Jeff Lehman

Teaching ethics to beginners

Because I disagree with the views expressed by many in a thread on BridgeWinners website I am taking space in my own bridge blog to document the causes for my disagreement.

The thread asks the question “when should beginners and intermediates be taught about bridge ethics?”.  The views expressed by several commentators, as paraphrased by me (and perhaps not wholly accurately paraphrased), with which I disagree are these:

  • Bridge ethics is too complicated to be taught to beginners; they will learn ethical bridge behavior by emulating experienced players.
  • Unethical behavior at the club level should be highly tolerated because imposing higher ethical standards at the clubs will drive away club players; worry about ethics only at tournaments.

My views are that bridge ethics should be taught early and often to all bridge players, even beginners; and the local club might be the best venue at which to begin to teach players about the importance of bridge ethics.

Teaching beginners ethics in lesson plans

As an author of the bridge lessons produced for benefit of teachers of youth bridge in schools supported by New England Youth Bridge, Inc., a charitable organization, I have introduced bridge ethics in the second lesson plan for children … that is the first lesson plan at which the students learn that bridge is a game of two partnerships rather than four individuals.  Does the early introduction of bridge ethics involve the difficult concepts of Breaks in Tempo, Unauthorized Information, etc.?  Of course not; the students don’t even begin to learn how to bid until around Lesson 19!  All the second lesson tells the students is that communication with their partner through verbal comments made at the table, through voice inflection, and through gesture are illegal – only communication through the cards that are played is legal partnership communication; furthermore, that bridge, akin to many sports, is a game that depends upon fairness and a set of rules exists to define the ethics required to ensure fairness.  By establishing the general importance of ethical standards early in the students’ bridge education, a foundation is laid for introducing to students more difficult issues of bridge ethics later on, as their games advance.

Teaching beginners ethics at the club

If players are driven away from the game by club owners/directors enforcing ethics at club games, I suspect that usually ensues only when club directors and opponents haven’t been properly educated about how to present ethical issues and/or rulings.  Let’s assume that your RHO at a club game breaks tempo (usually, experience tells us, denoting some extra values) and then LHO makes a marginal bid of game, a game that turns out to be cold.  What should happen at a club game?  IMHO, you should call the director, politely, but timely (in fact, it might be best that you call before LHO has bid).  Your call should reflect only a question for the director to decide, rather than a castigation or accusation of an opponent.  More importantly, the director, when called to the table, should say more than the usual “call me back after the hand if there seems to be a problem”.  Instead the director should seize the call as an opportunity for educating the offending pair.  The director might tell the pair that because bridge is a thinking game, taking extra time to decide on a call is not unexpected or illegal.  However, when making a call out of tempo might convey to partner something about a hand that would not be conveyed if the call were made in tempo, partner is not allowed to take advantage of the information conveyed by the break in tempo; that information is Unauthorized Information.  In fact, to ensure that the result is a fair one to the other pair, partner is required to choose a reasonable call that is specifically NOT conveyed by the break in tempo.  No blame, just education, and an overriding concern with maintaining fairness.


Dave Memphis MOJOAugust 30th, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Good presentation of a ticklish problem.

Robin HillyardSeptember 1st, 2013 at 4:40 pm

For a moment I thought you and I were at loggerheads again, Jeff. Because when I read Yuan’s post, I was in total agreement. Then I realized that you too are in agreement – it was the comments you didn’t like.

So I am in 100% agreement with the views stated in your blog. During my first few years of playing tournaments, it never occurred to me that there was anything improper about taking partner’s hesitation into account. I’m not sure how often it came up (we’re talk about many years intervening here) but I never even heard the expressions hesitation, BIT, UI until several years after I resumed playing tournament bridge more recently.

It should be incumbent on club directors, as well as tournament directors, to educate players on these issues whenever there is an opportunity. And, as you point out, beginner lessons should cover this important subject – perhaps not in gory detail – but at least enough to get new players to think about the problem.

Judy Kay-WolffSeptember 1st, 2013 at 7:39 pm

HI Jeff:

I have taken a rest from my own blogsite for a while because of many wild innuendos and negative banter on the Internet that in my opinion does nothing positive for the game.

I, too, was in a position to know about teaching ethics. Many years ago in Philadelphia (in 1976 when Charlie Solomon passed away), I was approached (with a good friend of mine) to teach six classes of bridge at a plush suburban country club which played in a League which may have been the first of its kind. Other cities soon followed suit (pardon the pun) and it was a terrific opportunity for some of those on the lower teams to get their feet wet. At first, I was reluctant, but Norman encouraged me as nothing is more important than to teach the principles that will lend itself to enjoy our wonderful game. It worked out great and both I and my students could not wait until Tuesdays rolled around. It seems like centuries ago, but my recollection is still vivid.

