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There are probably numerous examples, but here is the one I'm using. You are defending a contract, and it is late in hand. Declarer is running a long suit, and you know (from seeing dummy) or believe (by inferring his hand), that he has one more of the suit to lead after this one.

You are down to two suits, call them spades and hearts with a holding like this: (s) Kxx (h) Qxx, with declarer leading diamonds. You have no discard issues on this lead, but you foresee having a problem on the next lead, when you foresee having to choose which suit to "unguard." So you stop to think now.

It's not unethical to hesitate on a choice, but my understanding is that it is unethical to hesitate to represent a quandary that doesn't exist. If you hesitated now (rather on the next lead) to decide what you want to do, do you have enough of a "problem" to ethically hesitate? Suppose it was a turn or two earlier, when South started to run the diamond suit? Put another way, are you allowed to stop now to think about a looming problem "down the line" or does it have to be "this turn?"

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  • Any setting that classifies thinking about your play, tactics, or strategy as unethical is a setting to avoid. Feb 21 at 12:11
  • Unethical would be putting it too strongly. A better question would be is it poor etiquette. It would depend upon the accepted etiquette of your fellow players.
    – Chenmunka
    Feb 21 at 13:26
  • @L.ScottJohnson It's not the thinking itself that is the issue, it's the delay. Feb 21 at 20:31
  • @Accumulation: The issue is that you may need to "delay" at some time to think about things (unless you are a "crack" player). So then the question is, at what times is this delay acceptable. Put another way, if you "delay" when the problem is right in front of you (e.g. when declarer is leading for a finesse), you are giving away "too much" information. So then, are you allowed to "delay" to think as soon as you see a problem in the future in order not to telegraph the timing of the problem?
    – Tom Au
    Feb 21 at 20:37

5 Answers 5

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In bridge, Ethics are defined by the Laws (and Regulations, created as allowed by the Laws) in what used to be the Proprieties section (Laws 72-75). The relevant part of those laws to coffeehousing (a slang term, meaning "varying tempo to pass a potentially misleading message to the opponents") are 73D and E, quoted in full here:

D Variations in Tempo or Manner

  1. It is desirable, though not always required, for players to maintain steady tempo and unvarying manner. However, players should be particularly careful when variations may work to the benefit of their side. Otherwise, unintentionally to vary the tempo or manner in which a call or play is made is not an infraction. Inferences from such variations are authorized only to the opponents, who may act upon the information at their own risk.
  2. A player may not attempt to mislead an opponent by means of a question, remark or gesture; by the haste or hesitancy of a call or play (as in hesitating before playing a singleton); by the manner in which a call or play is made; or by any purposeful deviation from correct procedure (see also Law 73E2).

E. Deception

  1. A player may appropriately attempt to deceive an opponent through a call or play (so long as the deception is not emphasized by unwonted haste or hesitancy, nor protected by concealed partnership understanding or experience).
  2. If the Director determines that an innocent player has drawn a false inference from a question, remark, manner, tempo or the like, of an opponent who has no demonstrable bridge reason for the action, and who could have been aware, at the time of the action, that it could work to their benefit, the Director shall award an adjusted score.

"Demonstrable bridge reason" is given pretty big leeway, especially when dealing with "I don't have a problem yet" situations. Partly because thinking on the first (or third-last) pitch of an expected suit run might just make it clear that, yes, you did have a problem on this trick - see how many "oops, you misplayed at trick 1, the hand is now hopeless" articles there are - but also because you do have a problem - "what pitches am I planning on making, what order of those pitches will be of best assistance to partner/least revealing to declarer/keeps my options open in case of declarer stopping running or partner making an unexpected discard?".

And if you play a special first discard style (like lavinthal or odd/even) then obviously you should be thinking not only which cards are going to be pitched, and which one gives the message you want, but whether you can afford the "right" first discard. So you're even more expected to be "thinking about the rest of the hand" at this point.

Yes, it "masks" which are "easy" discards and which are "uncomfortable" discards to declarer. See "the easy fifth" (which I first read about in Sabine Auken's I Love This Game) for instance. But "thinking at the start" is not an "unwonted hesitation" - everybody knows that that's where you should be thinking, and the information it passes is "I need to find 5 discards".

