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I would imagine that there might be more than one example, but the one that occurs to me is connected with "pysch" bids. That is the practice of bidding values that one doesn't have, in order to confuse the opponents in the bidding and subsequent play. Such bids might also tend to confuse partner, and it is this aspect that makes them "in bounds," ethically.

But suppose a player (perhaps even inadvertently) made a practice of refraining from such bids when ahead (in points), and stepped up the use of such bids after falling behind, to the point where partner could make educated guesses about the frequency of such bids just by knowing, or at least estimating,(in duplicate), the score. This pattern might actually help very sophisticated opponents, but would make things unusually difficult for many opposing pairs.

Could such a pattern around "psyching" (or other unusual practices in bridge) move the action to the wrong side of the ethical line? Is it "randomization" that makes such behavior ethical?

5

First: I'm speaking sanctioned duplicate bridge. What happens in the rubber clubs is out of my experience; the Laws are different, and obviously when money is on the line, different things are ethical or unethical.

To answer your title: yes. Because the ethics of the game are fully defined by the Proprieties (which were moved from "guidelines" to actual Laws decades ago), and "considered unethical" is frequently in the eye of the beholder, there are many things that are entirely Proper that society, even bridge society, would side-eye you for. I remember explaining to a newer player that misbids were legal, and in fact, deliberately misdescribing your hand was legal under certain conditions (for instance, as you say, that it truly is a misdescription to all three opponents, and not something partner "expects'). She said that lying is totally unethical.

The other common ones I get complaints about are Law 72B2: no obligation to draw attention to an infraction committed by one's own side [except mistaken explanation], and frustrations when people have got a good score via Law 10C4: [excepting use of UI] it is appropriate for the offenders to make any call or play advantageous to their side, even though they thereby appear to profit...

There are other behaviours that are definitely "borderline unethical" that don't cross the actual letter of the Proprieties. Many of them are made illegal by regulation of the Bridge Organization running the game (for instance: ACBL's Zero Tolerance for Bad Behaviour policy, or the EBU's Better Bridge Program). And it is unethical to deliberately violate a Lawfully created regulation of your NBO (Law 72A, Law 80B2f).

To answer your question specifically, the Law 40C1 says, in part: Repeated deviations lead to implicit understandings which then form part of the partnership’s methods and must be disclosed in accordance with the regulations governing disclosure of system.

As others have answered, tendencies of your partner (as opposed to tendencies of players in general, even flight A players who psych more than 0%) become implied agreements very quickly. It doesn't take more than one or two times partner opening 1NT on KQTxxx of clubs and out (and passing Stayman) for you to be aware partner might be doing this. Now that it is an implied agreement, it may be an illegal agreement in your bridge organization ("Comic 1NT", 15-17 or a 2-level preempt, is illegal in the ACBL for instance). If it is not illegal, if you do not explain your actual agreement (which includes "but partner has been known to have ... instead"), you are misinforming the opponents, which is also an infraction.

Also, many bridge organizations have provided regulations or guidelines on psyching. The ACBL has this to say about psychic bids.

In particular it points out three things that would be concerning, and should be investigated:

  1. Excessive Psychic Bidding — When three or more psychic initial actions by members of a partnership have been reported in any one session and are called to the attention of the Director, the Director should investigate the possibility that excessive psyching is taking place. [The onus is on the player to prove that it is not, in this case]

[Note what is considered excessive, though - two or three in 26 boards. Most players who do psych make it to two or three in a year]

  1. Frivolous Psychic Bidding — Any psychic action inspired by a spirit of malicious mischief or lack of will to win may be interpreted as frivolous.

  2. Unsportsmanlike Psychic Bidding — Action apparently designed to give the opponents an abnormal opportunity to get a good score, psychs against pairs or teams in contention, psychs against inexperienced players and psychs used merely to create action at the table are examples of unsportsmanlike psychic bidding.

It also has the category, totally banned, of risk-free psychics; those that are protected by system in any way. A classic example is, after an opening 10-12 NT, agreeing that partner's 2 of a suit (to play) MAY NOT BE raised by opener, even with AKQT. If that is because you would ever bid 2 hearts with xx to pick off their suit, your agreement is illegal.

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  • I've made "misbids" that misled "myself." That is, I made them in good faith, not realizing they were wrong. – Tom Au Jun 2 at 16:30
  • Remarkably thorough - I dare say, even more so than I might have compiled myself. Thank you. – Forget I was ever here Jun 2 at 21:14
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If your partner knows your psyching tendencies, then they have become an implicit agreement that has to be disclosed to your opponents.

If, in certain situations, your psychs are frequent enough that partner starts worrying about it, he or she should alert the bid and say "Frequently a psych" or something similar. (In some bridge jurisdictions, bidding that accommodates the possibility of a psych is considered prima facie evidence of an undisclosed implicit agreement.)

If they are not that common, it probably doesn't help your opponents to be alerted (at least until the subsequent bidding makes the psych more probable), but they could still ask. (They could have some ethical problems asking though, because whomever is asking is tipping off their partner that they have a hand that suspects a psych.)

I have answered the question "How aggressive are your partner's preempts?" with "Usually pretty normal, but he did just have two beers over dinner," and you should tell your opponents about situationally dependent (implicit) agreements.

There are also some standard psychs (e.g. 1C - (X) - 1S) that I might alert to opponents not known to me to be experts but wouldn't bother alerting to experts.

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  • "In some bridge jurisdictions, bidding that accommodates the possibility of a psych is considered prima facie evidence of an undisclosed implicit agreement." If partner alerts and says, "May be a psychic bid," does that free him/her to accommodate the presumed psychic bid? The opponents have been put on notice. – Tom Au Jun 9 at 17:44
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It's very hard to psych ethically. Making any bid that is outside of your agreements should be exceedingly rare, because otherwise you'll nearly inevitably have some implicit partnership agreements related to it - as you note, psyching only when behind, for example.

I've known pairs that included one member that fairly often psyched, and they nearly always ran into problems when the psych worked out well, because the opponents would call the director - correctly - and over time built up a history of that behavior. It's not just unethical, but illegal, to do that.

I think the rules of duplicate bridge cover this well, at least for the ACBL:

Law 40

C. Deviation from System and Psychic Action

  1. A player may deviate from his side’s announced understandings, provided that his partner has no more reason than the opponents to be aware of the deviation [but see B2(a)(v) above]. Repeated deviations lead to implicit understandings which then form part of the partnership’s methods and must be disclosed in accordance with the regulations governing disclosure of system. If the Director judges there is undisclosed knowledge that has damaged the opponents, he shall adjust the score and may assess a procedural penalty.

As such, I think the answer is "no" - the unethical behaviors are also against the rules. However, you certainly could act unethically in a way that was unlikely/impossible to prove, and get away with it for a little while. But in my experience both as a director and a player, you won't get away with it for long.

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  • OK, if your partner does "psych" regularly or predictably, you need to alert the opponents "may be psych" or something like that. Correct? – Tom Au Jun 2 at 16:37
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    The problem is that anyone who psychs at all (wel, more than once) is probably doing so with some regularity - maybe not on purpose, but it’s hard not to have a pattern. That’s why psyching is so hard to do legally. – Joe Jun 2 at 16:39
  • @TomAu: Incorrect. All partnership agreements regarding identifying or "controlling" of psychs are illegal, so if your partner psychs with any irregularity requiring such an announcement - then both of you are in violation of the Rules of Bridge. – Forget I was ever here Jun 17 at 9:47

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