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Time for a rethink

So here we are, the cognoscenti of bridge, trawling through the system regulations and wrestling with all the problems they create. Time to ask an important question – do we really need these regulations? What purpose do they serve? Why is it necessary to regulate thinking at the highest level of an intellectual sport?

System regulations were first put in place in the mid-1980s to deal with a forcing pass movement. I know because I was at the vanguard of that movement. In the mid-1970s I created a relay system that was inspired by the success of the Ultimate Club in the Bridge World Bidding challenge. By this time, it was common knowledge in the bridge world that the one level is a free kick so it made sense to use forcing pass, maximising our bidding space when we had the points and getting in the opponents’ way when they had the points. We had some success and a lot of pairs in this part of the world soon took up some version of the system, including most of the leading pairs. I encouraged my friend Roy Kerr to get involved and, with the help of Walt Jones, he produced Symmetric Relay, an amazing contribution to the theory of bidding.

There was a buzz in the air and the idea was spreading. At the World Teams Olympiad in Seattle in 1984, more than one quarter of the teams had at least one pair using some version of forcing pass. Some of this was quite low-tech – for example, Chagas from Brazil switched his one club and pass, but the point was that the idea was taking hold.

It was then that the WBF stepped in to outlaw the method and system regulations were born.

I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that there is a need to ban innovative thinking at the highest level of an intellectual sport so why did the WBF go down this self-destructive path?

They said it was to protect the rank and file player but this was at best disingenuous. During this time, forcing pass was more common than Two over One in this part of the world and everyone had a generic defence, which they looked forward to using. There was an air of excitement and our National Open Teams was breaking attendance records, with roughly three times the number of teams of today.

No, the rank and file players did not have a problem – it was a handful of yesterday’s heroes who had a problem. They bitterly disliked being forced off their happy hunting ground on to unfamiliar territory. You can’t blame them for pushing self-interest at the expense of the game – it is human nature - but you can and should blame the WBF for letting them away with it. Throughout its sad history, the WBF has shown itself to be incapable of managing the interests of the game, but this was its nadir.Now we have regulations to tell us which ideas we can and cannot use. And we have to give our opponents notes on how to defend against our methods, if they are at all different.

Is it any wonder that bridge has been written off by the public as a pastime for old folk?

The first thing we must do to turn the game around is remove all bidding restrictions. Not just a few – the lot. You can still have your green games for those who want, naturally using Danny’s carefully drafted regulations, but open bridge must be open. I am not suggesting that all the problems will magically disappear the minute we remove all bidding regulations - there will be issues around disclosure, encryption and the like - but we must deal with these, if the sport of bridge is to have any future.

One final point. Some people argued for the banning of forcing pass on the grounds that the opponents do not have time to prepare a proper defence, particularly in shorter matches. This argument might have some merit if defences must be prepared on an ad hoc basis – but they don’t. It is quite a simple matter to prepare a generic defence. Bids either show points or they don’t, they either show suits or they don’t, it is not difficult to establish rules for your partnership based on what they have shown. Any pair that is unable or unwilling to do this can resign itself to the green section. They don’t belong in open bridge.

I wrote a booklet in the early 1980s called SOAP – System Over Artificial Pre-emption. I am not saying there was anything clever about the booklet but it gave you a clear set of rules so you could sit down against anyone and take whatever they threw at you without feeling disadvantaged. Every successful pair would quickly develop its own version of SOAP.

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