Tuesday 2 January 2007

Alerting of Doubles

Bridge regulations vary from country to country. Here in England our Laws and Ethics Committee is particularly keen on coming up with regulations, and as a result we seem to have far more regulations than anywhere else. Fortunately the vast majority of these regulations are very sensible. But inevitably the L&E occasionally makes a mistake. I'd like to talk about what I think is the worst mistake the L&E has made recently.

The rules for alerting of doubles changed in August 2006. The main change was for doubles of natural suit bids: we now must alert these doubles unless they are for take-out. (Before August, the expected meaning of a double was penalties if partner had already made a bid.) I feel that these new rules are a disaster. Admittedly they're not much worse than the old rules - and many players might actually find them better - but the problem is that the old rules were awful as well. And now that we've had to change from one to the other, it's become apparent just how awful both sets of rules are.

The problem is that the EBU rules are primarily designed for simple auctions. Suppose we take a simple sequence like 1S : (2D) : Dbl. You will almost certainly find that:
(i) Everyone knows what their agreements are in this sequence; and
(ii) Everyone knows whether their agreements are alertable.
And so here the alerting regulations work quite well. But in more complicated auctions, both of these things might no longer be true.

People hardly ever have explicit agreements about doubles in complicated auctions. They therefore have to work out the meaning of a double from general principles or from previous experience of similar situations. This causes problems in trying to alert correctly. For instance, what do you do if you're not completely sure what partner's double means? Note that this is much less of a problem for alerting of bids, since even if you're not sure what the bid means, it's usually fairly clear whether the bid is natural or not. Deciding between take-out and non-take-out doubles is much harder.

The other problem is that even if you know what the double means, it's easy to get the alerting wrong. For a start there are some counter-intuitive positions. For example, a double of a natural suit bid is not alertable if it's for take-out, but it's easy to miss the fact that this does not apply to an auction like (1NT) : p : (2C) : p , (2D) : p : (p) : Dbl (because although you are making a take-out double of diamonds, the 2D bid was actually artificial). Also many people forget to alert doubles which are "obviously" penalties, such as (1NT) : Dbl : (2D) : Dbl or 1H : (1S) : 2H : (2S) , 3D : (3S) : Dbl. And the EBU rules make a fine distinction between "take-out" (usually not alertable) and "competitive" (alertable), which many people do not understand.

Admittedly, getting the alerting wrong does not always lead to problems with misinformation or unauthorised information. But it would still be much better if the rules were easier to get right.

Some other countries have the rule that no doubles are to be alerted. This is obviously much better from the point of view of understanding what the rule is. But it means that opponents are not warned about unexpected agreements.

So is there a better way? I think there is.

The point is that the unexpected agreements for which alerts are useful nearly all come in very simple auctions - and these are the simple auctions in which the current EBU rules work well. Whereas, in more complicated auctions there are hardly any agreements which are sufficiently unexpected that an alert is really necessary. So the plan is to use something like the current EBU rules for simple auctions, and change to the "no alert" rule for more complicated auctions. The difficulty is defining what "simple" means in a way that people would understand.

Fortunately, the simple agreements that we're interested in are really simple. In fact they can be limited to just four or five specific auctions. So what we can do is replace the four general rules in the current Orange Book with a similar number of rules each dealing with a specific sequence. Note that it's much easier to learn a rule about a specific sequence than a general rule covering lots of sequences. For example, while most people don't understand all the implications of the current rule about alerting doubles of natural suit bids, they do generally remember that negative doubles are no longer alertable.

The situations where I would have alerting are:

(i) Doubles of natural suit opening bids below 3NT. [Rule: Alert if the double is not for take-out.]

(ii) Doubles of natural 1NT or 2NT opening bids. [Rule: Alert if the double is not for penalties.]

(iii) After an opening bid and a natural suit overcall from opener's LHO below 3NT, a double by opener's partner. [Rule: Announce as "negative" if the double is for take-out; do not alert or announce if the double is for penalties; alert any other meaning.]

(iv) After an opening bid at the 1-level and a pass from opener's LHO, the double of a natural suit response (or raise) below 3NT. [Rule: Alert if the double is not for take-out.]

Note that in (i), (ii) and (iv), nearly everyone plays the non-alertable meaning for the bid, so most players would not even need to know these rules. The important rule to know would be number (iii).

[I would also have to make an exception for "anti-lead-directing" doubles (which are currently alertable even above 3NT) because these are particularly unexpected. But this is probably the only exception which is necessary.]

This was the specific suggestion that I sent in to the EBU. But what is more important than the specific suggestion is the general idea that in most auctions, only very unusual doubles should be alertable. Any regulation which did this would be an improvement on the EBU's ideas. The ACBL regulations do in fact work this way: in some sense my suggestion is simply a more precise version of the ACBL's rules.

I'm still hoping the L&E will concede that they got it wrong.

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