Bob Mackinnon

The Wagar Cup Appeal

When committees continuously modify a basically simple set of rules to accommodate narrow self-interests, one ends up with a tangle that defies logic and confounds the ordinary man. The tax laws with all the loop holes are an example of self-interested tinkering carried to extremes. Judges aim to uphold the laws, but juries are not compelled to honor them. Everyman’s nightmare becomes a lawyer’s enchanted dream.

As is well known in the ACBL enforcement of the rules, justice is not always well served by the jury system in the form of an Appeals Committee. Awareness has been raised by the ruling that gave the China Red victory in the recent Wagar Cup. The subsequent heated, personalized discussions by experts on Bridgewinners revolved around how much a player must reveal about partnership tendencies. Is it enough to clarify agreements that are written on the convention card, or must a player bend over backwards to disclose everything relevant that has occurred in the past under similar circumstances? Has an opponent the right to know everything you know (without reference to the cards you hold)? Does that include what partner had for breakfast, which may have a bearing on his level of aggressiveness? Later we’ll look at the mathematical implications, but first here is the deal that raised questions.

Precision 1
In my experience the troubles began when the ACBL rules were modified piecemeal to bring Precision in under the fence, as it were. Some aspects were allowed, others prohibited, but once in, Precision methods began to undermine many of the Goren-based concepts and the more naïve players were burdened with bids that had one meaning in Standard and another in Precision. The auctions sounded the same, but they weren’t, and some opponents to their regret failed to make the necessary adjustments. Gradually the old standards fell, but the tinkering with the rules didn’t reflect the collapse, resulting in further confusion. The ruling in the Wagar Cup Final revolved around a Precision 1 opening bid and possible misinformation. Here is that deal.

All Pass

The 1 opening bid is systemically correct as the hand contains at least 2 diamonds and at least 11 HCP. Coincidentally the hand also constitutes a standard 1 opening bid where 4 diamonds are the norm. Levitina’s takeout double, like the Precision 1 bid, is a noise from which not much can be concluded with regard to distribution. Redbl is understandable – 10+HCP, a flat shape and 2 suits covered defensively. However, because of the nature of the nebulous opening bid, a non-standard complication is that clubs or diamonds might provide the best fit for either side.

Sanborn’s pass is understandable. When one has nothing to say, don’t say anything. However, pass is descriptive – normally a balanced hand. Partner can add up the points, subtract from 40, and have a good estimate of the upper limit of her partner’s holding. Sanborn can stand by Levitina’s choice.

When I have doubts about standard practice, I refer to that superb reference from 1981, Modern Bridge Conventions by Root and Pavlicek, a book praised on the back cover by many late, great American players: Jacoby, Kaplan, Roth, Sheinwold, Stayman, and Truscott. The authors note that a takeout double of one-of-a-suit opening typically shows a minimum opening bid with support (three or more cards) for each of the unbid suits. So Levitina’s call is mainstream. After a redouble, they point out that a pass ‘merely expresses the lack of any clear-cut preferences among the unbid suits.’ It appears that Sanborn’s pass falls neatly into the category of standard practice. No problem, then?

One must take into account that the 1 opening bid did not promise more than 2 cards in the suit, so there is an additional reason for Sanborn’s passing the redouble –  maybe Levitina actually held length in diamonds. That raises the question as to whether diamonds is an ‘unbid suit’. In the Precision system responder cannot support diamonds, so if he bids diamonds, it is treated as a ’new suit’ in which he has length himself. If that is the way the Precisionists treat diamonds, then isn’t it logical that the opponents should have the same treatment, so that a takeout double does not suggest support for clubs nor guarantee shortage in diamonds? Thus a straightforward bidding sequence under the Standard regime is less informative and more complex when Precision 1 is involved.

