Sunday, 13 December 2009

System Notes

Geocities closed down a couple of months ago and I've been too lazy to find a new place to put my system notes. For the time being, if you want a copy of any of the notes referred to in this blog, please email me at {firstpart}, where {firstpart} = dcrc2y.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

What's so bad about transfer openings?

The EBU has invited comments about system regulation on the L&E blog. Apparently the system that has prompted discussion this time is a transfer-based set-up along these lines:
  • 1C = hearts
  • 1D = spades
  • 1H = balanced 9-15
  • 1S = strong
  • 1NT/2C/2D = natural [I assume]
And this isn't the first time that 1-level transfer openings have been under the spotlight - there have been complaints about moscito before.

Now, I've written about system regulation before so I'm not going to go all through that again. But there's something interesting going on here: these transfer openings aren't all that hard to defend against (not compared to multi, say, or assumed-fit pre-empts, which are Level 3 and Level 2 respectively), so why is it that people react so strongly? Having played both Polish Club (a lot) and moscito (a little) I've seen for myself that people find the latter considerably more intimidating.

I suspect a big part of the reason is that in these systems all of the 1-level bids are affected. If you're playing 1D as a transfer to hearts, the chances are you're going to want new meanings for 1H and 1S as well. Perhaps none of the bids are particularly taxing for the opponents when you look at them individually, but having four unusual 1-level openings is four times as much for the opponents to think about. Certainly the intimidation factor seems to be closely correlated with the amount of unfamiliar stuff in the system, irrespective of how "difficult" it really is.

Here "amount of unfamiliarity" could mean either the number of things that opponents need to think about before starting to play, or the frequency that they actually come up. I would say the former is a better reason for restricting conventions, but the latter is important too - a call that comes up once in a session can be an interesting challenge, but if these things are appearing every other hand (or more if you're unlucky) it starts to become a little draining.

Another point is that, although there are many unfamiliar systems around, these transfer systems are unfamiliar in a particularly obvious, in-your-face kind of way. The unfamiliarity of systems like Polish Club is dimmed by all the nebulous minor-suit openings you come across. Transfer openings really look like something completely different.

None of these are necessarily very "rational" reasons for disliking a system, but of course that's not the point. If opponents feel a system detracts from their enjoyment of the game, it's not because they've done a detailed technical analysis. If a system appears to be difficult, then that's a problem.

Besides, not everyone is a bidding theorist. When I look at a 1D opening showing hearts, I can see straight away that I can defend against it exactly like a 1H opening, so long as I've managed to agree what my double and cue-bid mean (and it doesn't really matter which agreement you pick). It's really quite remarkable that that's all there is to it. But you do have to be thinking about it in the right way. If you're not used to looking for analogies like this it won't necessarily be so easy to grasp. I've seen enough people making the "wrong" cue-bid in this situation to know that not everyone is comfortable with this stuff.

I'm not going to lose sleep over whether transfer openings should continue to be permitted. But the fact is that many opponents do have a problem with them, and my experiences of this are enough to make me feel it was probably a mistake to allow these bids in general tournament play. It would be great if everyone could learn to love these things; but if a large majority of players do not want them to be allowed, as suggested on the EBU blog, then that cannot be easily dismissed.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

TaBR4: Three Answers to Every Question

This post is about the regulations concerning disclosure of agreements - both alerting and answering questions.

Given the limitless variety of treatments and conventions that can be played, the rules about disclosure can never be totally precise. As a result, two very common questions are "Should this call be alerted?" and "How should this call be described?" When answering these questions, it is important to realise that the "best" answer may depend on who is asking. Our three different points of view are:

  • The player who is trying to describe his partner's call.
  • The opponents who are receiving this description.
  • The TD, who may have to decide whether the description is adequate.

