Vancouver Bridge Centre Virtual Bridge Club — Differences between Online and Offline bridge
The following is a evolving list of the differences between online and offline bridge. For the most part, our group has been harmonious and have accepted most Director decisions when something goes wrong. Most difficulties have been caused by a misunderstanding of the key differences between online and offline bridge. Just as you wouldn't show up at the offline club and speak your bids, make face-up opening leads, grab the cards from dummy as declarer, and toss your played cards into the middle of the table, there are specific ways of doing things in online bridge that you need to get used to. Not doing them, or forgetting to do them, will usually not harm anyone, but occasionally there will be damage and a score adjustment will be needed. If you learn the online way, you'll have an easier time getting games and finding better partners to play with. Here's what you need to know:
- ACBL rules apply... You alert everything you would alert in a club or tournament. You still have to announce ranges for 1NT openers and short minors and basic transfers and forcing or semi-forcing 1NT responses. Conventions you can play are limited to those on the new (Nov. 2018) ACBL Open Chart.
- ...With One Key Exception! Online, we alert and explain our own bids, not partner's! This is the one rule everyone needs to know and understand about online play. The best way to do this is to click the alert button and type the announcement or explanation first, and then make the bid. Getting into this habit helps everyone: you get a chance to change your mind as you alert or explain, and the opponents see everything about your bid when it appears. If you forget to alert or announce or explain a call or play that requires one of those, try to add what is needed as soon as possible. It is unfair for an opponent to see a call by RHO, think about whether they should compete or not over the assumed natural meaning of the call, then suddenly (perhaps even after their call) find out that it is actually an alertable, artificial bid which would have made another action obvious. Get into the habit of explaining, alerting, and/or announcing before you click on the call you want to make. It will help everyone at the table, you included.
By The Way: Partner's alertable and announceable calls will appear to you as normal. In offline bridge you need to keep track of the bids you make that partner failed to alert, or explained wrongly. In online bridge you only need to keep track of your own alertable and explainable and announceable calls, but you also need to assume partner has alerted or explained or announced his calls correctly — because you don't get any notification that this is the case. If you open 1NT and partner makes a transfer of 2♥, it will appear on your screen without the alert, without the announcement. Don't panic! Assume partner did it right and got the alert and announcement out properly.
- Table Talk: When I direct online games I check in on tables at key points in the round, going from one to the next to make sure everyone has begun, everyone is keeping up, everyone will finish on time. As I do this, I notice that many of us greet opponents and sometimes conversations develop. All of this is excellent, as long as it does not interfere with the game. Most of us can click on "pass" or whatever the next bid is, and continue to type funny messages about the current subject of discussion, and a great atmosphere results. Then we get to a point where we are not sure what to bid and nothing happens for a half-minute. It's important to understand what that looks like to the others at the table. In offline bridge they would be able to see you intently staring at your cards, glacing at the ceiling, sweating over different possible calls, reaching tentatively for the bid-box. In online bridge nobody sees any of this, and your silence makes people wonder if you have been disconnected.
Solution: take three seconds and type "...hmmmm...." or "...thinking..." into the chat box, to let everyone know you haven't been relocated to Kyrgyzstan by internet gremlins. (Partner may be constrained if your eventual call clearly means something specific after considerable thought, but that was going to happen anyhow after you took extra time.)
- Don't Panic! Occasionally a player has some difficulty making a play or a bid, not realizing it is illegal. The system will never let you make an insufficient bid or an inadmissable bid (redouble when there hasn't been a double, for example), and will prevent you from revoking. It won't tell you why what you are trying to do is illegal, and sometimes this causes difficulty if a player spills the beans publicly. Another thing that sometimes happens is that dummy and declarer forget who the declarer is and dummy tries to play to trick one, without success, and believes that the system has malfunctioned (especially if declarer is under the impression that he is dummy and has gone off for a snack!).
Solution: train yourself to take a second look at the entire auction or the cards in the trick in progress when this happens, because usually you will find that you can follow suit, or you can't legally make the bid you intended, or it isn't your play. If you must chat, say "it won't let me bid/play what I want to bid/play" — without revealing what it is you want to do. And, call the Director. Better to have the Director, who sees all hands upon arrival, tell you in private that you have to play from dummy next, or you can't bid 2NT because LHO opened 5♣, or that partner is declarer, not you, than to make your error public!
