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Hesitation in the play

by David Stevenson


The following question was asked:

I want to get some informed advice on how to rule when there has been a hesitation during play when the players appears to have nothing about which to ponder. There is a wide divergence of opinion here on how to interpret the word "could" in Law 73D1. This ranges from the concept that a player ALWAYS "could know" that they are misleading an opponent to the other extreme that, if the hand has nothing to think about then it MUST be inadvertent. I try to judge each case on its merits, but admit that I have no hard and fast rules.

Two cases came up recently which caused a lot of dissension. In the last one the cards were

Q J 8 4
A 10 3 9 6 2
K 7 5

South was Declarer, and the 10 had been led to the K. East had hesitated before following suit and then played the 6. Later in the play South led towards dummy and inserted the 8., losing to the 9. Declarer called the Director ( it was not me) and complained that the hesitation by East had misled him into thinking that East had the Ace, as there was nothing else to think about. East said that her hesitation was in deciding which card to signal with. The ruling given was that there was no attempt to mislead and, therefore, Declarer had drawn an inference at his own risk.

Declarer, a top player, had apparently asked some questions about the lead of the 10, specifically about a holding of 10,9 and received an answer that there was no specific agreement but that the 9 would possibly have been led in such a circumstance. East is a reasonably good player, not given to unethical play.

I was asked for some advice and allowed the director's ruling to stand but advised declarer to appeal. The Appeals Committee upheld the ruling, but on a divisive vote. One major factor in this decision was the feeling by some members of the A.C. that Declarer was trying for a "no lose" situation that could be appealed if it lost. One member of the A.C., however, is a stauch supporter of the ALWAYS could have known school.

My own view is that there was no intention to deceive, but that a hesitation was unneccesary. (The hand was close to a yarborough.) East was advised that if it happened again a procedural penalty might be applied.

Please can you give me some advice on how to handle these rulings so that I can establish a procedure that all our directors must apply in order to overcome the wide and divisive perceptions that we have on this issue.


This was my reply:

The 1987 Laws concerned seem a little confused, however they will be improved in the 1997 Laws. L73D1 does not mention anything about intention to deceive. If someone could have known that a tempo variation would work in his favour then L73D1 applies anyway, but L73D1 is really concerned with what players should do rather than what the TD does. L73F2 tells the TD what to do but now the word deception comes into it. In the 1997 laws the words deceptive and deception are being removed, and adjustment should be made where the player "has no demonstrable bridge reason for the action".

To be honest, I don't think the actual wording of the Laws matters very much: it is a matter of interpretation. The following are our standard positions for interpretation:


Declarer leads the jack, LHO hesitates and plays small, so declarer runs it to the queen. When you ask LHO he says he was wondering whether to peter with two small. You believe him. Do you adjust?

Yes, you do. Considering whether to peter or not is never considered an adequate excuse in these positions where the player could easily have known that hesitating would be to his advantage. Note that the fact that we believe the player is irrelevant: we will always adjust in this position, so in fact there is no advantage in asking the player.


Declarer leads the jack, LHO hesitates and plays small, so declarer runs it to the queen. When you ask LHO he says he was wondering whether to play his ace. You believe him. Do you adjust?

No, you do not. People do play the ace in this sort of circumstance for a number of reasons. In effect a hesitation here only means that LHO has an honour: it is unlucky if declarer misguesses which one.

In the position you originally quoted we have the standard "East said that her hesitation was in deciding which card to signal with": this cuts no ice with us and we would adjust the score. There is one further proviso: it is normal to have a reasonable time to think at trick one. If declarer played quickly from dummy at trick one, and this hesitation was at trick one, and it was not too long, then we would not adjust because declarer caused the whole thing, but in all other cases the adjustment is automatic.

You refer to "East was advised that if it happened again a procedural penalty might be applied." This is not satisfactory. You are approaching the line of accusing East of cheating. We do not say "You deliberately misled declarer: you are a naughty girl: here is a PP." If there is such a hesitation then we make an adjustment under L73F2: that points to L12: since the hand was played that means L12C2: so there is an adjustment, not a PP. In other words, we give a trick to the other side [or possibly more, depending on the hand].

As far as a double shot for declarer, these positions usually are. That is the defender's fault for creating the position, and should not affect the ruling in any way.

To summarise: when a player hesitates and has nothing to think about, or was wondering whether to peter, and he can clearly see this may help to mislead declarer, then we adjust by giving a trick or more to the other side. We do not say he did it deliberately: we just adjust. If a hesitation is because he has a legitimate problem, like whether to play an honour or not, then we do not adjust. PPs are unsuitable unless you are dealing with a frequent transgressor. The example you gave is an automatic adjustment.


Editor's note:

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