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Normally (on defense), you try to play in a way to reasonably "signal" and inform partner of your holdings. But suppose partner is the weakest player at the table, and is unlikely to read your signals.

So you shift gears and play to mislead declarer, instead. On the other hand, if declarer were your partner and partner were declarer (with their cards "switched"), you would play a different way.

Essentially, you are playing the "players" and not the cards. This is not considered unethical in other games such as poker or backgammon. Is this considered unethical in bridge?

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    How is a player supposed to improve if they are mislead and not playing with accurate data?
    – Joe W
    Oct 7, 2020 at 20:11
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    @JoeW: One way is to talk about it with partner after the hand.
    – Tom Au
    Oct 7, 2020 at 20:13
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    There's no substitute for actually playing things. Making the play experience worse doesn't get fixed by talking afterwards.
    – Joe
    Oct 7, 2020 at 20:45
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    My late wife refused to learn bridge at all because of behavior like this.
    – NomadMaker
    Oct 8, 2020 at 19:17
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    I think it depends on if the goal of the game is to win, or to have fun togeather Oct 9, 2020 at 0:16

3 Answers 3

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Playing cards in such a way as to not accurately reflect your hand is perfectly fine - as long as that's actually what you're doing. There are plenty of hands where you're on defense and you know that partner is pretty much worthless; you're defending 3NT, partner knows your long suit, and you have 14 points anyway and expect partner to be in the lead exactly zero times. In those cases, play however you wish: you can mislead declarer, or just play at random, any of that is fine. This is called falsecarding, and is a part of bridge.

Where it becomes unethical is when your partner knows to expect it, and can benefit from it. Again, if your partner can't benefit from it, then it's okay - but your falsecarding shouldn't have an actual meaning ("When I'm the strong hand, defending NT, then I'll play 3rd from length instead of 4th from length"). It has to be something partner can't anticipate, or definitely can't benefit from.

For the most part, it's more relaxed than psychs; psychic bids are nearly always giving partner information when they can be anticipated, since bidding not only is a process partner may be participating in, but it could also inform the lead or other plays later on. Just be careful that it doesn't become a habit that can convey unauthorized information to your partner, or else you'll have an implicit partnership understanding that needs to be disclosed.

I would add that the specific case you describe - where you think partner is just incompetent and won't understand the signal, and thus you can falsecard without adverse effect - is probably legal, but gets a lot closer to unethical, and is extremely damaging to the partnership. Even if I were playing with a paid professional, for example, I'd be extremely upset if they decided to start intentionally faking defensive signals on the theory that I wouldn't notice them, not to mention the fact that I would not be able to improve my own play.

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  • If you have agreed-upon signals (your falsecarding example) that are not standard, that calls for an ALERT, I believe. Oct 9, 2020 at 12:09
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    Alerts are part of bidding, not play, but I believe declarer is permitted to ask the non-signalling player how they interpret a particular signal, above and beyond the required disclosure of signaling methods prior to the hand.
    – chepner
    Oct 9, 2020 at 17:04
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    @chepner I suspect Carl means pre-alerts, which is required in the ACBL for leading low from a doubleton.
    – Joe
    Oct 9, 2020 at 17:15
  • @chepner - To be precise, declarer is permitted to ask defenders what their agreements on their signals are; when a question is about a specific signal, it's best to ask the player not making the signal. At advanced-level bridge, it's common for declarer to ask "Leads and carding?" on the first trick, keeping in mind that declarer's play of a low card from hand on the first trick should always make right hand opponents' signal as hard to figure out as possible, and what that is depends on whether opponents are signaling standard or upside-down. Oct 10, 2020 at 7:05
  • @AlexanderWoo Right, that's the player I meant when I said "nonsignalling partner" (clearly, you can't ask the player making the signal what they are trying to tell their partner :)). It's been a while since I've played in games where the exact laws were followed, and even then, my partner and I were usually of the variety that would, at best, be accidentally using appropriate signals. (My memories of declarer asking me what our carding was after my partner played to a trick were probably from less strict games.)
    – chepner
    Oct 10, 2020 at 13:36
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Is it ethical? Sure, and it's done all the time (for real bridge reasons, see Joe's answer). It is not required to help declarer when it won't help partner.