Of course, you want to be careful when it's your last follow rather than the first discard. Of course you don't want to be tanking on every trick. But it is not required to telegraph your problems to declarer, and it is a valid bridge reason to be "thinking about all my discards" now. That helps in "maintaining steady tempo and unvarying manner" - especially if you make a habit of always taking a little extra time before the first discard.

Postscript: @ruds mentions the face-to-face pattern of "refusing to quit the trick" to imply "I need to think about the hand now, but there was nothing to think about on that play". It's a good pattern. Unfortunately, there's nothing in the Laws that stops the winner of the trick from leading before the previous trick was quitted (yes, I was shocked when I found that out too!), just that your right to inspect the trick ceases when you turn your card over (66A). And there have been multiple times when I said "I'd like to see the trick again" after the next lead (but before partner played); there have been multiple times when I was still thinking about trick 2, and they played trick 3 (to which I "followed" with the same card I played to 2) and then led to trick 4. So, good pattern, but "It Doesn't Always Work".

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It's quite common for a defender to have something to think about at their first discard, enough that tempo sensitive carding agreements (eg odd-even discards, which can cause unauthorized information when all of a player's choices of a discard give the wrong signal to partner) are permitted on the first discard but not at other times.

It's not deceptive when someone plans all their discards on the first discard, because that's a common thing everyone does.

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  • Then it's OK, in fact better, to hesitate on the "first encounter" with a problem (e.g. the first discard), rather than when it becomes "acute."
    – Tom Au
    Feb 24 at 17:38
  • @TomAu - I wouldn't make a general principle out of it. I think basically the times when a defender might make plans for the hand are on the first trick, the first discard, any time on lead, and any time something shocking (eg it is revealed declarer psyched) happens. Feb 24 at 18:17
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The answer to this question differs a bit between online play and in-person play.

In person, if your problem isn't about your current play, you shouldn't hesitate now, but instead you should not turn over your card at the end of the trick so that you can think about the whole hand. In this case, you should have foreseen this issue on a previous trick, so you should not have signaled that you were ready to play on by turning over a card. If you had not foreseen that you would need to plan discard before, you should probably play in tempo to this trick and then keep your card face up at the end of the trick to plan ahead.

In online play, you can't stop play between tricks, so I think it is reasonable for you to plan all your discards at this point.

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  • 1
    A good point about the difference between on-line and face-to-face. On-line you also have more options to ethically alert the opponents, when you notice that you have done something you possibly shouldn't have. Like if you accidentally tank with a singleton (playing on-line there may be distractions at unfortunate moments, or simply because you were thinking about the future plays, and missed that it is your turn to play), you can send a private message to the opp(s). "Sorry about the delay, no problem in this trick". Apr 11 at 7:31
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Delaying ahead of time on an obviously straightforward play is even worse than delaying when you make the choice, because it suggests there will be a choice coming up. That could communicate the information that you are at your last card in the suit!

The important thing is to not communicate information, and to play at a reasonable and consistent tempo. There's plenty of time to plan your play if you're doing that; first, you can take a second or two to play every card (not too long so that you run long, but a second or two is totally fine). Second, plan during everyone else's turn. You should have at least 5-10 seconds from one play to the next, after all.

Finally, you should have an idea of how the play is going to go from the outset. They're in 3 no-trump, I'm holding Sxx/HAQxx/DQT9x/Cxxx, declarer opened 1 spade - you can bet I've planned my three spade discards from the moment I saw dummy, with of course adjustments as I see the other cards and signals from partner.

So - no, don't hesitate earlier. Play in tempo, that turn and every turn. If you do hesitate, it should be on the decision, as that hesitation doesn't convey very much information - but it shouldn't be different from your play to every other first discard. If it is, then you are conveying information to partner, and be prepared for a director call if it ends up helping your side.

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Strong players consider foreseeable problems before they eventuate, rather than hesitating as each problem arises. Hesitating at critical moments telegraphs information about your hand, which often helps your opponents enormously, and can create ethical problems for your partner, or lead to adjusted scores.

Your example: If you mindlessly signal that you are protecting a suit, you will sometimes be forced to unguard it as you make subsequent discards. Just as a chess player thinks a few moves ahead, it's often important to plan all of your discards before making the first one.

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