At this point we ask ourselves, if there were no alerts, were the American pair obliged to answer questions as to the meanings of their bids? Certainly they are a long-standing partnership and similar situation must have come up a few times in the past. On that basis they know something that the opponents don’t know, but unless they have a prior agreement, the knowledge they have is of a statistical nature, hence uncertain to some degree. No matter how long a partnership has played together, their bidding won’t converge to perfection. If Levitina were asked, ‘based on your experience does your partner deny a 4-card major?’ the answer might be, ‘this situation may have arisen a few times in the past, but not enough times to merit expressing a firm conclusion.’

Estimating Probabilities from Data
There are mathematical procedures available that are used to estimate probabilities from data. Consider the problem in a simple mathematical context. When Sanborn claims her pass means nothing, she is implying that her pass means nothing more than what is to be expected with standard practices. With a 5-card suit she would take preference. Say there are 2 possibilities: A: Sanborn will pass without a 4-card major, and B: Sanborn will pass with at least one 4-card major. For purposes of our argument we take a narrower view and assume she is saying in effect that P(A), the probability of A, equals P(B), the probability of B. It is a coin flip whether or not she will pass with a 4-card major.

Suppose they have played in 4 similar situations and 3 times Sanborn didn’t have a 4-card major, and once she did. So we have 3 A’s and 1 B. If Levitina says that in her experience it is 3 times more likely Sanborn doesn’t have a 4-card major than not, she drawing a conclusion from a limited set of data.  In fact, Sanborn’s claim that P(A) = P(B) = ½ may still be correct, because AAA and B will occur at random with a frequency of  1 time out of 4. So, saying A has occurred 3 times more often than B, doesn’t rule out they have equal probability before each decision is made. Even if there were 6A’s and only 2B’s, there would not be enough evidence to rule out a 50-50 agreement with conviction. (normally rejection requires a less than 10% chance of being a random occurrence.) So Levitina’s statement based on her experience, that usually her partner has no 4-card major, and Sanborn’s implication that there is maximum uncertainty as to whether she’d bid or pass can both be true. Furthermore, Sanborn needn’t strive to even out her decisions by consciously adding more suit bids; she should continue to make decisions independently on the merit of each hand as she has always done. Levitina may adjust her thinking based on the observed short-term trend, but that doesn’t make it correct. At roulette it would be like betting on black because black has been coming up recently, or doing the opposite because red is overdue.

We can’t judge our own actions objectively. We may be aggressive or passive and still consider ourselves to be unbiased. Logic may be applied as a justification to move us in our preferred direction, so we mistakenly believe ourselves to be purely rational decision makers. On the South hand I would have bid 1 rather than pass, changing the whole complexion of the deal. For me the quality of the suit, not merely the length, is an important consideration.  Others might say, ‘change a few cards around and I could agree, say, change the 4 to the 9.’ Such changes are insignificant statistically, but they may lead to different decisions which are based on the hand as a whole and the relationship of one suit to another. Toss in the additional fact that one may react differently under different circumstances against different opponents, and we conclude that the sampling of bridge results is a mathematically flawed process, especially where the auction involves competition. Juries shouldn’t convict on such slim evidence. So it boils down to statements of prior agreements, but one can’t write down everything on a convention card. There must be allowances made for freedom of choice and table feel. Bridge bidding is information transmission subject to uncertainty of various degrees. So if one is revealing a tendency and not an agreement, an opponent must not assume 100% conformity to a trend which is subject to random variation. Levitina’s offered opinion based on experience concerning what Sanborn might have for her pass should not have been taken as a certainty. One shouldn’t be in a position of having to guess for the opponent’s benefit, then being held account if one has guessed wrong.

In a recent local game I balanced with a double of a vulnerable 2 opening bid on the following fine collection with 18 HCP: KJ AJT5 KT6 AQ64. Partner bid 3 and played there. Naturally I wished we were playing Lebensohl over doubles of weak two’s and was apprehensive that we might have missed 3NT. My RHO led the A and continued the T to dummy. Partner cashed the A dropping the K from the preemptor. Later the defenders got it wrong by assuming partner didn’t have 4 hearts. Partner’s 130 scored 80%. The preemptor had begun with Qxxxxxx Kx Qxxx K, an abomination sanctioned by the ACBL. 