- Timing: In offline bridge, a round ends when the Director calls it, but continues for tables that haven't finished. As we all know, this can lead to significant delays which are not your fault, but you have to do what you can to make up the time anyhow. (Some of us will be surprised by that last part.) The programmers for BBO quickly discovered this led to far more chaos and delays than simply cutting off play when the round ends, so they cut off everything on the bell, even though it is technically illegal. When the round ends, the list of incomplete results to check appears on the Director's screen, but the program looks for results that are apparent, such as any hand on the final trick when time ran out, or any hand where one side has the rest by any normal play. These results disappear from the Director's screen in a few seconds. Any tables where the result is unclear to the computer will be scored as average and left for the Director to review. The system saves the auction, including explanations, and the play up to the point where the round ended. Sometimes I can ask the declarer what their next move was going to be, to resolve issues, and other times I have to leave the average scores in if there is no way to tell. Occasionally I make a mistake, or the system does, but you can always review your results and let me know if that has happened, and I will take a second look and try to explain my view.
However, it has to be said that fourteen minutes for two boards is a lot of time for online bridge, where no time is lost moving to new tables, waiting for opponents to arrive, or sorting cards. If you find yourself often running out of time, and often giving me a problem so difficult that I have to give average because not enough tricks have been played to see a likely result, something needs to change. Maybe it is unfamiliarity with BBO, maybe it is partner who is causing the delay, and that's fine. (The excuse that it is always the opponents is older than the hills and it doesn't take long to disprove...) But after a few games you and partner should have no difficulty finishing most rounds a minute or two ahead of time. I'm beginning to realize that some of us have a lethal combination of aging eyesight and cheap monitors, and if that is you I cannot recommend a good 4K monitor or high-resolution tablet enough, they are worth every penny — I haven't worn my glasses while sheltering in place in weeks....
Be aware! Watch the clock in the lower left corner of the play diagram. You should have the first board of two finished with 7 or 8 minutes left. When it gets down to 3 or less, there are almost certainly other tables that are finished and waiting ... possibly for you only. Try not to make them lose interest. I would like to see most rounds finish in 13 rather than 14 minutes, but 6.5 minute boards is not a BBO option, and 6 is still a bit too fast for many. Time marches on, unlike at the club where we need to let you finish a board, and seldom give a penalty even though we know who the most common offenders are. Don't get yourself on that list for online bridge. In online bridge I see the same preventable reasons for lost time over and over again:
- Rehashing the previous deal: You really should be able to do both, discuss the previous deal and bid the next one, at the same time. Some of us need to be able to just mark a board to discuss later. I learned long ago that my worst arguments emerge when I try to argue a hand right away, but waiting a while allows me to edit out my more nonsensical talking points.
- Taking forever on early calls in an uncontested auction: The amount of time people take to make basic and obvious opening bids, responses, and rebids always surprises me. One rule everyone should adopt is to stop overthinking these situations that we have all seen hundreds of times and have never come up with an alternate answer. Opener rebidding 1NT seems to be something everyone wants to reconsider even when it is clear that nothing else makes sense. Passing partner's minor-suit opener with shortness in partner's suit seems to take forever, even though responding with two HCP is far more dangerous. Don't take time on bids that are clear and obvious.
It isn't just calls, by the way. For years I have advised newer players taking a finesse to assume that the second player will play low smoothly and decide — before leading to the trick — what you will do when that happens. Experts watch neophytes play tricks — small, smooth follow low, thirty-five seconds to decide whether to play the ace or the queen — with great relish at the number of matchpoints possible in this round. If you're going to finesse, finesse. The number of deals where you get a clue that allows you to change course is vanishingly small. Far more often, deciding not to finesse because you perceive a "tell" will backfire. You look so, so much more formidable when you take a finesse without pausing to measure the alpha waves, and just go for it. Even when it loses.
