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Guidelines for judgment decisions?
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Let me start by saying that I am directing fewer tournaments than most directors these days. Still, I have my share of interesting judgment decisions to make. The following is motivated by several recent posts regarding contested claims and the wish for rules that are more objective and less judgment-based than the current ones.

Generally I believe that judgment calls are an integral part of directing in bridge. I would not want the rules to be changed such that every decision comes down to an application of a strict formula without any leeway whatsoever.

For some standard situations it is helpful to have some guidelines available, and contested claims are certainly such an area. On the other hand I believe too many guidelines, just as too rigid rules, can have a negative effect.

A few weeks ago I was called to a table to adjudicate a claim. The situation was something like this:

West
10x
10x
North
7
Q9x
East
x
x
J10
South
Qx
Q
5
D

South declared a diamond contract, the lead was in dummy. Declarer had claimed the rest, the opponents had objected, and East's clubs were exposed in the process. At some point it was decided that my presence was required.

First of all, I doubt it will be helpful to turn this once more into a discussion about sportmanship on the defenders' part. I am sure some people out there are feeling like standing up and shouting at the top of their lungs "these guys are so unfair, I would not dream of calling the director here". Please resist the urge.

The director's job - mine, specifically - was to gather the facts of the case and then make a ruling. Like many rulings involving contested claims, this comes down to a judgment call. These decisions are the hardest ones, but I usually enjoy the challenge.

Gathering the facts was a little messy. I inquired what the original claim statement was, and declarer ordered the queen of clubs from dummy in response. I asked her to repeat her claim statement; she kept ordering a high club.

I told her to stop calling for cards from dummy, as the opponents had objected to the claim (and to a continuation of play). It turned out that there was a language issue; her partner assisted in translating what I said, and eventually she realized that there was no way I would allow her to play out the rest of the tricks.

From what I learned next, declarer had faced her cards and said something to the effect of "they are all good". The defenders apparently felt that this was a reference to dummy's clubs which were not good at this point.

Someone will probably point out that declarer's statement accompanying her claim is technically insufficient in the eyes of the law. That is correct. Claims of this kind should not be encouraged, but they should not automatically be penalized either.

Personally I am glad that the laws do not require me to award a PP for making an inaccurate claim statement. I am also glad that I am not supposed to award the defenders a trick for the sole reason that it is theoretically possible to lose a trick in a legal line of play.

Law 70 instructs us how to deal with a contested claim in general. Simply put, the director must determine which lines of play are both "normal" and in accordance with the claim statement. Among those, the least successful one is imposed on the claimer, and the board is scored according to the outcome of this line.

In this case, several issues should be addressed. When declarer said "they are all good", which cards did she actually mean? The director must show some good will here. For example, declarer did certainly not expect her small spade to be a winner. But what about the clubs?

Next, which lines of play are normal? Since declarer claimed winners, not losers, it is logical to treat only lines of play as normal where declarer plays (presumed) winners. It is out of the question to demand that - in a hypothetical continuation of play - declarer crosses to his hand, plays his spade loser and discards a club from dummy.

Declarer has enough top tricks and can even ruff the clubs good. As you can see, the critical question is whether it is normal to play a round of trumps (immediately or after cashing the queen of clubs).

There seems to be a widespread demand for guidelines regarding the adjudication of such claims. As a matter of fact, I used to be a fan of adding as many guidelines as possible to the rules, so that each time a similar case would come up, the director can simply look up the one that fits best and rule accordingly.

I have changed my mind about that. We already have some guidelines here and there, and on occasions like this one I am even getting the impression that we have too many of them, since they appear to contradict each other.

On the EBU website I found a document "Notes on adjudicating claims", written by Gordon Rainsford. If you are tempted to say that such documents apply only within the EBU, you may want to reconsider your position. As long as they advise us on interpreting the laws without any references to regulations with a limited range of validity, they should be taken seriously even outside the EBU.

In these notes it says: "If a player thinks that all their cards are good, it is normal for them to play their suits in any order and so we usually rule the most disadvantageous order of play."

But at the same time it also says: "If you think the claimer's intention is clear but it was badly expressed, you should allow the claim - but advise them to be clearer in future!"

The last part is great advice, but how to resolve the rest? We cannot go both ways at the same time. The key lies in a third statement from the same document: "Often we need to understand what the claimer was thinking when making the imperfect claim in order to rule on it."

That is the whole point. The director must try to figure out - to the best of his abilities - what was going on in declarer's mind when she made her claim. No rule, no guideline can tell us that. Is is an effort the director is expected to make, and we should not encourage "lazy" rulings simply by writing more and more guidelines.

So I spoke to the players a little more. In the end I was satisfied that:

* it was clear to everyone at the table that the defenders had no more trumps, so there was no need to pull them;

* declarer never had any intention of playing trumps prematurely - not because she specifically intended to ruff out something, it simply did not cross her mind.

You may wonder what questions I asked and how I could be so sure. Well, I cannot remember the conversation in detail; it is still possible that she deceived be, but I do not consider that very likely.

Some may question the whole approach of asking the players more questions because of the risk of self-serving statements ("they will know what they have to say"), so one cannot take their answers at full value. I disagree. It is no secret that players who are flat-out lying to the director will often be in a better position than those who respond truthfully; this is true in many areas. But it does not mean we should stop trying.

I find that, in the long run, one gets a feeling at the table about what the players are really thinking which one can hardly put into words. And I believe this feeling is correct far more often than not. The director should interview the players if he thinks he will get a better idea of what is going on.

In our case, I found myself in a position to rule on the claim at last. I decided that, had play continued, declarer would play clubs from dummy; that she would notice East's card, and that she was allowed to ruff the second round of clubs.

After that, declarer would either cash winners from his hand or ruff in dummy and win the last trick in clubs. I ruled that all other lines were not normal for this player in his current state of mind.

(I also remarked that, if it had been West who still held a club stopper, I might have decided that the defenders would get a trick. In that case, declarer might not realize until it was too late that he was trying to cash a loser; as I see it, it is far more reasonable to impose the losing line on her in this alternative layout.)

In my opinion, this claim is a good example why too many guidelines can harm the process. I am not comfortable with the idea of a rule or a guide which tells me I must force declarer to play an unnecessary round of trumps, no matter what.

Do not get me wrong; in some similar cases I have ruled that declarer would in fact play his cards in the wrong order. This may sound random, but I believe the director can - and even should - make his ruling based on the impressions he gets at the table.

In this case it was my feeling that declarer would not go wrong and play another trump for no reason. I believe that, by awarding her the rest of the tricks despite the sloppiness of her claim, justice was served.

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