Jeff Lehman

What Really Causes Slow Play

Our local club played a Fast Pairs event yesterday.  The event confirmed my opinion about the real causes of slow play.

Allow me to provide some contextual background.  I play and defend slowly; OK, sometimes very slowly.  My partner, the same.  And yet, my pair had no problems maintaining the compressed schedule for the Fast Pairs event.

In my opinion, the reason my pair had no problem keeping the schedule confirms my belief that playing and defending slowly is not generally the most significant major contributor to overall slow play.  The more significant contributors to overall slow play generally are:

  • Not moving quickly from the completion of one board to the commencement of the next board.  Players who review and announce each score on the Bridgemate, or who do not begin sorting their cards for the next hand until they have completed a post mortem on the previous hand generally waste a greater amount of the table’s time than players who play or defend slowly.
  • Neglecting to consider anticipated issues before they occur.  Players who delay thinking about their next bid until it is their turn in the auction or delay thinking about their opening lead until such time as the auction is completed also waste a great deal of table time, by their failing to take advantage of the (possibly considerable) thinking time afforded them by the time spent by the bidders who precede them.

How did the Fast Pairs event reduce the impact of the two contributors above?  By programming the Bridgemate to not show the scores of pairs who had already played the boards, the time between boards was substantially reduced.  And because the director constantly reminded players of the time restrictions, not only were players more attentive to bidding and leading on time, but also their opponents felt “enabled” to politely remind the potential offenders of matters such as it is their turn to make the lead.  By the Fast Pairs event taking or enabling those steps, the compressed schedule presented no problem for even a pair such as mine, comprised of two players who declare and defend slowly.

For a better, and more complete, discussion of steps that can be taken to speed the game see




Jeff HFebruary 15th, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Another source of slow play may be a deliberate flaunting of the fast pairs time constraints by certain pairs.

Last summer at the Philadelphiia NABC my partner and I played in a 2 session Regionally rated fast pairs event. We were sitting NS in the first session and the boards came erratically from the next table. Because of a huge support column, I was not privy to what might be going on at that table, but it seemed that the directors were spending a bit of time there.

In the second session we were EW and following the pair from whom we received boards in the first session. About the only time we did not have to wait was immediately following the hospitality break. But as soon as the next set of boards after the break was complete, one member of the pair had to go to the bathroom. Isn’t that why there is a hosptatlity break. I heard the director repeatedly warn them for slow play. At one point he said that if they did not catch up, there would be a slow play penalty. Soon thereafter, the same director was again at their table and I heard them give some lame excuse. No penalty was ever issued.

The pair in question ended up 1st or 2nd in the event. I think they played slowly because they felt it gave them an advantage and the director let them get away with it.

John Howard GibsonFebruary 15th, 2013 at 4:19 pm

HBJ : Serial slow players are a pain the butt, and in my eyes are no better than cheats. By taking up so much time they are cheating the other players from what is their fair allocation of time to consider what best to do in critical situations. And what’s worse is the other players feel responsible for making up those lost minutes to complete the boards on time.
Slow players cause frustration and aggro at the table. They are selfish often arrogant individuals which don’t give a bugger about the pain and misery they cause to others….especially those following a slow pair who eventually arrive at a table a board behind the field.
Serial slowcoaches should be warned, sanctioned, heavily fined….or made to enter ” snail events only ” which schedule 6 boards only to be played in an hour.

Gary MugfordFebruary 15th, 2013 at 4:56 pm


I hijacked a thread in one of Judy Kay Wolff’s blog with several comments about Turtles. As a thoughtless speed demon, or something approximating one, I have a John Howard Gibson-like dislike for Turtles.

But, you bring up a good point. Turtles can at least off-set their lack of quick action in bidding and/or play, by observing a series of time-saving techniques. No post-morteming at the table, scoring quickly, moving quickly at round breaks (which means, in many cases, not having the contents of their home with them at the table).

I DO wonder about the thought process that goes into slow, thoughtful play. I’ve seen it. I’ve partnered the area’s most notorious Turtle. And I’m still baffled. In my case, the Turtle bid relatively at normal tempo, maybe even faster. At least he did with me across the table. Then came the play and things ground to a halt. He later told me that he analysed the possible distributions for all suits before making any play, starting with a 13-0-0 break if HE was void in a suit. Always took him awhile to do away with the what-ifs of some bizarre distributions.