What's not ethical is telling the opponents your signalling method, and then having it not be. "We play standard carding" is not the same as "we agreed standard carding but since my partner has the analysis skills of a wet fish, and wouldn't pay attention to my signals if I used a flare gun, my partner's signals are meaningless, and I lie about 50, 60% of the time", even if that has never been actually said (because of course it was never actually said).

Note that this is something that good opponents will figure out very quickly. Some will just go back to reading your "falsecards" better than your partner; some will call the TD after enough cases that it's not "Just Bridge" and force the issue; some will just bring it up to the TD after the round so that she is aware, can pay attention to it, and drop the hammer when she is convinced.

In certain jurisdictions (the ACBL is one), you are required to have a signalling method, you can not just say 'we play cards randomly'. This is because people don't ever 'play cards randomly', they play cards 'randomly' according to patterns, and those patterns do get worked out by their partner, even if they don't know they're doing it.

"We signal only when it's critical for partner to know it; when we do, it's right-side-up attitude or count" is fine; if it turns out that it's never critical for partner to know because partner doesn't look anyway, well.

In rubber bridge, things are different. First, you're playing with whoever you cut; second, everyone at the table has the same knowledge of your partner's ignoring them when they've cut your partner, to guess how accurate your signals are.

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  • Ha ha. I'd only add that when weak players attempt to lie to strong declarers, they might as well just flash their hand to Declarer as it would provide less information. Lying to good effect is a very difficult art, only truly engaged in, with effect, by strong players. Oct 8, 2020 at 20:07
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    @ForgetIwaseverhere: From what I understand, it is "intermediate" players that are least deceptive. Good players can deceive, by definition. And beginners might not know enough for their signals to be correctly interpreted. It's the intermediate players that "know something" but don't "know what they don't know" that appear to be most easily found out.
    – Tom Au
    Dec 24, 2020 at 1:03
  • @TomAu: Yes, probably true. Dec 24, 2020 at 1:27
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If you have given up on your partner for whatever reason you are well within your right to play to defeat the declarer instead. Why would you even consider to play to lose with a weak partner instead of to go for a victory against a less weak opponent declarer? You don't want to be ethically wrong perhaps. However the best strategy is to win in bridge and to do this it is necessary to defeat the least weak team. Personally I love this question about ethics because I would go with my gut instinct. That is to win at all costs. Again ethics doesn't really come into a card game. Unless you have lots of money in the form of a bet on the outcome of the game however you probably don't in many cases.

I have played bridge against an artificial form of intelligence and I never considered it as a good idea to lose with a weak partner. If anything to go for a win with the weakest player on your team is more ethical than anything else. You could easily be forgiven for playing with your weak partner to try to help your partner to learn more about the game. However any effort to not win is an attempt to not help your weak partner and it is therefore, an attempt to cheat your team out of a possible victory. To cheat is surely unethical in my opinion. That's just my opinion though of course.

The cards of both players on your team's side should always be played in the strongest possible way in accordance with the collective of the ideas of both players on your team. To never lose is one potential goal in the game of bridge. If your team can somehow use one player's greater experience of victory in the game of bridge at a high level it is doing well. Don't allow ethics to get in the way of a pure and total defeat of your opponents' team in the game of bridge! Of course if the weakest player would lose his house or something very valuable to him or her then that person could be helped on the basis of ethics in that unlikely situation. If anything a victory can always be a good thing for your team. A defeat could be a bad thing.

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    "Again ethics doesn't really come into a card game.' Of course it does; card games are played by people, and you should always aim to treat people ethically. Aug 27, 2022 at 18:59
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    @PhilipKendall: Not to mention that active ethics is an imposed requirement on all bridge players, by all sponsoring organizations recognized by the World Bridge Federation, at all times when playing the game (except in the confines of one's own kitchen). Anyone not aware of this requirement on competitive bridge players, such as this OP, really has no contribution to make to any discussion about the ethics of the game. Aug 27, 2022 at 19:08

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