Squeezing The Dummy

Monday, June 27, 2005

Breaks in Tempo

One of the most misunderstood aspects of the law is unauthorized information (UI), and more specifically breaks in tempo (BIT). There are so many myths about such a straightforward subject it is laughable.

Myth 1: If your partner breaks tempo you are barred from bidding. This is certainly not true. If your partner breaks tempo, usually you can take your normal action. The only time you cannot is if partner's hesitation demonstrably suggests your normal action and there is a logical alternative. These terms are very important, and you will be seeing a lot of them.

Sometimes a hesitation can be made that doesn't really suggest anything. For instance if the opponents bid went 1-2-4(1)-6 where the 4 bid was slow, this would not suggest bidding a slam. The 4 bidder could have been considering a game try, trying for 3N, trying for 4, or a slam try. If 6 happens to make, chalk it up to bad luck. The 4 bid didn't demonstrably suggest any action.

A logical alternative is an action that at least 1 out of 4 of your peers would make. Note, a logical alternative for a player of one skill level is not necessarily an LA for another player of a different skill level.

Myth 2: You are entitled to redress after the opponents commit an infraction. No way, you still have to play bridge. You do not have to play perfectly, but if you make any errors too egregious you could lose your right to an adjustment. This is not to say that the offending side will get off, but a split score could be awarded. For instance, they could get +170 while you get -420. Don't think you can just check out because your opponents have damaged you.

Myth 3: A break in tempo is grounds for an adjustment. A break in tempo by the opponents, if they are ethical, is actually a good thing for your side. You are able to take advantage of the information while they cannot, and their options are now restricted. The problem is not when a break in tempo occurs, it's when a player acts on that unauthorized information. Many times you will see people getting a bad board after a BIT and screaming for the director when there has been no damage.

Myth 4: All BITs were created equal. Sometimes 7 seconds is a break in tempo, and sometimes it is too fast. Different auctions have different standards for a break in tempo. If there is a skip bid 10 seconds is the correct tempo. Some people think that if a stop card is not used one does not have to wait 10 seconds, but that is not true. In high level auctions as well, I would say 10 seconds is appropriate. High level decisions are very tough and time is often needed. Doubling a partscore should probably be a 5 second tempo. Accepting a transfer should be about a 2 second tempo. If it takes longer than that, the player is marked with 4 trumps as he wanted to super accept.

Now that these myths have been dispelled, let's have a look at the process used behind figuring out if an adjustment should be made in a BIT case.

  • Was there actually a BIT? Sometimes one side feels there was a hesitation and the other side feels there is not. Humans are notoriously bad at gauging how long multiple seconds are. When this is in dispute, a committee will look at the hands and actions taken. If nothing unusual happened, they will deem there to be no BIT. If it looks like the player may have had a problem, a BIT will generally be assumed.
  • Did the BIT demonstrably suggest an action, and if so what? Most breaks in tempo do suggest something. The committee tries to figure out what action or actions it suggested, and whether the player at the table took one of those actions. If he did not, there is no damage.
  • Was there a logical alternative to the action taken? If the bid was clear cut, it does not matter if there was a 20 minute hesitation, the bid is allowed. If there was a logical alternative, the player must be forced to take that action if it leads to a worse result than he got. If there are numerous LAs, he must take the most unfavorable.

Hopefully this clears up some common misconceptions, for more examples the ACBL publishes NABC casebooks.



  • Good points, especially about different lengths of pauses constituting a suggestive break in tempo on different auctions. I'm curious though where you got 1 in 4 as the definition of a logical alternative. I feel pretty strongly that 1 in 6 or 7 is enough. If you polled 20 experts on a bidding problem and 3 gave the same answer, then it surely has enough merit to be logical.

    By Anonymous Donnorrhea, at 6/27/05, 10:02 AM  

  • i was kibitizing a matchpoint game once where i saw an opponent ask a question that they knew the answer to all ready...keycard blackwood response of 5 hearts and they asked if they had the queen of trumps when they had it in their own hand....now is this ethical?

    case: say delcarer now was in seven of that suit and needed to find the queen. Just curious.

    By Anonymous pigpenz, at 6/27/05, 11:40 AM  

  • Justin, I don't agree with the idea that different non-skip actions should take different times. It is much better, imho, for a player to adopt a uniform tempo of around 5 seconds for any call, even if it is *obvious*. If an auction goes 1S-2S, for example, there are times when you might want to think about moving on, times when you don't. Better to spend 5 seconds for each call rather than to pass like lightning when you have nothing to think about.

    By Blogger Peter, at 6/27/05, 2:46 PM  

  • pigpenz: If the person specifically asked if this shows or denies the trump queen, that is a purposely misleading question imo. If they asked what 5H meant, that is fine.

    peter: I submit that in some cases more than 5 seconds is needed as "standard" even if it is a non jump, and sometimes less is needed. I agree your idea is simpler and would add alot of clarity to the issue, but I think it would leave players inadequate time to think sometimes.

    By Blogger Justin Lall, at 6/27/05, 2:58 PM  

  • I don't think the trump queen issue is so simple. Even if you hold it, it can be important to know whether the opponents knew that it was missing or not (if they did you might decide to play declarer for more trump length which could impact your lead, for example.) I admit it could be asked with deceptive intent also, but we hope people aren't that evil. I understand why you think it would be unethical though, you have a point.

    Incidentally there was a recent NABC appeal (click on Justin's handy link, then Washington NABC, case 35) where this happened. After declarer then misguessed the queen, the committee let the result stand for a variety of reasons (she asks tons of inane questions, inadequate answers were given, and it may not have been clear what the trump suit was), but a couple panelists directly address the question of whether asking for the queen when you hold it is misleading or not.

    By Anonymous donn juan, at 6/27/05, 3:32 PM  

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