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Tells and A Gap in Bridge Ethics


The following post is a shortened version of an article that I intended to write for Bridge World. A tell is a behavior that reveals something about a player’s situation. In poker tells can be divided into two broad categories. One category is those unconscious behaviors and mannerisms that inadvertently give away information. For example, acting nervous when you are worried about the last card dealt. The other category includes deliberate behaviors that are designed to create an impression, but which can be equally revealing. These deliberate behaviors designed to mislead an opponent can be further divided into two general categories. They are acting weak when strong and acting strong when weak. An example of acting strong when weak would be pretending to be nervous about the last card dealt, and it actually gives you a sure winner.

In bridge tells can also be divided into these same two categories, and the second category can be broken down into the same two subgroups. In poker you are allowed, perhaps even expected, to try to mislead you opponents. In bridge you are allowed to do so in the bidding or the play (fake cue bids, false cards, etc.,) but it is considered inappropriate and unethical to try to mislead your opponents by you mannerisms and tempo. A player is strictly forbidden from hesitating without a problem. I consider this to be the bridge equivalent of acting weak when strong. In poker, hesitating with no problem is considered ethical, and is a standard part of the game. In bridge, it is considered unethical, and perhaps even illegal.

The practice of bridge ethics seems very convoluted. Even though it is clearly improper to use behavior to deliberately try to convey misinformation at bridge, there is at least on situation in which everyone advises you to do so. You opened 1S, and were in 3NT. Partner has put you back into four of your major. You are declarer and when dummy hit you notice that you had 9 easy tricks in notrump, but will have a problem finding you tenth in 4S. In fact you will need to get very lucky or have the opponents misdefend. It is considered generally bad for the partnership if you to mention that only retarded ape (stripe-tailed or otherwise) would have taken you out of 3N and into a 5-2 spade fit. However standard advice also states that you should smile at you partner, say thank you sweetly, and proceed to play as though you didn’t have a care in the world. Isn’t this just as bad as hesitating without a problem? This is equivalent to the poker maneuver acting strong when weak.

Why do the ethics of bridge allow you to act strong when weak, but forbid you to act weak when strong. In fact, perhaps, I’ll should call the director the next time my smiling opponent thanks his partner for an inappropriate dummy, and I misdefend allowing him to make it because I wanted to stop an overtrick.

I also have some thoughts about a topic that has been recently on BridgeWinners and in the ACBL Bulletin about the ethics (legality?) of staring at an opponent in order to pick up a tell, but I’ll save this for a future post.

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