- Discarding: these delays always surprise me but in online bridge I recognize that as the Director I am seeing all the cards and players have a harder task. But when declarer runs a suit and you need to make multiple discards, you should know at some point how many discards you will have to make. Better to work out "which five cards will I keep?" than "what agonizing discard should I make this time?" A related problem is that your discard strategy should be avoiding breaking up your hand and losing potential tricks, rather than making a suitable signal to partner. No partner will sympathize with you if you make the correct signal but it costs a trick. Usually, by the time you need to discard, partner has some idea of where missing cards must be for there to be any hope, and doesn't need much help. What partner does need is for you to not discard a spot card from Kx or QJx which is a perfect signal, but leaves your honours in jeopardy.
- Outside delays: You're in the middle of a hand and the phone rings; a package has arrived and you need to sign for it, or go down to the lobby and collect it. Let the players at your table know before you go, with a 'brb' (be right back). No need to give full details. Things happen; we'll adjust for the lost time as fairly as we can. Just don't leave us completely in the dark.
- Let the computer decide: Time is running down and you decide to not even try to complete the hand, knowing that the computer will complete it for you. Do this at your peril! I visit most slow tables (often unannounced) and if I see nothing happening, whoever is causing the delay will be ruled against in any questionable outcome. Do your best to play right until the end or the adjudicated result may surprise you. If the computer discovers a squeeze or some amazing coup to make the contract, I probably won't when I review the deal. However, the other side needs to understand that time running out does not automatically get you an average: if the play thus far clearly indicates that declarer is on a winning line and there are no complicated questions left, the apparent result will be the one both sides get.
- Clarifying the explanations: We'll discuss this more below, but suffice it to say that you need to go with the explanation given by the bidder and trust the Director to adjust if there is damage. Asking the other player to confirm the agreement wastes time and could be interpreted as fishing for a mistake. Bid as though the explanation is right, and trust that you will be protected.
- Ruling disputes: Once a ruling is made, it's time to stop arguing and continue. Something missed can be adjusted for later if the Director has made an error. I've seen players waste several minutes in the middle of the first board of a round, after a delay by an opponent, arguing about what will happen to the second board. You were a non-offender and were getting an average-plus (minimum 60%) on incomplete boards — until you started wasting more time by arguing. Play on.
- Claiming difficulties: Usually, claiming with two or fewer tricks left is not as fast as playing the cards out. Claiming without stating your winners or your line of play, with lots of tricks left, can be confusing to some defenders who are set on their own tricks and will not notice that you can easily ruff them out or win the rest in the other suits. Accepting a claim does not preclude you from asking for an adjustment later, if you see some reasonable way to make more tricks (Law 71). When an opponent claims, please look at the claim from opponent's point of view: the trick you are counting on may be ruffed away or there may be no way for you to get in to cash it. Too many defenders are rejecting claims because they cannot see obvious things from declarer's perspective.
- Obsessing over misclicks: More below on this, but you can't escape from them as you often can in offline bridge. You have to roll with them as best you can. Online bridge is not 100% compliant with the Laws. The most important thing is not to reveal to partner that you have made a mistake. One way to give away the problem is to delay proceedings while you try to make a deal with the Director. Waking partner up means that partner can't make an unusual bid and be right: the score will be adjusted. Your best bet is to roll with the mistake as best you can and not take extra time. (It's OK, but not required, to let the opponents only — in private chat — know that you have made a mistake.)
- "Is that legal?" Two versions of 'legal' apply here: 1) a legal partnership agreement (one allowed by the ACBL on the Open Convention Chart), and 2) a bid that may have been affected by unauthorized information. Either way, assume it is legal and keep going while I check. If it is an illegal agreement, let me know in private chat (include the board number and the suspect call) and I can work it out. If there is unauthorized information, I will need to find out what happened and will need to be at the table. However, many players have the impression that a possibly illegal call (especially one that makes their next call difficult) can be disallowed on the spot and the offender is required to substitute a legal call. This never happens. Never. We continue the auction, get a result and then decide, if the bid turns out to be illegal, whether the non-offenders might do better if the illegal call was not made. So keep playing! If you are damaged by an illegal call, you will get a score adjustment.