Let's concentrate on the question of whether a call should be alerted. Nearly always (at least if we're talking about bids) this question arises when someone has made a bid which is essentially natural but has some additional information attached to it. We have to decide whether that information is enough to require an alert. Say someone asks you for advice on this. The sort of answer you give may well depend on who is asking. If a TD needs an answer, you have to look for exactly where the dividing line is between alertable and non-alertable. If you are lucky the situation may be covered explicitly in the regulations, but otherwise you have to try and work out what the requirements are by comparing to similar situations and coming up with the most sensible interpretation. Whereas to answer the question from a player's point of view, you can point to specific rules if there are any, but otherwise it is best to err on the side of caution.

So, what does that mean? Suppose it is unclear whether a particular bid is technically alertable. Then if you are the player who is doing the alerting, the best plan is always to alert it. That ensures that you always help the opponents when they need it. You could ask a TD for his opinion on whether an alert is required, but there isn't necessarily any guarantee that a different TD would agree. Unless you are able to find a definitive answer somewhere, the safest and most helpful policy is to alert every time. This is summarized in a well-known slogan,

When in doubt, alert.

Similarly, if your opponents have made a bid and you are unsure exactly what you can expect from it, the best way to find out is to ask. The ACBL has another slogan for this:

Ask, do not assume.

But for the TD, there are no such nice general principles. A TD cannot hedge his bets: he must rule one way or the other. That comes down to working out exactly what the regulations mean. The TD's question is undoubtedly the hardest of the three.

What's the point of all this? There are three things I want to say here. First of all, when someone does ask one of these questions, it's obviously important to know which point of view they are thinking of. From the various discussions I've participated in, it seems to me that it's all too easy to talk at cross purposes. You can be trying to decide how a TD should rule, and then someone comes along and says, "If you're not sure, just alert it. What's the problem?" Or, just as bad, a player who wants practical advice can end up being given a detailed technical analysis. This sort of thing can become very irritating. You really have to make sure you know which of the three answers is required.

Secondly, the phrase "when in doubt, alert" is certainly a useful piece of advice for players. But it is not, and never can be, the basis for a regulation. It is not something that can be applied by the TD. A TD has no alternative to looking closely at the definitions to see what the requirements really are. And I know that "when in doubt, alert" is written into the ACBL regulations, but it would mean nothing if it was not backed up by a proper definition and examples of what actually makes a call alertable.

Finally, I believe there are implications for what makes a good regulation. Players do not necessarily need to know all the details of the regulations in order to disclose their methods (and understand opponents') correctly. We may have different standards for the regulations that players do need to know, compared to those that will only ever be applied by TDs. More on this to come.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

TaBR3: Who Makes the Rules? (part 2)

In the previous post I argued that a TD should follow the regulations of his club (or tournament, or NBO), even if they contradict the Laws of bridge. That raises the question (as put by Nigel K in a comment to that post) - if a regulation is illegal, what can be done about it?

One possibility is to go through the usual process for changing a regulation. That means persuading the committee responsible for the regulation that they should change it. Very rarely, a committee might be overriden by a general meeting, or something like that.

But that doesn't sound very satisfactory. Surely if a regulation is illegal, it ought to be possible to require it to be put right.

Well, personally I don't think it's possible. Or, if it is possible, I think the cure would be worse than the disease. Let's consider the alternatives.

As mentioned in the previous post, there is a sort of chain of authority for making regulations, with the WBF at the top and TDs at the bottom. So, let's suppose that we have a club which has made an illegal regulation. Now, the WBF is the ultimate authority for deciding what is or is not legal, but there is no direct link between the WBF and an individual club, so the WBF can't do anything about it. So authority is passed down to the next link in the chain - the national organization. There is a link between a club and its NBO - clubs are members of the NBO - so, in principle at least, a NBO can require a club to bring its regulations into line with the Laws. In a similar way, everyone answers to the organization immediately above them in the chain: TDs work for their clubs (as per my previous post) and NBOs answer to the WBF.

Well, that's the principle. Is it going to work? In order to force a club's regulation to be changed (for example), three things will have to happen:
  1. The NBO has to hear about it.
  2. The NBO has to have the time to tell the club that they should change what they are doing.
  3. The NBO has to be prepared to follow it through and take action if the club fails to put things right.
The first of these things doesn't happen very often: it requires someone to care enough about the situation to make a complaint. The second step is even less likely: NBOs are very busy, and most of them don't even get round to fixing their own rules, let alone worrying about what their clubs might be doing. Even in a reasonably pro-active NBO like our EBU, I'm sure they would prefer not to have to interfere.