That was him. And despite him being amongst the nicest guys in the world and a VERY smart businessman, I shuddered when I found he was coming to my table or sitting NEAR me if playing in the same direction.

While I never had a babysitter to pay by the hour and was a night owl no matter what time the game came to an end, I think I feel part of the group who did suffer, and could count on being 15 minutes late JUST BECAUSE The Turtle had come out to play that night. And that’s best circumstances. I have seen an extra half-hour result from a late round that needed to be played in a club championship. And the director felt it only fair to play the complete game, including the round The Turtle had to make up.

Is that fair? I can’t see the answer being yes. On the other hand, players at my table often feel rushed because I play quickly and favour partners who do the same. Is THAT fair either? Which is ruder?

Bottom line: Bridge is a timed event. Adherence to the idea of ROUND lengths and doing the small things to off-set the pace of play at least minimizes the effect and is a good gesture of civility. To add to the ‘crime’ of slowness with time-stealing habits too? Well …. I think John seems to have gotten the emotions over pretty well [G].

Steven GaynorFebruary 15th, 2013 at 6:36 pm

We really should be stepping up the use of recorder forms. If a pair is consistently late, put in a recorder form on them. If the director is uncooperative about that (should be rare, but…) put in a recorder form on them, too!
Will it do any good? I do not know, but if we are willing to put something in someone’s personal file like this they may think twice about their habitual slowness, especially if it is by design.

Jeff LehmanFebruary 16th, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Slow play aggrieves other players. No one is about to support slow play or to harangue against penalizing slow play. The (intended) purpose of my blog entry, however, was to suggest that most players would misidentify the major causes of slow play. Not that long pauses at the “kill point” of play or defense do not contribute to slow play, but I would suggest – and my interpretation of the results of the club Fast Pairs confirm – , the more significant contributors to the quantity of slow play have nothing to do with play. Instead the major contributors to slow play generally are from actions that create table dead time; that is, time that the offenders usurp for non-play activity (reviewing results, delaying thinking about problems that could be anticipated, entering personal scores, etc.) that is thus stolen from the play time of the non-offenders.

I would contend also that the quality of slow play attributable to slow play and defense differs remarkably from that attributable to table dead time. Let’s discuss two scenarios. In one scenario, declarer (or a defender) pauses for “an excess 30 seconds” in a six card end position to consider his play options. What can you as an opponent do in that 30 seconds? Lots. In general, you can be refining your thinking about the play; in particular, you can be incorporating the Authorized Information that the offender has, or at least thinks he has, a problem. In a second scenario, the last trick has been played on Board 1 and, while you have gathered and sorted your cards for Board 2, the opponents are spending “an excess 30 seconds” still discussing their result and the rest of the results recorded on the Bridgemate. What can you do in that 30 seconds? Nothing.

By the way, I think the suggestion that offenders act intentionally is generally mistaken. In fact, I think many of the worst offenders have no idea how much time they usurp from the non-offenders. Ignorance is more prevalent than bad intent. That ignorance also complicates the issue of assigning blame for slow play.

Jeff LehmanFebruary 16th, 2013 at 4:15 pm

I think I am going to regret writing this, but …

… with respect to what slow players are thinking about — assuming they are not the Turtles that Gary describes, who are thinking about everything! — let me present an example.

You as declarer have progressed to a stage of the play where the next play that you make depends upon which of the opponents holds a Key Queen. Here might be how three different players resolve the play problem:

1. A poor or inexperienced player either guesses which opponent holds the Key Queen or chooses the opponent who had bid, thinking that the Key Queen is 2 HCP and so the opponent who bid is more likely to have the Key Queen than the opponent who had not bid, right?

2. A good, but far from expert player, considers how the bidding and defense might have progressed to the current stage, had his LHO owned the Key Queen and, alternatively, had his RHO owned the Key Queen. Based upon the compatibility of the actual bidding and defense with his reconstructions he makes of the opponents’ hands, he chooses his play. He has played well, but he has played slowly.

