Jeff Lehman

Breaks in Tempo

Our local bridge club is probably not distinctive in that members frequently break tempo.  I submitted an article to a Bridge Winners website thread, basically complaining about a ruling my partner and I received after I had called the director over a tempo break by the opponents.

In this thread, my intent is not to re-submit the particulars of the ruling, but rather to evangelize about how I would like to see directors generally deal with Breaks in Tempo.  What follows is an excerpt from one of my comments in the Bridge Winners thread:

“If the director knows how to word a ruling – that is, the director not only makes the ruling but cautiously explains the ethical rationale for the ruling, and the players who call the director are non-accusatory in what they say to the director, I think the director call lends itself to teaching. …

In my Version of the World as it Should Be, the director is called and says something like this. ‘Bridge is a thinking game. Sometimes it takes a while to think through all of the possibilities and that is not a violation. However, when your partner breaks normal bidding tempo in spending time to think, you are not allowed to to choose from among the bids you were considering – we call these bids Logical Alternatives – a bid that is suggested by your partner’s break in tempo.’ That way, everyone learns, future violations are limited and no one should feel as though they were just incarcerated. After that has happened, if I am the opponent of the BIT pair, and I sense any concern from them, I can, and in fact many times have, helped them understand why the director has made the ruling he did.

I do strongly believe that understanding ethical obligations is an important part of the education of even newcomers … [this was in response to another commenter talking about cutting some slack to inexperienced players, especially at a club game] … In fact, I would go so far as to say that a primary reason club games produce so many ethical violations, is because directors are way too inactive to educate the offenders (which, see above, can easily be done constructively). Unfortunately, by my observation, the typical director response is a short ‘OK, call me back at the end of the hand if you think there has been damage’. Even using the word ‘damage’ adds angst to a situation that could be, and I think should be, instructional.”


LakDecember 10th, 2012 at 5:25 pm


I think everyone on the Bridge Winners thread was looking at this from the point of view of an expert player and are giving the beginner pairs too much credit. Speaking for myself, I still have not gotten to the point where I can take advantage of a defender’s hesitation in the play let alone anyone’s hesitation in the bidding.

Assuming other intermediates are at my level, bids out of tempo are probably way too subtle to take inferences from. Not that I ever would, of course. Partner and I typically bid and play very quickly. No 20-second pauses for us! For anything!

Put another way: When an intermediate player can’t make flexible bids in a forcing auction with a fake preference for one of partner’s suits (you’ve seen examples of this on my blog), why would you expect them to be able to make a flexible bid in response to his partner’s hesitation?

Jeff LehmanDecember 10th, 2012 at 6:37 pm

Hi, Lak,

I think the simplest way I might suggest looking at the calls (or plays, for that matter) of the partner of the hesitator is to ask “would” (reason for “would” being in quotes explained later) the partner have made a different call had the hesitator bid in tempo? For an inexperienced partner of a hesitator the answer might be “no” on more hands than would be the case for an experienced partner of a hesitator, because part of the savvy learned from experience is to “catch” more about the probable cause of partner’s hesitation.

I do think you are right to suggest that often the commenters to Bridge Winners respond as if a problem arose in the finals of a national championship event, while most of us spend the majority of our bridge time tooling at the local club.

Now, back to placing the word “would” in quotes … I am not sure that my using “would” is the right word in the first paragraph; maybe the operative word is “might”. Not a big deal to me, when we are considering a club game. But it is a big deal to me that even inexperienced players should learn the rules … and thus important to me that, in my humble opinion, club directors can perform much better at educating all the players — inexperienced and experienced. Knowing from your blog that you, as a father of school age child , can relate, I would say that the directors are missing “teachable moments” when called to the table to conclude on the effect of Unauthorized Information from Breaks in Tempo.

— Jeff

Scott HillerDecember 12th, 2012 at 4:37 am

Playing in Swiss in San Fran my pd opened 1s with AKxxx xx AQ Kxxx I bid 2n on Q10xx AKQxx xx Ax he bid 3s I bid 4c he bid 4d I bid 4h he bid 4n I bid 5s (2wQ) he bid 5n I bid 6d (1 K) he bid 6s after long hesitaion. I bid 7 and there was a director call. ..making 7. I acknowledged the BIT but I told director I knew he had 1 K to ask, so either the D or C and I was confident his loser was going away on my Hts. They showed the hand to high level players and ruled it was still logical for me to bid 7

Jeff LehmanDecember 12th, 2012 at 5:36 am

Hi, Scott,

With all due respect, I think you caught a break. I think both you and especially your partner could have planned ahead better in the auction.

You can place your partner with three missing key cards of SAK and DA for his 5NT call. Did his earlier 3S call show extra values (and how much extra values, compared to say, his bidding 3NT?), but with no singleton or void? Assuming answer is “yes”, and you choose to place your partner with something extra such as a minor suit king. If that is enough for the grand, as you contended in your response to the director, then shouldn’t you have bid 7S over 5NT? But, why couldn’t the extra be in a hand something like AKxxx, xx, AQx, Qxx, where a grand is not where you want to rest? I would be reluctant, to be honest, to buy the argument that 5NT promises any king. Common practice is to offer 5NT when all six key cards are owned, just in case partner has an unexpected source of tricks: HAKQJx would qualify, but HAKQxx would not.