Then we get to the last step. What can an NBO actually do to force a club to comply? Most likely, adhering to the Laws is a condition of membership. So they can threaten to withdraw affiliation (or "masterpoints", from the members' point of view). But now that's getting pretty serious. And the NBO doesn't want to lose a club. If too much pressure is put on them then they will just walk away. The NBO really doesn't want to take action over what is a relatively trivial matter. So it is very, very unlikely that this will happen.

One level further up, it's even less likely. If a NBO has an illegal regulation, then the WBF can in theory tell them to change; but in practice the WBF can't afford to lose an NBO - indeed there's no way they can take any meaningful action against them at all, over something as minor as this. You can't punish the players for actions taken by a committee.

And so the authority passes down to the next link in the chain.

You know what that means - it means that the people who get to decide whether the regulations are illegal are the same people who wrote the regulations.

Now, you know how easy it is to twist the wording of the Laws to make them say pretty much anything you want. Any regulating authority worth its salt will be able to come up with some justification for the rules it wants to make. And you may think that this supposed justification is poor to non-existent; but it makes no difference, because the regulating authority itself is the judge. Particularly for an NBO - if they say their regulations are legal, then they are legal, almost by defintion.

Now, personally I have more faith in my NBO than I do in the WBF, so this doesn't particularly bother me. But if you feel there is something that needs to be changed, clearly this situation is problematic.

The final possibility is to use whatever power you have to defy the regulating authority. I explained in my last post why I feel the TD should not do this. But similar arguments apply to other groups. Nigel mentioned appeals committees. Technically an AC doesn't have the authority to overrule a TD on a matter of Law; but even leaving that aside, I think it would be a bad idea. Basically I have three concerns; these all apply to TDs as well though I didn't really spell them out in my last post:
  • Not the right time and place. Regulations are usually decided in elected committees. This may not always produce the best results, but it's the best process we have. In particular, it takes time to properly evaluate a regulation, and it really demands hearing a variety of opinions. If a committee has been through this process, and has come up with a regulation, they really shouldn't be overruled by a different group who haven't had the time for proper consideration. And, though I'm not the world's greatest believer in democracy, I still don't think it's right to have an unelected committee thinking they can overrule an elected one, particularly if (when we're talking about NBO regulations) a committee was elected to carry out specifically this function.
  • Consistency. Players really deserve to know, before they start playing, what the regulations are. If you set aside a regulation then you are changing the rules.
  • Power struggles. It's not good to have two groups both thinking they have the right to make a particular decision. The poor players and TDs won't know who to believe. And it leads to bad feeling and ever more entrenched positions. It's much easier to change things for the better when there is only one committee involved, even if they are sometimes misguided.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

TaBR2: Who Makes the Rules?

When a ruling is needed, there are at least four different places the relevant rules might come from:

  1. The WBF produces the Laws of bridge;
  2. National bridge organizations have further sets of regulations;
  3. Individual clubs (or tournament organizers) may have their own regulations;
  4. Finally, the TD may have to decide some things for himself.

These form a nice hierarchy: decisions made by the WBF are binding on the NBOs; NBOs in turn have some control over their clubs and tournaments; and TDs should follow the rules they have been given.

This is all well and good when the rules are clear and uncontradictory. But inevitably, that isn't always the case. There are a number of things that can go wrong, and this post is about just one of those things.

It has been known for authorities to make regulations which are illegal according to the Laws of bridge. You might see a "club rule" that allows redealing of boards, or bans psyches. (Some psyches can be regulated according to the Laws, but not all.) Higher up the chain, there has been a bit of controversy recently because the ACBL has changed the wording of Law 12C1(e) in its publications, significantly altering the meaning from the WBF's version.

So the TD can be faced with a Law that says one thing, and a regulation which says something different and contradictory. What is he to do?