3. An expert has already catalogued all the bids and plays to date as the hand progressed. That is, he has already considered all the factors that the good but non-expert player is aggregating before making his next play. He chooses his play, and without losing tempo.

OK. So does the above, admittedly carefully constructed, scenario mean that the good but not expert player will always take longer than either the poorer player or the expert player? No, it all depends upon the issue of the hand. As one who is a good, but decidedly non-expert, player, I can tell you that some issues that would be critical — and thus time consumptive — to an expert are completely unrecognized by me and thus would take me little time. And some that are issues to an inexperienced player are easy — and thus quick to solve — for me.

In general then — to help explain what I suspect the lightening fast players do not even care to hear — what causes slow play and defense (and, please remember, the intent of the blog entry was to focus on the impact not of slow play and defense but on the impact of creating deadtime at the bridge table) is a player being skillful enough to recognize a bridge issue but not having the expertise to readily “type” or “catalogue” the best solution to the issue.

Does that “explain” (and “explain” differs from “justify”) slow play and defense? No, not necessarily. We have all, for example, observed declarers who pause before playing from dummy at Trick 1 and then, when third hand plays an innocuous card which declarer’s side wins, pause again before playing to Trick 2. Now, to me, the pause at Trick 1 is just good bridge, but if that pause was not leading to a plan about what to play for at least Trick 2 (and hopefully several more tricks), then what was the purpose of the Trick 1 pause?

Please do not make me regret having offered this explanation.

Bill CubleyFebruary 16th, 2013 at 6:33 pm

Perhaps an additional instruction from the director that boards MUST be passed. There is no need to have the baord to determine vulnerability because 1: that is on the inside of the convention card, and 2: the wi fi scoring devices adjust for vulnerability automatically.

I find slow play affects 20% of the section in a normal 15 table section – the table that cannot get boards to play, the pair waiting to begin play at the slow table, the table waiting for tardy opps. Three tables is 20% of the section. So a SIX board penalty is not really unreasonable.

Whenever a slow pair fufrther delays by illegal board discussion, having to write down the last contract, doublecheck the score, etc rather than immediately proceed to the next table – thye should have a mandatory committe appearance to justify 1: willfull failure to compete by the rules, and 2: whether or not they should be disqualfied or even asked to leave the tournamnet.

Making the miscreants learn that they are in competiton and time rules muts be followed or having to explain to a committee might reduce the problem.

Directors should require committee appearance for a second slow play in the same session.

As noted above, it is a form of cheating by forcing multiple opponents into reduced playing time.

Gary MugfordFebruary 17th, 2013 at 7:55 am


As the most strident of the Rapid Rabbits, I have to say that I find your example of striating the reasons for delays in bidding and/or play to be well-thought out. And I had to re-write this response six times before I think I could marshall a response.

Bridge players have problems. Sometimes, problems that ONLY occur at their table for a thousand variable reasons. But occasionally, we all get nailed with THAT situation. And so, we think. And think. And think. Even though we are usually seeking the least-worst answer. Certainly with bidding, less often with play. But whether it’s the least worst defensive signal or trying to find the hail mary distribution to off-set the ‘ahem’ agressive bidding, tank we must. To pretend nobody ever has a problem that SHOULD require a pause for thought is disingenuous.

And you are absolutely right. Experience, like lack of experience, has a pacifying effect on the urge to sit and cogitate. The former because situations have been seen before and don’t require ‘creative’ thought, the latter because, as Flatland taught us in Math class, you have to be able to know there is an alternative to contemplate one. It’s those of us in the middle of the bell curve of experience, that suffer from having a little knowledge.

Being right AT the table is fool’s gold. Everybody rememebers the one brilliant decision to go against the odds and being right, rather than the 10 wrong guesses trying to make the local newspaper’s Bridge column. So, I tend to try to be a purist. At the local club, I don’t look for brilliancies for lack of native talent to do so, and for the lack of good information to base an attempt at a brilliancy due to the lack of talent of my opponents. Just trying to make the right bid or play in the Bridge context is goal enough. And sometimes that attempt fails. Lesson learned. And hopefully no need to re-learn it.