One might say this was bizarre but not uncommon.  The opening bid was nothing out of the ordinary, although I detest it. I asked partner why he had bid 3 and not 3. He replied, ‘I knew you wanted me to bid 3, but my clubs were better than my hearts.’ The question arises, should I alert his 3-of-a-minor next time because it is an agreement that he might have 4 of a major? Isn’t that a ridiculous question? If he thinks bidding clubs is better than bidding hearts, good luck to him. There were many who didn’t agree with our bidding methods, but they will have to wait until next time to get even.

In the Wagar Cup deal, if Sanborn thought passing was better than bidding a 4-card major, good luck to her, too. When Levitina escapes to 2, it is a bit of a disappointment for Sanborn as this is her worst suit. At this point Wang could have doubled with KQxx and beaten 2 by 1 trick, possibly 2 on very sharp defence, an optimum double dummy result. Wang passed, allowing Ran to takeout to 2 – an opportunity lost against vulnerable opponents. Really, what did Wang expect? There may have been some frustration expressed by her jump to 3NT. Deep Finesse tells us this contract can be defeated on any lead except a spade. After the 8 lead, defeat was in the cards on a natural defence of attacking spades from the North side, however, at the table, North rose with the A and attacked with the K, establishing the J in declarer’s hand.

The Appeals Committee faced a task harder than that of King Solomon when faced with 2 complaining women over the custody of a baby. In his case, there was clearly a right and a wrong, but here both sides had failed to take full advantage of the opportunities presented to them.  It is not uncommon that perfection is not achieved at the table, so it should not be expected when evaluating a result on a double dummy basis. In this case despite the helpful defence Wang went down in her 3NT contract by not approaching the diamond suit with sufficient caution. The Appeals Committee, perhaps disappointed in the expectation of perfection from both sides and reluctant to reward either side’s errant card play, in effect cut the baby in half in order to appear to be fair to both sides. One can only hope that AC decisions do not carry the weight of precedence.


Cam FrenchAugust 26th, 2014 at 9:12 pm

A detailed analysis.


This opens many issues, including the rationale for the committee’s ruling.



bob mAugust 27th, 2014 at 5:46 am

I don’t know anything about it really, but what I read doesn’t make any sense. More thoughts to follow.

Once a fellow worker in a federal government agency said to me, ‘the longer I work here the more sense it makes, and that’s what worries me.’

Bobby WolffAugust 27th, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Hi Bob,

I am going to put my one or at the most, two cents, worth in here just to clear up an apparent bridge uncertainty which is as apparent to me as the nose on my face which has always been too prominent.

First, Kerri, who has long been one of the world’s best women players, both in talent and in discipline passed the redouble on her right, holding both 4 card majors for only one reason.

She did not want to choose the wrong major since, being vulnerable (and very weak), the red flag was up and waving as soon as her RHO redoubled, indicating a probable defensive hand which often is followed by a penalty double especially when the victims are vulnerable.

As bridge is unpredictable to everyone, in this case Kerri, her partner Irina being dealt what she was dealt probably horrified Kerri when she chose 2 clubs as her escape suit. Why East did not double will never be known, but sometimes (and this being 2014 instead of 2114) players, even potential good ones, are too careful before leaping to take advantage of doubling when holding an above average hand, with excellent defense, trumps somewhat stacked and all elements, including if very unluckily having them make it (only -180), pointing to defense.

So, if I am even close to correct about intent and motivation, poor Kerri then (IMO) had heartily wished that she had bid one major or the other (probably hearts first, since, if doubled she could conveniently run to spades but not vice versa, at least at the one level).

