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Thou shalt not Psyche

by Hank Youngerman, USA

with a note by David Stevenson


In a recent club game, I opened 1N on a 5-count in third chair, favorable vulnerability. There was a great deal of discussion about this.

The club initially found an ACBL rule prohibiting opening on hands of less than 8HCP by partnership agreement. This stems from a rule prohibiting initial actions on hands of "A king or more below average strength." Edgar Kaplan had unbridled contempt for this rule, asking in The Bridge World whether:

S KQJTxxxxxxxx
H x
D void
C void

was "more than a king below average strength." And if so, whether:

S Kxxxxxx
H Kxxxxx
D void
C void

was impermissible while:

S KJxx
H Kxx
D Jxx
C xxx

was acceptable.

But be that as it may, the same document the club found follows the statement with two explicit statements that this rule does not prohibit psyches. Nonetheless, it took a directive from the ACBL to have the director reverse his ruling that we would get a zero on the board.

Moving away from the ridiculous, let's talk about the true rules.

A club may not prohibit psyches. Psyches are specifically protected by the Laws. A club may no more prohibit all psyches than it may score doubled contracts as -300 -700 -1100 etc. A club may want to reduce sacrifices because weak players want to play the hands, not defend, but it cannot do so and still call the game "Contract Bridge."

A club may not limit you to a fixed number of psyches either. If you are dealt 27 consecutive hands on which a psyche is a sound bridge action, you may psyche 27 times in a session. (Virtually impossible given vulnerability conditions and chair, of course.) An unusually high number of psyches creates a presumption that you are making impermissible psyches, but if you can show a sound bridge reason for each one, the club MAY NOT discpline you.

You may not psyche randomly, just to "have a little fun" or to spew tops randomly across the field. You may open 1NT with a horrible hand in hopes of going down undoubled; you may not open 6N with the same hand just to see if you can really go for 3500.

There is a prohibition against "unsportsmanlike" psyches, but it is not clear just what "unsportsmanlike" means. Certainly, a psyche designed just to get a bad result against a friend is unsportsmanlike. My club seemed to take the position that any psyche against a weak pair is "unsportsmanlike." I don't pretend to know what is "unsportsmanlike." I don't think it is any more unsportsmanlike to psych against a pair that may not be able to field it than it is to bid an aggressive contract that might require some help from the defense. In some ways it is MORE dangerous to psych against weak pairs. When you do, they will sit there for a while, trying to figure out how to bid their hand, finally pass, and then partner will bid their hand FOR them. Try getting redress! The operation was a success, except that the patient died.

There ARE ethical obligations when you know partner might psych. Since you may not have partnership agreements about psychs, every time you know partner MIGHT be psyching, you have unauthorized information. For example, suppose that partner opens 1S in third chair at favorable vulnerability and you hold:

S xxxx
H xx
D Axx
C KQxx

This is somewhere on the border between a light limit raise and a heavy single raise. You can make whichever call you like. But if it turns out that partner held:

S x
H Kxxxx
D xxx
C xxxx

And you bid only 2S, and partner is known to psych short suits, you should expect the score to be adjusted to the likely result as if you had bid to 3S by whatever your methods are. Of course when partner holds that hand and you hold:

S xxx
H xx
D Axxx
C KQxx

And you bid 2S and the opponents end in a partscore or perhaps even a notrump game but get a bad score for missing their 5-4 spade fit, you are ahead of the game and you have done nothing wrong. You can gain a lot if the psych works, but you do sometimes lose when partner has the "wrong" hand.

My own view about psychs is that they are just another bidding option. Sometimes the call most likely to be successful is a psych.


David Stevenson added:
The main point is that it is permissible to psyche to attempt to improve your score, but not psyche for other reasons, eg to have fun, or to affect other people's chances of a good bad result.


Editor's note:

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