call based on the merits of their own hand. If the bidder has ♠Jxx and a pair of aces, you can't argue about his call. But if he has stretched to bid 4♠, then you should call the director to make your complaint. The director will ask you to play the hand out. When it is over, he will take the board to evaluate whether or not he agrees that the 4♠ call was influenced by UI. If he agrees, he will roll the contract back to 3♠.
Your complaint doesn't have to be about a bid. Consider this scenario:
Over 2♦, West asks what 2♦ means, and upon receiving the answer, goes into a tank, before passing. What is going on? West has values in diamonds, which he has broadcast to all via his questions and his strained pass of 2♦. If East finds a diamond lead when he had an LA, and that lead hurts your chances, you can make a case that the lead was affected by UI.
Remember that while East may be penalized for using the extraneous info (because it is UI to him), you as declarer are permitted to use the same extraneous info because it is AI to you. You are perfectly entitled to choose a line of play that assumes West holds the diamond strength, such as by attempting to endplay him to lead away from his diamonds.
Hesitations and UI issues can be sticky and often cause acrimony. They don't have to if you learn the basic principles:
When your opponents communicate extraneous information, if you feel it might affect the outcome of the hand, bring it up to get agreement that a BIT has occurred. If a BIT occurs, examine the hand of the partner of the person who broke tempo and call the director if you feel that the BIT was used by the bidder to make his choice.
Lastly, if your partner has poor tempo, the best way for him to learn to improve it is to experience negative consequences when his partner makes the ethical bid/lead contraindicated by his BITs.
Plus... it's free!