Now, getting back to the ruling. It is sheer folly to think even very experienced partnerships all have discussed the thousands of different specific bidding situations which arise. Bridge is still a game of probabilities, judgment (often changing) and unique decisions, not predictably applied, with any consistency, at least to be noted.

Committees should tend to overlook partner’s guess as to what this or that means since, even in the best bridge partnerships ever (and they will constantly get better as long as we ourselves do not stamp out the game (by indifference in not getting bridge as a course into our primary and secondary schools), never to return, there will continue to occur different strokes for different folks.

In other words NS did normal things (albeit Kerri wishing she had bid a major earlier) until she was granted a reprieve by a friendly (at least on this hand) RHO.

However for this committee to not be stating, no doubt more eloquently than I, exactly (or close) to what I am saying defies my imagination and makes me realize how we need to at least try to professionalize those vital committees who are granted such power, but sadly fail to live up to their responsibilities.

Now I have made more enemies and I have absolutely no idea of who was on that committee or how the end result was obtained, but Bob please understand 1. what Kerri was thinking and why, 2. how East (referring to the redoubler) had blundered, 3. the actual result obtained must count and the case then should be dismissed.

Without the immediate above finality we should be ashamed to voice what happened, but the beat continues to go on.

Now my one or two cents have probably gone up to 25 cents or so, at least on more words used. Forgive me, but I know from whence I speak!!!!

bob mAugust 27th, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Thanks, Bobbie.
It is a great service to the readers that you have offered us the benefit of your experience and insight. I value it above 25 cents.
Actually, I fell I am in 100% agreement on this. Surely a 4-4 holding in the majors makes the pass more attractive, and it is within the guidelines of ‘no preference’. I wouldn’t want to conclude that was the reason for the pass, but you are better placed to make that judgement.

There may be a case for arguing that pass applies pressure to the opponents (and to partner) in an uncertain situation. EW didn’t react very well, although we wouldn’t argue against the aggressive 3NT bid, a calculated risk. I accept that you don’t think that had much to do with Sanborn’s decision. Thanks, again.

Judy Kay-WolffAugust 28th, 2014 at 1:53 am

Hi Bob,

Out of curiosity, does anyone have any knowledge of the names of the members of the committee who heard and decided the case. Had no success getting the answer and thought someone might know off the top of his (or her) head or point me in the right direction. Thanks!

bob mAugust 28th, 2014 at 3:51 am

Hi Judy:
Committee members are listed on page 15 of the July 27 Bulletin (Sunday). You can access the bulletin from the ACBL site – tournaments and results.

Judy Kay-WolffAugust 28th, 2014 at 4:40 am

Thanks, Bob, for saving me going through more red tape. I knew about the ACBL website, but was uncertain of the exact dates and too cumbersome a job without them. The dissenting opinion was well presented and I admire Mr. Houston’s candor even though he stood alone.

Keith GeorgeAugust 28th, 2014 at 12:21 pm

It seems to me given p 1D x xx then S is likely simply looking for a safe haven, given the nebulous 1D and x, and his bids should be seen in that light. EW appear to have the balance of the points and most likely partner is up to say 15 points with at least one 4 card major. If S passes N will surely bid his major anyway, I’m safe and I’m staying at the 1 level.

Of course if I were 2-4 or maybe 4-2 in the majors I’d be rather more inclined to bid my major so it would be true to say I might bid a 4 card major.

I have no clear bid, eg a 5 card suit except D so more reason to pass.

I hesitate to say, but in the UK I suspect the majority would overcall 2C!

bobby wolffAugust 28th, 2014 at 10:05 pm

Hi Bob,

I’ve done some checking and now know what happened and who the committee was that heard the appeal. I’d like now to only offer my opinion (with no names given) on what needs to be done with educating future committees, dealing with different cultures, the danger of naivety with normal, but not specially prepared committees, especially with not having a very wise, experienced, been there, done that committee chairman, who is willing to grow with the process and soon serve as a beacon to those following him wherein bridge will have a positive hope that committee decisions will be on target, consistent within a small radius, and subject to be used as precedents on similar cases to be held in the future.

