As you can see from this blog, I am fascinated by bidding theory. However, when it comes to actually sitting down at the table and playing the game, I do not believe that people should be allowed to experiment with unusual methods without restriction. System regulations are a necessary part of the game.
In an ideal world, two things would happen:
- People would be allowed to play whatever methods they thought were best; and also
- People would have the opportunity to come up with the best defences to all of their opponents' methods.
However, in practice these two things are incompatible. In most events, players do not find out what their opponents' methods are until just before they begin to play, and if these methods are sufficiently unusual there is not enough time to discuss an adequate defence.
So if the two objectives are incompatible, what do we do? The anti-regulation lobby would have us believe that freedom to choose our methods is the most important principle, and that opponents should try to cope with this as best as they can. I do not agree with this: if forced to choose, I think the right to be prepared for opponents' agreements is the more important. This may well involve "generic" defences which work against a variety of possible conventions. However, it is not reasonable to expect people to have generic defences for everything the opponents might want to throw at them.
Fortunately, system regulations offer a compromise. The people whose methods are disallowed might not see it as a compromise, but really it is:
- Players may only play methods which are permitted by the system regulations; but
- Players must be prepared to defend against all the permitted agreements.
From this we get the important principle of what the convention regulations should be:
The permitted methods should be precisely those things which it is reasonable to expect pairs to be prepared to defend against, given the amount of time available for discussion.
So for example, in a duplicate pairs event, there is virtually no time for discussion at all, so the permitted methods should only be those things which players are expected to already know their defences to. Whereas, in a knock-out teams event where players can find out their opponents' systems in advance, there can be a much wider range of agreements allowed. Of course it also depends a lot on how good the players involved are: there can be much greater expectations on players in a top-level event than those in a club event. So the principle of having multiple "levels" of system regulations, depending on the event, is a good one.
So, I am very much in favour of restrictions, provided that they are for the right reasons. The right reason for disallowing a convention is if it is considered to be so unusual that players would not know how to defend against it. Note that the important question is whether the opponents would know what their bids meant. There are some conventions which make life difficult for the opponents simply because they are obstructive - this should not be a matter for system regulations: provided that the opponents can understand the methods, they should be allowed. What really annoys me is when there is a convention which is not difficult to defend against (in terms of the opponents having agreements about what their bids mean), but which is disallowed for some other reason. This should not happen.
The other big problem with convention regulations is when they are poorly written. It is very important that the regulations are clear and consistently applied, since players must be able to know whether their conventions are allowed before turning up at the event. The worst possible thing is when different TDs have different views on what the regulations say. Fortunately, apart from a couple of well-known issues, the system regulations here in the EBU are largely free of serious problems, though there are a few little corners that I wish the L&E would get round to tidying up.
The EBU's system regulations are unusual in that they are extremely detailed. But in terms of how much is permitted, we seem to be fairly near the average. (North America, in particular, is much more conservative, whereas countries like Australia are more permissive.) In fact I would say that the EBU has got the level almost exactly right. If anything, the recent decision to use Level 4 in the EBU's competitions seems to me to allow a bit too much for duplicate events. I think it would be better for the game if the standard level for tournament play was somwhere between level 3 and level 4; the rest of level 4 would be allowed in teams events provided that those conventions were disclosed in advance.
At the very highest level, such as the world championships, I do think that agreements should be unrestricted. My argument here is simply that these events are planned so long in advance that players would have enough time to prepare for all of the opponents' systems. In other words, the "ideal world" scenario really ought to be achievable here. Some players might still complain that even with all the time available it is still not possible to develop defences which they consider to be good enough, but I think there comes a point where the organisers have to say: perfection might not be achievable, but there is enough time to be adequately prepared.