- Private Chat Changes Everything! Beside the area in which you type messages is a blue box that usually says ->Table . Most of the messages you send will be to the people at the table you are at, so that is the default option. If you click the blue box, you will find a Private option, which allows you to type someone's BBO name and send a chat message directly to that person alone. You can also click on a person's BBO name in the chat and send a private message that way. You can click on their name in the hand diagram and send a message that way, by typing into the space for chat in the profile box that pops up. And the blue box that contained the Private option also keeps the names of the last several people you have sent or received private chat from, so you can quickly select someone and keep the private chat going. The only person you cannot send a private chat to is your partner, for obvious reasons.
Be careful if you chat privately to someone, for the system will leave that person's BBO name in the blue box as the default, so you can exchange a few messages back and forth. You'll suddenly think of the funniest comment for what happened on the previous hand, eagerly type it into the chat line, and nobody sees it because it was sent to the last person you sent a private chat to. (I get these strange messages all the time from players who have asked me a question and then forgotten to change back to ->Table before making their killer comment...)
Having this system of private chat means that we can keep unauthorized information to a minimum. Our offline system of alerting partner's bids is suitable for the offline medium, but often lets the bidder know how his bid has been received by partner, and questions asked in public sometimes pass unauthorized information between partners. Online, the rule is that we alert and explain our own bids, not partner's. This allows the system to display the explanations to opponents without revealing it to partner, who is supposed to know what the partnership agreements are. If you have a question about the opponent's calls, ask the bidder (not the partner of the bidder as you would do at the club) in private chat. If someone asks you about your alert or explanation, reply privately. Keeping it all secret reduces unauthorized information, allowing everyone to bid freely without worrying about whether an explanation was correct or a question partner asked means anything.
- Private Chat to Director: Some players send a private chat to the Director when an irregularity occurs, instead of calling the Director to the table publicly. There are situations where this is proper: if you are concerned that deliberate cheating is going on and don't want to accuse anyone publicly. But some of us are misusing this. A private message is not a Director call. Hesitations, missed alerts, misleading explanations, and other similar problems require that play stop while the Director investigates. If you play on, there is no way I can ask "what would you have done if..." and get a meaningful response because you've already seen the dummy, or even the whole hand. "After attention is drawn to an irregularity...no player shall take any action until the Director has explained all matters in regard to rectification." (Law 9B2)
At the same time, we need to understand that not everyone will have even found this page, much less read this far, and the vast majority of irregularities do not cause damage. A great way to completely destroy what we have built so far would be for the Director to penalize every little infraction, or for players to call the Director whenever someone forgot to announce a transfer. I've seen enough irate players claiming that with the correct alert they would certainly have come in to a live auction vulnerable with their 2-count, to be understandably a little wary of these claims. We all know when we've been damaged by an infraction. That's when to call, not when there might be damage if a dozen crazy things that haven't yet happened all take place.
- Misclicks: Undos are fine when playing casually online. However, they present a problem in tournaments, because a player's first choice is seldom completely unintended: too often a player who wants to correct a 1♥ opener to 1NT has five hearts, a player who wants to change 2NT to 2♣ has a balanced 22 or 23 count: allowing the change gives partner extra implied information. Having a Director allow only those mistakes that don't resemble the first choice doesn't work: it tells players what is in the hand of the player who wants to change their call. ACBL's choice is to disallow undos for tournaments. BBO does allow players to set up an option which allows them to confirm bids and plays they have made. (Go to Account/Settings to change default options if you want to have to confirm bids and/or plays.)
Misbids do not need to be disclosed to the opponents, but you may do so if you wish, and private chat is the proper way to do this. Partner needs to remain in the dark about the misclick; revealing the mistake in public or by a significant delay may restrict partner's choices later. If the mistake is public and partner finds a way to stop in a partscore when partner's mistake indicated a strong hand, this is the type of result that will be adjusted.
