Deal Of The Week: February 15, 2023

More Bridge For Your Buck?

It's Up To You!

(This lecture, which I balked at presenting at the 2023 Future Stars between sessions and presented something less grumbly instead, is sarcastic and ranty and may be my undoing. I hope you will take it as humour and not as criticism: I'm lampooning general trends, not specific players, but I cannot deny that the antics of a few specific players have made the list....)

Everyone seems to want to play fewer and fewer boards these days; it’s a post-pandemic epidemic!

We have gone from 25-28 board sessions to 24-board sessions at clubs and that’s still too many for some. People ask me if the next round is the last round well before the end of the second hour. A little slowness was expected as we came back to live bridge and I was quite lenient in the first club and tournament games, but I had hoped it would improve over time.

It hasn’t.

I play enough to fill in half-tables to see that there has clearly been a change. Too many of us, perhaps lulled by the online game, have forgotten basic concepts that we all need to follow to keep the live game moving. Having online software move us to the next table and sort our cards and keep score for us is nice, but in live bridge we need to do this for ourselves, without losing a lot of time doing it. Everyone needs to develop a simple habit for pulling and sorting cards, noticing the conditions (who’s dealer? who’s vulnerable?), writing down the boards in play and the opposing pair number at the start of the round, writing down the contract before the opening lead (if you are on lead, after making it face down ), and writing in the result at the end. It’s important to make all this an unconscious routine so you can focus on greeting opponents, finding out where to go next, entering the scores into the BridgeMates or checking them, chatting, and thinking about your cards, your plans, your system, previous deals, and other bridge-related things. Pulling cards from the correct slot, sorting them, recording the score on the correct line, all should be second nature. Scoring meticulously as an automatic reflex also helps focus the mind and provides a mental bookmark later when we take the hand records to the restaurant, or look up the results online. For a lot of us, all this needs to be relearned after the long covid hiatus where the computer did most of these tasks for us.

As well, we need to understand that as important as scoring is, it should never slow things down. BridgeMate operators who are hitting keys as the rest wait for them to face their cards as dummy should know better. Those who finish hitting keys and move on to their scoresheet still before facing their cards as dummy should be incarcerated! If it can be done later, do it later!

But it goes even beyond all that. I’m seeing a real decline in general awareness at the table. A few examples:

  1. A player leads a card and the next player ruffs; perhaps the third player overruffs. I’m seeing a lot more Director calls for revokes, based on people following suit of the most recent card played, rather than the card actually led to the trick. Maybe we have lost the skill of focusing on the four areas of the table directly in front of each player where they play their cards, and are relying too much on the computer, where the four cards of a trick are neatly displayed in the middle of the screen; where accidentally attempting to revoke fails and wakes us up when we try to play a card and nothing happens. A few years off and some of us have forgotten how to scan the table for cards played and remember what suit was led.

  2. A player wins a trick and thinks about what to lead to the next one. Five seconds go by and there is no answer. The player now picks up the card played to the previous trick, as though that will help. You won the trick, and you forgot how? It’s only been five seconds! This is a sign that you are not focused on the game. I’ve seen players do this three or five times in a deal, sometimes multiple times on the same trick. It does not inspire confidence.

  3. The process of facing dummy should take, at most, ten seconds. Too many of us are making this into a Netflix series, with facial expressions after every card, and comments on each suit. The other three players want to play the hand. They want to examine the dummy hand (all of it), not admire it suit by suit. Let them at it. Get those cards down as quickly as you can.

  4. When a hand is over, put your cards back in the slot. Do it now. Right now. I’ve seen people shuffle the spots off the cards, literally dozens of times, while I wait for boards to move to the next table. It seems some players think that once the cards are back in the slot, they can no longer object to anything that happened. Not true. Stop being a “clutcher” and put the cards back so we can get on with the next board or next round.

  5. Related to the previous problem is the growing number of Director calls about auctions, often weird and wonderful auctions never before even imagined, that have gotten to some high level before someone notices that one player has cards from a different board. What this usually means is that someone other than North flipped the completed board to the bottom of the stack and pulled cards, then the actual North flipped the boards again and pulled cards from a different board. If you can’t wait, at least keep an eye out in case someone else tries to reflip! (By the way, this flipping of boards once played is unnecessary, and results in the boards being harder to pick up, and actually puts them in reverse numerical order! Just put the played board on the bottom of the pile without flipping it over. If you don’t notice when you restart an already-played deal, you will at some point and it will be a good laugh for all.)