In my view, a TD's responsibility is to his club or tournament. If you have agreed to direct at a club, then you must uphold that club's regulations, irrespective of whether they are good, bad or downright illegal. Similarly, if there is conflict between a NBO and the WBF, a TD should always follow the regulations of his NBO.

Why should this be so? Partly because it's the only reasonable way to structure these things: a more specific regulation always overrides a general one. (Indeed, if you try to read the Laws of bridge without this principle in mind, you will get nowhere.) I would also point to the lack of a direct link between a TD and his NBO. A NBO can require that its clubs follow certain rules, but it has no say over who they ask to direct. So a TD does not have to answer to anybody apart from his club. That makes it pretty ridiculous to defy the club's regulations.

But perhaps the main point is that there are much better ways to address any conflict in the regulations. These things should be sorted out at the appropriate level, and at the appropriate time. If a TD refuses to apply a regulation which he thinks is illegal then he is effectively claiming that he has the right to adjudicate in a dispute between his club and his NBO (or NBO and WBF, or whatever). No, it is not his place to do that. If a bridge organization cares enough about something to make a regulation - particularly one that might be illegal - then they will not have done so lightly. It means they believe that is what is best for their players. Maybe they are wrong, but they have a right to expect that they will not be undermined by their TDs.

Now, this all seems pretty obvious to me. But I've seen too many people claiming that certain regulations are illegal and that this means those regulations can be ignored. Too often it is a way to try to get around a regulation that people don't like. I don't think this is a proper way to go about things. If you don't like a regulation, then you should try to get it changed. (Indeed the EBU recently did remove a regulation which I (and many others) thought was illegal. The main reason to remove it was that it was a bad regulation, but the question over its legality was a good weapon to use against it.)

Incidentally, what do we feel about authorities who make these illegal regulations (or regulations that are only legal with a very creative interpretation of the Laws)? Personally it doesn't really bother me that much. As I said above, organizations are just trying to do what is best for their players. If they think the Laws are so badly wrong that they have to make an illegal regulation, then they must feel pretty strongly that that is what is best for their players. I find it difficult to be too critical of that. And certainly in the case of Law 12 mentioned above I think the ACBL is totally right about what the Law should say, as the WBF's version is utterly perverse.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Thoughts about Bridge Regulations: Introduction

This is the start of a series of posts about bridge laws and regulations. This series is about what makes a good regulation: what should be prioritized, and what should not be. It's also about the processes involved in writing, interpreting and applying these regulations. That is, I'm going to be talking about general philosophy, not about the specifics of what individual regulations mean.

Now, I always worry when talking about this stuff. Firstly, do people really care? I imagine that to most people, the idea of discussing this sort of philosophy would seem very boring, if not rather pretentious. And secondly, I've never had to take responsibility for producing regulations - so it's easy for me to talk, and a bit unfair on the people who actually have to do it. They get enough stick already.

But people really do care about the end product - they care about which systems are legal, and which calls have to be alerted. We see more than enough arguments about these things. And often those arguments can be boiled down to a question of philosophy. I think at some point we have to put aside the specifics and talk about what's going on underneath. And, sad as it may seem, I find this stuff interesting. So, here is a place to discuss that philosophy.

I should point out that this series is going to be a bit different to my series on bidding theory: that had a nice sense of direction to it, with each post building on the ones before. This new series is just a collection of thoughts, in no particular order. (And you shouldn't expect two posts a week, either!)

What's Up

I have to apologise again for not blogging recently. Particularly seeing as I was quite optimistic last time that I might get back into it.

Anyway, what's happened is that I've moved back to Cambridge and started work as a software engineer. I've been here for a month now. After all this time, starting a proper job has been a bit of a shock to the system - I was so tired after work for the first two weeks - but I'm very glad to be here. And the weeks have gone by very quickly.

And I've played no bridge at all since I arrived! Apart from one game on BBO where I was barely concentrating. Which is clearly something I will need to rectify ...

There are two posts to come this weekend. I'm not going to be blogging very frequently, but it's nice to be able to write here when there is something to say.