I coached #1 and #2 (which were the larger groups and more experienced gals) and my buddy took on #3 through #6 who were either new or retired. As I was only one step (ala one page) ahead of my students in those days. We started out after the basics of 52 cards, 13 dealt to NESW, the names of the suits and NTs) — but of supreme importance was what transpired with your partner, your opponents and certainly with your containment at the table.

It was one of the most productive experiences I ever had. To me, you must be familiar with the dos and dont’s before you actually learn the game. If you really care about the most terrific competition in the world, you will improve in all areas and the game will live on (although it is obviously on a downward trend — especially with the European Teams rising to the occasion — both at the NABCs and abroad).

In my opinion, the guilt lies partly with the not up-to-snuff attention given to it by the ACBL.
Also professionalism is not a positive factor. Better training is mandatory (as far as directors and committees) and duplicate club handling is even more imperative as the new players and old ones (who may need reforming) attend the daily duplicates often (especially the older folks in retirement communities). Here in Vegas, you can only frequent the casino in moderation unless you check your brains (and wallet) at the door.

The club we attend now — has improved by leaps and bounds. Our gracious hostess welcomes everyone and introduces the many guests who stop by while in our great city. It is very near the Strip and we get to meet lots of out-of-towners. After all smiles and applauding, often the director in a non-confrontational manner alludes to basic proper ethics — and they are getting better and better by the day. It is so noticeable. THUS .. the necessity emphasizes teaching all new players and returning ones that the game must be played by the rules .. making it more pleasant and enjoyable for all .. with very few director calls other than on technicalities.

It has been reported by many players (and blog sites) that a few clubs believe in anything goes — so as not to lose new customers or regulars, they make light of the happenings. That is not what the game is all about — and is deserving of preserving its beauty and majesty. The importance of polite handling is at the top of the list.

Jeff, thanks for making an issue of it. Bobby and I are staunchly behind you.

Jane ASeptember 4th, 2013 at 2:01 am

Hi Jeff,

I am new to your blog, but I want to express my thoughts about this topic. First, I believe ethical behavior is very important to teach at the beginning level of duplicate bridge. There is no reason to assume that a person who is capable of playing this wonderful game should not be able to understand the rules and be taught to abide by them. Secondly, I am sure many of us know a few “experienced” players who should never be used as an example of how to ethically play this game. Yes, there are many who are wonderful players and who are very ethical, but we can not forget that there are also a number who are not. I believe that if a new player makes a mistake, they should not be humiliated, but educated. New players make mistakes because they don’t know all the rules.

How can a new player be expected to play ethically at a tournament if he or she is never taught proper bridge ethics at the club level or in classes? If an instructor is teaching bridge for players who want to play duplicate in clubs and at tournaments, why not at least ask the class if they understand the basics of ethics? If they are not educated in the basics, offer to explain what is at least the entry level of bridge ethics and then go from there? It might take an extra lesson, but I believe it is worth it and will make a newer player feel more comfortable and less likely to make an error at the tournament level.

Thanks for presenting this topic. I will follow your blog in the future.

Judy Kay-WolffSeptember 4th, 2013 at 3:35 am


You really simplified it from start to finish.

Unfortunately, some (far from all) of those in charge (especially at the club level) see personal reasons to make exceptions to protect their personal interests. It is human nature, but not best for the game. I am about to write a blog exposing a sad (but funny) technique learned of recently and am getting more facts from Bobby about days of yore for comparison. Soon!.

Bobby WolffSeptember 5th, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Hi Jeff& Jane,

I am with both of you and, if anything, feel even stronger, that proper ethics taught from the get go is the best possible way to get someone started in bridge.

If someone, anyone, has a hard time grasping his or her responsibilities in regard to playing a partnership game noted for its honor and trust while playing it, then it becomes even more important to discuss it early so there will be absolutely no doubt what is to be expected.

Remember some games, mainly poker, are also card games, except the ethics therein are almost the opposite from what we have grown to understand about bridge. In poker, the idea is to give all the opponents the opposite impression of what one holds and almost, with no holds barred as far as the methods used.

Witness the expression “poker face” which implies to one’s adversaries, “proceed at your own risk since we are opponents and I have no responsibility to tell anyone at the table anything I know about my hand”.

Because of the above, many younger players will tend to get the wrong slant about what is expected in bridge unless they are immediately educated on what to do or, better put, what not to do.

Also the argument of not presenting the bridge laws of ethics to a relative newcomer is merely postponing the inevitable and if that concept is not agreeable to them now, then they are taking up the wrong competition.

Jeff, I appreciate your position and please continue to make yourself the Jeff Bridgeseed of the bridge teachers in your community. All will benefit in the long run, and especially the game itself.

Jane A, also thanks for your view and since I have gotten to know you, would have expected nothing different than who you are and what you believe.

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