I’m assuming that the reader will be basically familiar with the case, so I will go from there, in order to not overwhelm anyone just casually interested as to what is going on regarding high-level world bridge competition.

The Chinese East (declarer in 3NT) asked the following at the table:

To North and regarding South’s pass after East’s redouble: “Would she (Sanborn) have bid a 4 card major if she had one”. (Quotes are not exact, and even if they were accurately known, my description is intended to guide future committees rather than beat a dead horse, and attempt to review something which has already been decided). In other words, any blame involved with this decision is not nearly as important as trying to impart what I think needs to be done if my depiction is accurate or at least very close.

North to East: I would expect partner to bid a 4 card major if she had one, but it is something that we have not, at least, thoroughly discussed (if North’s description did not volunteer the last sentence then East should ask her more. East, then after South followed low, made a very deep finesse in diamonds,
losing to a spot card and then later finessed the jack again losing to the now blank king.

In other words, the Chinese East played South for 3-3-5-2 when she, of course, was 4-4-3-2. This East could have finessed a slightly higher diamond, but perhaps carelessly failed to do so, but that is not important to me, nor does it substantially enter into my overall judgment.

Now the compelling question: Does North’s attempted description serve as misinformation?
Answer: Not to me since, at least to me, South did not want to take a chance of bidding one of the two 4 card majors she possessed for fear of eventually playing in that suit doubled instead of the other 4 card suit which may well (and probably would) go unbid in spite of having a 4-4 fit (leave it to our wonderful game bridge, to be the master and constantly taunt our players with situations not often discussed. Also if someone might suggest after it went a penalty double by either E or W then if South would retreat to 1 spade (after bidding 1 heart) she still may have had a 4-4 heart fit, but only a disasterous 4-3 fit in spades which certainly figured to still be doubled.

Having said the above only echoes what top level players (certainly both women and open players) would know in a NY minute while others (with the Chinese) an unknown quantity to me, and thus not for me to predict.

While the East player was willing to risk her presumed knowledge gleaned by IMO, woodingly trying to produce clear evidence which, according to her, and perhaps her experience of playing against others in China and around the world a perfect picture of exactly what was happening. That above fact, to me, shows too optimistic a position to warrant totally relying on, especially considering the stakes which well could determine a very close match.

IMO South had a VERY good reason for passing (described above) and even though both N and S may have briefly discussed some aspect of what to do, it is highly unlikely that this specific hand was never mentioned. Both Irina (North) and Kerri (East) have ethical reputations, no doubt well earned and anything more than that need not be said or, for that matter, thought.

Different cultures, of course, may look at this bridge situation differently and expect all partnership problems to be fully discussed and ready for compliance, but if so, IMO they do not live in the real bridge world. Therefore, what happened here, and especially so since East did not double 2 clubs, when IMO her hand clearly called for it, leads me to believe she is not entitled to redress when she is appealing a case with such a small window of opportunity to attempt to prove her point.

My most important point is that an appeals chairman at a very important tournament, must perform at an elite level, both as to the facts involved, the cultures present, help with the selection of the committee and above all the blending of our bridge laws with common sense in their application. Furthermore all decisions made MUST be well known to other potential committee chairman and an attempt made to professionalize that position, with the alternative being a consistent lack of accuracy, precedent setting, respect and thus overall worth of what we intended, resulting in horrible messages which bad decisions are continuing to send.

It can be fixed, but in order to do, a major effort needs to take place.

bob mAugust 29th, 2014 at 3:38 am

Well put. Mr Wolff. My next blog deals with the concept of tolerance in an imperfect world where judgement got from being there and doing that comes into play.

bob mAugust 29th, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Hi Keith:

Certainly a hair-raising 2 clubs overcall on this hand should help rather than hinder the opponents after the nebulous 1-diamond start. The chances of a penalty double loom large. It is more the modern style to make a garbage takeout double. I would pass, but we watch the experts to learn something from them.

