Monday 2 April 2007

Announcements in the EBU

Eight months on from the big changes to our alerting regulations, announcements are still a very controversial topic. It's difficult to tell exactly what the level of opposition is, because inevitably it's the people with the strongest opinions whose voices are heard, but it's certainly clear that a significant number of people don't like announcements. One interesting feature of the debate is that there is an apparent distinction between "club players" and "tournament players", with a common perception amongst the club players being that the EBU's rules are there to cater for the tournament players, at the expense of the "ordinary" club players. While the EBU might disagree, it is difficult to shake off this criticim, since it is genuinely difficult to cater for everyone at once, and there is no doubt that announcements work best in more serious events. But in spite of all the criticism, I still believe that announcements are a good thing. I'd like to explain why I think it is that despite announcements being good for the game, there are so many people who are unconvinced.

First of all, we need to understand what the point of announcements is. I feel that the EBU did not do a good job of explaining this, which was a big mistake. The most common short explanation was, "It gives the opponents information immediately, without them having to ask for it." But that's nothing more than a restatement of what an announcement is, it doesn't explain why we should have them. In fact there are two distinct reasons why we have announcements:

1. Avoiding alerts for very common artificial bids.

This is the reason why we announce Stayman and transfers. The "basic" rules for alerting in the EBU say that artificial bids should be alerted. If this rule applied here (as it did before 1st August 2006) then Stayman and transfers would be alertable. However, this would mean that when the auction went 1NT : 2C / 2D / 2H, this would nearly always be alerted. This in itself would not be a problem: the problem comes when a pair turns up who don't play normal Stayman or transfers, but play some more unusual convention instead. The danger is that their opponents will see the alert and assume it was Stayman or a transfer since that is nearly always the reason for the alert. I used to play "Keri" over 1NT where the 2C response forced partner to bid 2D: many opponents went wrong because they had assumed it was Stayman, and occasionally some of them got very upset about it, even though we had done all we were required to do. The announcement of Stayman and transfers solves this problem, because now if such a bid is alerted opponents will know that it is something unusual. (Or of course it could be a Stayman bidder who has simply forgotten the regulations, but this will be clarified easily enough.)

2. Avoiding unauthorised information from asking questions.

This is the reason why we announce the range of 1NT openings. The point is that opponents will very often want to know what the range is. But asking about the range can lead to problems - particularly if opener's left-hand opponent asks and then passes. Asking tends to suggest that the player was interested in bidding, and now the Laws say that the player's partner must "carefully avoid taking advantage" of that information. Sometimes this is not a problem, but on other occasions a director may have to be called to sort things out. Or perhaps even a director should be called, but the players don't like calling the director. Either way, it would be so much better if the unauthorised information had not been passed in the first place: then this problem would not arise. This is why we announce 1NT openings: it gives the opponents the information they need, without them having to ask a question which might give their partner ethical problems.

For the other type of announcement that we have - natural two-level suit openings - both of the above reasons apply. (Before the announcement was brought in, an alerted 2H or 2S opening was nearly always a natural "weak two". And, like with a 1NT opening, opponents will very often need to know the meaning of a 2-level suit opening.)

As I said, I do not think that the EBU did a good job of explaining these things. So it is no wonder that so many people thought the announcements were pointless. The way the announcements were presented made them seem very arbitrary - just rules for rules' sake. Even if you ignore the attempts at explaining why we should have announcements and just look at the explanations of the rules themselves, there was a lot that could have been improved. The completely unreadable "easy guide" that the EBU produced is one of the most hopeless attempts at an explaining something that I have ever seen.

But of course it can't all be blamed on the publicity. Even if the L&E had handled that as well as possible, announcements were always going to be controversial. The fundamental problem is that the two reasons for having announcements aren't really things you'd expect a club player to be interested in. Let's look at those two reasons again:

1. Avoiding alerts for very common artificial bids. The announcement is designed to make opponents aware when a pair is playing an unusal method (ie. one which is alertable but is not Stayman or a transfer). However, these unusual methods are so rare at club level that club players will hardly ever come across them. So there is little need for them to be protected by annoucements.

2. Avoiding unauthorised information from asking questions. Most club players aren't interested in subtle Laws issues like this. Some people won't understand what the problems are in the first place, while others that do have some idea of the Laws are happy to ignore any problems that come up, since they don't like calling the director anyway. In a "friendly" game where people don't mind little bits of unauthorised information occurring, there seems little need to use announcements to prevent it.

Notice that the underlying problems - unsual systems and ethical issues - are not just specific to announcements, but cause a variety of difficulties in trying to apply the Laws of bridge to non-serious events. People who enjoy themselves playing in a club where everyone plays the same system and the director is hardly ever called about unauthorised information are not going to appreciate rules which are designed for unusual systems and scrupulous adherence to the Laws.

But to a "serious" bridge player, this looks so wrong. Announcements do genuinely solve the problems with unusual systems and unauthorised information that I have mentioned. And they come at little cost since once you've got used to them an announcement is no more difficult than an alert. But how do we sell this to our club players - do we tell them they're wrong not to care about these things? I think that is pretty much what we're saying. So while we may believe that announements improve the game for every type of player, it's no wonder that so many club players think that the rules are not designed with them in mind.

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