Since socialization is a lot less a factor at a tournament where, supposedly, the cream of the crop and the more serious-minded players have come to congregate and compete, I’m a little more understanding of slower players. There’s slightly more enforcement, which helps, as against higher stakes and thornier issues deriving from lack of familiarity. Yet, I can’t remember the number of times I’ve reminded myself (and partner), “take the gifts and play it down the middle.” Nothing wrong with thinking. But over-thinking and over-reaching simply doesn’t pay well enough.

Maybe I’m just too simple to think any hand is worth straining over. So, in place of more wins, I have more lessons. But it’s not like I haven’t had any wins at the sectional and regional levels. Even won an event or two at NABC’s. And didn’t embarass myself at the international level. Would I have done better by thinking more at every trick and play? Nope. I wouldn’t have enjoyed the game as much and I would have quit long before enjoying any success whatsoever in the game. That’s at a macro level. But even at a micro level, I have only so much energy. Spending too much time on any one decision, when there are so many more coming, means not banking that energy for critical moments later. Or what I HOPE will be critical moments later.

I UNDERSTAND that some people have to think more than I do at the table for reasons of lack of experience. I UNDERSTAND that some players see more possibilities and want to think whether any of those possibilities are worth playing for, simply because they are more experienced than I am (or ever will be). But I believe those folks are the outliers in the games I play. Amongst my peers and those a little outside of that group, I remind them of the social contract not to spend my time as if it was theirs.

Jeff LehmanFebruary 17th, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Maybe my last word on the subject of pace of play?

Because bridge is – thankfully! – a thinking game, “non-offenders” should be tolerant of a player/pair who declare or defend (what seem to the “non-offenders” to be) slowly PROVIDED the pace produced by such player/pair is such that, if the other players/pair at the table duplicated their pace, the table would finish the round on time.

By contrast, little tolerance is due the player/pair who create table dead time by, for example, expending time between boards reading and commenting on each prior result recorded by the Bridgemate while the other players/pair are ready to bid the next board.

Now, which of those situations contribute most significantly to overall slow play … and to use the term presented by Gary in his thoughtful comment, most severely violate a social contract? It all depends, of course, but my personal observation is that the volume of “excess” (define that term as you wish) table time spent on deadtime is both much greater and less recognized than most players think.

RobinFebruary 19th, 2013 at 10:08 pm

Well, there’s not much to add, but a few observations. Consistently slow players are rarely experts. As Jeff says, they usually aren’t slow because it takes them time to think – most of these players don’t do much thinking. They are slow because of the time wasting: post-mortem discussions, not realizing it’s their bid/play, not having thought ahead of time whether they want to be in slam missing 1 key card, etc.

However, I have sat there while world champions took a VERY long time (about five minutes) over one bid or play. That is thinking and is OK in bridge (although to be truly fair, we should time each turn as is done in chess). None of those slow plays caused any lateness.

I play quite a few “speedball” tournaments on BBO. Very rarely have I run out of time trying to play the last board of a three-board set. Mostly, the fact that players don’t have to sort their hand, write anything down, compare results, etc. means that there is plenty of time to play, even to think. If none of the hands require much thought, then everyone gets to go to the bathroom at the end of the round if they want to. And this is with 4.5 minutes per board instead of the more usual 6.5 mins per board at the club (I think).

ted fultonSeptember 11th, 2019 at 12:51 am

Simple things to alleviate a situation where
only one pair is slow. (1) In our small club, 50% of time have an odd number of pairs, hence a sitout somewhere. Suppose, e.g. that ns pair 7 is missing. Put slow pair as ns pair 6, so that any pair delayed by them sits out the next round and hence can resume play on time. This is almost a complete fix.

(2) With an even number of pairs, sweet talk the players who will be passing boards to the slow pair into being helpful by resorting the hands for them after they play. This saves 30+ sec. per board which speeds up the slow table by as much as 2 minutes. Not perfect, and needs a community-minded pair or two to do the sorting. Of course, it speeds up play by that much for them as well ass everyone downstream from them, and gives them a personal incentive to be helpful beyond the good of the group.

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