  6. We seem to have a growing minority of players who are forever convinced that playing out all the tricks when the result is apparent is sound strategy, and claiming the obvious has no benefits at all. Yes, rarely, when you claim, and the cards are not as you thought, you may end up with fewer tricks than you might have managed by playing it out. But most deals are over by trick ten and if you are aware of what’s going on, claiming saves time, time enough to not get rattled on future deals while everyone is waiting for you to finish. And usually, when you are playing out the tricks hoping for an error, you really are just wasting everyone’s time. Here is an actual example from an online open game:

    Dummy: (void)   A K J 8 5   J 8 6 4 2   8 5 4  

    Declarer: A K Q J 6 5 4 3   Q   T 5 3   A  

    Everyone opened four spades in fourth seat and played it there; LHO led a trump. With three diamond losers, this is a lucky start, and by overtaking in hearts you can win eight spades, three hearts and the club ace for twelve tricks. Can you do even better?

    Many players thought so. Over and over again I saw people pull trumps, cash the ace of clubs, pitch two diamonds on the hearts after overtaking, and then when the outstanding seven hearts somehow failed to break 3-3, they ruffed a club back to hand and played out all of the spades one by one, hoping two defenders would find a way to part with three diamond winners.

    What do you think you're gaining here?, I wanted to ask. You overtook the heart to get to dummy and then pitched diamonds on heart winners. Then you ruffed a club back to hand. The opponents don't even need to count. You either have a diamond to lose or you don't. They already know you have no clubs and no hearts. Even a beginner will recognize this.

    At straggling table after table I watched them play out the spades as though each spot card were a vibrant Picasso to be admired, some going even further by taking a moment to think after each spade, apparently to give the impression that there was some logical strategy in play here, and that some spectacular discard was required for the defense to prevail.

    Anti-claimers have no clue that they've already given the game away. They run these time-wasting plays constantly, because once in a thousand times, someone falls asleep and drops the wrong card and they get a good score by accident.

    Here's what I say. There is a simple rule by which you can travel a thousand miles and figure out who the good players are and are not. How many trick thirteens do they actually play as declarer? If you find yourself hoping for a miracle discard more than once or twice a game (not part of a legitimate squeeze, where a truly squeezed player will have to give you a trick through discarding), you are a nuisance. Any real player simply says "well, you get a diamond" and moves on. Yes, even on the last hand of the session.

    The true expert will run a different play on the hand above, one that hopes for a fatal discard and caters to the one that might just happen, not the one that will only happen if both defenders lose their minds. Start with eight rounds of spades, right from trick one. You begin with twelve tricks when they lead a trump, so why not? Now the defenders have no clues. Do you have ace-queen of clubs? What's the diamond situation? How many tricks are you trying for? The key defender on this deal, as it turns out, held these cards:

    9 8 7   T 9 6 4   A Q 9   K T 2  

    Even if partner can somehow signal the king of diamonds, allowing three safe diamond discards, there are still two more discards to make. And as soon as a small heart goes, you have thirteen tricks. A few declarers actually tried this play but balked at leading out the last trump, terrified of “losing control” even though the earliest they could possibly lose the lead was on trick thirteen! Real squeezers do not wimp out in this way. Lead out all your winners. Just don't tell them what to keep first.

  7. Awareness at the table is not something you can fake. Watching online players in situations like the one above and watching players in live games who are holding things up, I’m getting the impression that many of us are inserting pauses with little or nothing to think about. Too many of us are unwilling to simply say “I have no way around a diamond loser, so down one,” and instead take another forty-five seconds trying to uncover the solution that obviously does not exist, before getting the same result others got in a minute or five less. Another example: declarer pulls trumps and dummy (and presumably declarer) still have one or two. Now declarer leads a side suit from hand towards dummy's doubleton ace-queen. This loses to the king, but the defender who wins the trick takes a minute and a half to decide whether winning the king is the right play. How could it not be, when declarer can ruff the third round? If you don't know what to lead after taking the king, take the king and then figure out what to do next. It seems to be a fashion to duck when declarer takes a losing finesse, but an even more popular fashion to do so only after serious thought. Guess what: nobody is fooled. If you want declarer to use up a key entry back to hand and retake the losing finesse, you need to duck smoothly.

    We all need time to work things out, but we need to be aware of when it is possible to get a solution, and when the result is unchangeable. Wasting time over the impossible or the obvious just makes you look bad, and needlessly inconveniences others, who now have less time to complete the deals you took extra time on.

  8. There is a real lack of awareness by players of anything happening outside the bridge table: timeclocks, announcements, players moving en masse nearby, even by pairs who have finished early. If players are moving and you are still bidding the last board, you shouldn’t need a Director to remind you that you have fallen behind. But it is always a complete surprise to some! There’s precious little a Director can do since once the games begin, announcements are routinely ignored by players; some ask “did you call a break?” and the answer is “yes, about three rounds ago.” The ultimate Director announcement is: “Ladies and gentlemen, in view of the proven fact that virtually all bridge players do not hear the first thirty-five words of any announcement, and ICBMs have just been launched by five nuclear nations, please change for what I assure you will be the final round.” And the Director who makes it will soon hear, from someone who still somehow thinks we're in the middle of the session: “sorry, I didn’t hear all that, did you call a break?”