With regard to responding to the TO double, redoubled, Bobbie Wolff assures us the expert call with 4-4 majors is pass. My view is that my doubling partner has asked for my best major, so I’ll show it when I have a preference. I think the danger of a penalty double is not great, as we have at least a 4-3 fit at the 1-level, and there is enough uncertainty that a double is unlikely. An early commitment is better than a late escape. Finally if we don’t buy the auction, and I hope we don’t, our defence is will be more accurate.

The modern expert approach is that suit length is everything. So why the double?

Keith GeorgeAugust 30th, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Hi Bob,
Going back to your probability based approach, I suspect that even playing a lot at the top level you’d have to wait a long time for 4 instances of p 1D(Precision) x xx pass to occur,
and even the 1D is not definitive in terms of shape across partnerships, so there might be variation depending on that too. So I think unless there is a specific agreement you fall back on general principles in cases such as these.

What is reasonable to assume is that discussion of the possible hands for doubling this particular sort of 1D has occurred. Say an ‘opening hand with values in both majors, typically with at least one four card major but may also include some diamond length or else a stronger hand unable to overcall 1NT’. Doubler would expect partner to bid a 4 card major if he had one if responder passes.

When N answers the question Bob Hamman suspects was asked, N might well think
‘Yes partner will bid a 4 card major if she has one’, not thinking too hard what she would do with four cards in both majors, nor thinking hard about the redouble which now
simultaneously removes the penalty pass (unless specifically agreed) and removes the necessity to bid immediately with a poor hand and no clear bid.

Perhaps there could be a form of words for N to use in such circumstances, to say that
this sequence has not been specifically discussed and she would expect her partner to bid
similarly to any other expert with similar methods.

I do have some small sympathy with the Chinese in that I do feel that explanations given at the table to my questions are sometimes inadequate, but I normally think afterwards that I should have asked further questions which is what should have happened at the table here. W could have asked about the case with two four card majors,even if in logic she didn’t strictly need to. Surely W herself might have thought pass was reasonable on the S hand but that with others eg
S might bid 1H.

I looked at my copy of Roy Hughes’ “THe Contested Auction” p294 where he gives an example hand for doubling a Precision style 1D as:
treating 1D as almost totally artificial, but showing almost equally nebulous values at the lowest possible level. I know what he’d expect partner to do with the S hand after
1D x xx.

I am astonished at the penalty for ‘misinformation‘. If W had made 3NT as it seems she should on the lead and defence, then I doubt there would have been be a complaint. But logic says the misinformation was still there and NS should still be punished, and this really is the point you are making on the judgement of Solomon, EW were not really damaged anyway and yet N might have given a fuller explanation,

I was playing at my club recently when the following occurred. Vul versus playing 4 card majors I opened 1C (natural) and the bidding proceeded:
1C p 1D p
1H (1S) 3C p
3S p 3NT all pass

A spade was lead and 9 tricks were made. Overcaller had ST98xx HAQJ and said he expected partner to lead a heart, or else why hadn’t he overcalled 1S in the first place!
On a H lead 3NT would have gone down with a lead through declarer’s Kx.
I thought at the time this sequence must have happened quite a few times to me but I’d never wondered about that inference and I can’t recall anything about anyone’s hand except in this instance which was drawn to my attention.

bob mAugust 31st, 2014 at 12:35 am

Yes, I have often wondered why my partner made the lead he did when, from looking at my hand, it was obvious he should have chosen a different lead. Wasn’t he listening to my passes?

Jim PriebeSeptember 3rd, 2014 at 7:47 pm

I found this a most interesting discussion. A question I would add to the bunch is “What was declarer thinking?”
If her rho had no 4 card major, then her lho must have had 2 of them, yet chose to bid 2C. That sounds totally implausible.

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