Now let’s skip over to your partner’s seat: it should be SOP for one who bids keycard to have planned his next call over the possible replies of his partner. As far as I can tell, your bidding had not placed you with any excess values and you might have had something approximating Qxxx, Axxx, xx, AQx (add the HQ if you wish). I do not understand why your partner hesitated at all before signing off in 6S.

In short, it seems to me that your partner for sure (by hesitating before bidding 6S), and you a bit (by not bidding 7S over 5NT), each conducted an auction that created risk that the 7S contract could — maybe even should — be recast as 6S.

I hope my being a naysayer does not stop you from submitting comments in the future, Scott, because your contributions will always be welcomed.

— Jeff

John Howard GibsonDecember 12th, 2012 at 5:52 pm

John Howard Gibson
I would like your take on this observation of mine. Each year in Div 1( teams of 4) local league, my partner and I inevitably play 12 boards against a couple of grandmasters, who are in team expected to win the division by a country mile.
They are exceptionally fine players who have a highly developed bidding system and partnership understanding.
Nevertheless, during many bidding sequences delays over response bids can be so long I start to wonder whether the length of the delay is conveying a certain problematic feature of their hand….which the other can work out….. being easily distinguished from the same bid made in a quicker and more confident fashion !
Am I paranoid or can delays convey the message ” I’m uncertain about whether game is on, or which game we ought to be in ? ” This delay could flag up limited trump support and lack of cover in an unbid suit for no trumps.

Jeff LehmanDecember 12th, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Of course, I have no idea, JHG, about the pair of which you speak, not knowing the individuals or having the ability to discern any pattern in the variation in the pace of their bidding. Two related observations I can make, though. One is that regular partners probably develop a sense about the types of hands that cause their partner to vary his pace … even when the variation is not intended to be nefarious. I suspect this applies especially to married couples, but I think it also applies to any regular partnership. Two, is that, in general, Breaks in Tempo that are demonstrably slower than regular pace usually disclose extra values while Breaks in Tempo that are demonstrably faster than regular pace usually disclose minimal values. All of the above can create Unauthorized Information, depending in part upon the savvy and experience of the partner of the player who broke tempo.

I am sympathetic to some Breaks in Tempo that are created when the bidding takes an unexpected turn, as it often does when the auction becomes competitive. But I think that any experienced player should have prepared his next bid over for a few of the more likely responses of partner in an non-competitive auction. And that all players should avoid “bullet passes” at stages in the auction where the auction might become competitive.

How those thoughts apply to the situation you describe is conjecture on this side of the Pond.

Thanks for contributing.

Scott HillerDecember 12th, 2012 at 11:50 pm

Thanks for your insight. I still think AKQxx represents a source of tricks or discards. If pd has a stiff 2 discards, if pd has 2 suit may break or have Jx, if pd has 3 suit is a favorite to provide 2 discards. 3s usually promises extras, and I had extras as well. You can’t always count to 13 but need to take a shot sometimes when you think you have more than one way home to 7. In this case I believe he is likely to have a K for the 5n bid.

Stuart KingDecember 20th, 2012 at 12:04 pm

My problem is with the term ‘logical alternative’.

In a competitive auction I took some time to work out if sacrificing would be worth while. I decided it wasn’t but my partner, holding a hand with no defence and huge offence for his bidding took the sacrifice. Our opponents correctly called the director.

At the end of the hand the director changed the result, to our opponents contract making. However even our opponents thought that my partner had an obvious sacrifice, so obvious in fact, that the whole room made it. However pass was still deemed a logical alternative, when no player would pass. It seems that any player who was not good enough to take the sacrifice also would be completely unable to take advantage of the UI.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that the decision was wrong, it wasn’t, I’m arguing that the law is.

Jeff LehmanDecember 20th, 2012 at 1:44 pm


If “no player would pass”, then Pass is not a Logical Alternative. I am not a director … but from what I have read, I think that there is no percentage definition for ascertaining when a call becomes a Logical Alternative. When there is doubt about whether a call is a LA, I think that is when directors can choose to seek a polling of peers of the subject player.

I guess what I am suggesting is that the injustice you suffered might not be from a bad law, but rather from a misapplication of the law.

— Jeff

RobinDecember 24th, 2012 at 5:01 am

Jeff, I have nothing much to add, but I am in complete agreement with you about the whole issue of BITs and UI in general. Especially the part about not taking the opportunity to use these incidents to “teach” beginners. This results in a bridge population which is sadly lacking in awareness of the issue. Almost every time that I call the director about a BIT (in practice, I rarely do it at the club) the partner of the BITer takes umbrage and says that they never noticed the BIT. That, to put it bluntly, is a crock. Whether they consciously thought about it is another thing, but it is certain that their subconscious processed the BIT. How could they not?

Jeff LehmanDecember 24th, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Robin, your comment about the subconscious processing of BIT is an important contribution. I often feel that the players at the club who commit BITs are innocent; their hesitations are borne of genuine uncertainty and not of bad intent. But I do not as often subscribe to the same belief about the actions of their partners; their actions are based upon fielding the cause of the hesitation. Are the partners of the hesitators somehow less ethical than the hesitators themselves? I don’t think so, but I do agree with you that, at some level, even if they are unable to describe why, they are aware of the hesitation and that awareness affects their choice of action, adversely affecting the results of the innocent opponents.

That’s where the directors should be entering the picture. The directors should, IMHO, be (kindly) teaching players to be cognizant of breaks in tempo and to be extra careful not to take advantage of them. In general terms, that is what the laws require (as I understand them) … so the teaching is both a matter of ethics and of rules of the contest.

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