    If you skipped that whole section because you've been playing live bridge throughout 2022 and feel just as aware of what’s happening at the table as ever you were, you may still want to read this next part. Non-awareness and attention-deficits are a growing problem that has added to the problems we used to, and continue to have in keeping games moving; such as:

  9. Everyone has their own preferred pace. A lot of perceived problems with the slowest tables come from the unwillingness of the fastest to find some happy medium. The complaint I often get is “but they’ve just started a hand!” and when I look I find that the hand they’ve “just started” is on trick eight. Sometimes the table assignments place the slowest N-S and E-W pairs against each other by chance in round one (trust me, no TD is good enough to deliberately set things up this way), and it takes the first half of the game to recover. Obviously, at tournaments with lower attendance and only one Director, it is more difficult to keep the game moving, but we do what we can, and we hope you will as well.

  10. One thing that can throw a game into complete chaos is when people decide to start a round early after a break is called, without actually taking one. They finish eight minutes before the next round ends, get up to take their delayed break, and half the room now assumes we’re having another one, sending Directors running about trying to herd people back into seats! Watch the time clock, listen for announcements, ask the Director if you are unsure.

  11. “But we’re not slow players!” This I hear five minutes into the unstarted next round, and if it seems that I don’t believe you, it’s because on the current evidence I don’t. You should be able to catch up over the next round or two and we'll give you that opportunity. If you’re even further behind by then, the next excuse is usually “it was the opponents’ fault!” At some point we need to stop blaming others and accepting that we all lose time occasionally and this doesn't make us "slow players." The ones Directors do think of as "slow players" are those who will not avoid further delays after they fall behind and are asked to pick up the pace. Even if it is not your fault you are behind, you must still make an effort to catch up for lost time, or the whole game drags. If that means you don’t get to think through a possible squeeze or endplay to the extent you would like and miss an overtrick, or have to claim early rather than play out the trumps and hope for an unlikely misplay, that lost matchpoint or two is still better than the Director later having to remove a board from a round and give some random pair an unearned artificial score that may be ten matchpoints better than what they might have gotten. Bridge is a timed event. We can allow a little more leeway in live bridge than in online bridge, and we very rarely actually penalize for slow play. But if you’re often well into the next round before you’re done, you’re not fooling anyone.

  12. Pass played boards when the round is called! Directors can help you do this but there aren’t enough of us for every table in the room. It is amazing how many people who specifically ask for a North-South seat can get to the snack table but expect the boards to magically move themselves. When the round is called, pass the boards you have completed to the next table. Not doing so delays four people ready to begin. Making a fuss when they interrupt your deep thought to get boards you should have passed three minutes ago loses further time. Getting revenge by dumping the completed boards on the next table later when you finish a round early is just uncalled for.

  13. Ask questions about opponents’ bids when you need answers, not because you think partner might need to know (illegal) or because you are hoping for the response to be wrong and gain by misinformation (also illegal), or because you are more interested in their system than in playing bridge (talk system with the opponents at the end of the round). Call the Director when a problem comes up, rather than trying to teach opponents how to play the conventions they are claiming. It saves time.

  14. Don’t complicate calls for the Director. A claim of a revoke does NOT give everyone the right to start turning played cards face up with tricks still to play. A revoke corrected before the next trick by a defender will make the original card played a penalty card, but the Director is still needed, for players often miss the options that declarer may later have. The whole revoke law has changed from previous versions of the Laws and it no longer matters that a player won a trick with a card he could have played to the revoke trick. Listen to the Director’s questions and directions and you will be back on track sooner. Answer questions that the Director has not asked, or delay calling until the situation has advanced from routine to complex, and time will be needlessly lost. (By the way, Directors – especially in this new world where we are usually working alone or with smaller staffs – do not have perfect directional hearing: once you call, the next step for us is to figure out where you are. In some places sounds bounce off the wall and send us away in a wrong direction. Raise a hand please and call again if necessary. It helps.)

  15. 200 minutes. That’s how long a normal session of bridge takes, a little more than three hours. Add 200 minutes to the start time and you will have the answer to one of the most common questions a Director gets: even with slow play and the occasional delayed start, it seldom changes the answer much.

We’re still rebuilding club and tournament bridge and as more people return, they’ll need to get their live game back, so leniency for slower play will continue for 2023, just as we have leniency for the new alerting and other rules that have come up recently. Welcoming everyone back with a fun experience is the most important job of a club or tournament Director, but players can help by encouraging good playing habits that don’t cause delays. As I’ve written before, fast players don’t play “fast”. They just slow the game down less often. As a result, they have more time to think. What we need to do is look for the ways we all slow down the game and avoid them. Doing so will give us more time to play more deals. It’s up to you!

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