- What Full Disclosure Means: You are entitled to know the opponent's agreements, but not what cards they hold; that, you must infer from the information you get about their agreements. In offline bridge, we find out about the opponents' agreements from the bidder's partner. The bidder is expected to keep a poker face if the information given by partner is wrong, and must not base his subsequent calls on the misunderstanding. In online bridge, we find out from the bidder himself, and when done right (no public chat questions or answers) the information is completely concealed from the bidder's partner. If the bidder opens 2NT and later remembers that with this partner this does not show 5-5 in the minors but rather shows a natural 20-21, he is not obligated to tell the opponents he has made a mistake. If the next player has picked up a rock crusher of 24 points he may wonder how RHO can have 20-21, but it is not misinformation if he gets an accurate explanation of their agreements, even if the hand doesn't match up. The thing to do in a situation like this is to call the Director right away. A player who realizes that his opponents are probably having a misunderstanding cannot wait until their confusion leads to a good result and claim misinformation if it doesn't. The Director will ensure that you have correct information (about the partnership's agreements, not what cards they hold) and let you decide what to make of it.
- Convention Cards: One of the canned announcements that I actually don't type, or copy/paste at the start of the game is the one that says if you don't have a convention card posted, your card will be SAYC (Standard American Yellow Card). That one gets automatically sent at the start of every tournament: even I cannot change it. At the club level, we're (reluctantly) OK if you pre-announce that you play 2/1 or standard or even some other system, and do not have a convention card posted, as long as you alert and announce the bids that need to be alerted and announced. If you plan to play in an online Regional tournament you will need to create a card and load it, or you may be restricted to plain vanilla SAYC until your card is ready. But BBO makes it so easy to store dozens of convention cards that you play with different partners, that you really should log on in a spare moment and make one to play with your favorite partner.
Start in Account, and click on Convention Cards. You'll see many options. You can create a card from scratch, or grab one of the pre-made cards and modify it and save it under a new name. The editing feature, whether you are creating a card from scratch or modifying one that is already there, is easy: click on a space where you would write or edit something, and write what you want. Cool feature: an exclamation point followed by a capital S, H, D, or C prints as a suit symbol, so 3!S might be what you type in as the negative double limit, for example. Don't forget to type your name and even the name of your partner at the top and maybe add your BBO names in brackets. On most screens, the window will show the right-hand side of the card at the top and scrolling down will reveal the left-hand side. At the top, above the names, there is a Partner box where you type the BBO name of the partner you will play this card with (this can be blank), and a Title box where you type a title to save the card under (this cannot be blank), as well as a Save button, a Back button to go back to the Convention Cards screen, and a button where you can designate this card as your favorite if you wish.
When you enter a tournament with a partner who you have designated a convention card for, the system will automatically select that card when the tournament begins. You can also print a convention card, either to a printer, or to a pdf file that you could e-mail to your partner and see if partner and you are on the same page.
Having a convention card online, even one that has only a few edits from one of the stock ones provided, makes you look formidable when opponents decide to take a look. Taking the time to make one is a good exercise in taking stock of your system and the conventions you are comfortable with. However, you should not neglect to alert or announce properly because there is a card for opponents to peruse.
Several years ago I wrote a series of snarky articles on the ACBL convention card which you can enjoy here. There is much information about every convention on the card, where they came from, what I think of them, and what the card should and should not be used for.
- You Cannot Get Away With This!: Communicating with your partner during a game (by cellphone, text message, being in the same room with different computers, etc.) is 100% illegal and can easily get you banned from BBO or even from ACBL. Even if you are only discussing the weather, there may be a bid or play from you that causes a gasp, and maybe that gasp will be enough to unconsciously affect your next call in some way. BBO and ACBL are constantly watching results and looking for strange but successful actions that cannot be explained by bridge logic. If you attract too many of these that work out, the silent watchers will focus in on you and if you are regularly gaining an advantage that just cannot be explained, expect trouble. It's easy to cheat on BBO. It is also fairly obvious once you become a suspect.
If you suspect something, say nothing in public, but let me know. Very often a second look from a neutral party reveals that what you thought was black magic was nothing so unorthodox. But if I have a problem with someone's action, it's far better for me to deal with it in a private discussion than to have cheating allegations flying around publicly. The absolute worst behavior is for someone to make a public comment insinuating something fishy, then privately complaining to the Director. This type of whiny behavior is almost always accompanied by a refusal to see the hand from the other person's point of view, often with an unfamiliar system involved. If you need to file a report on an incident that we do not agree is suspect, contact the ACBL Recorder with full details, here.