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.


Chris Hasney said...

A nice discussion of an important issue. Picked up your feed from Bridgeblogging. See also a similar discussion by Bobby an Kay Wolff there.
In my bridge books I try to tell readers when treatments I recommend are alertable.

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