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What Are We Going To Do About Slow Play?

Slow play is going to kill high-level bridge. I love bridge. I love competing at the highest levels. But it's gotten to the point that I hate playing in national events, especially the most prestigious ones. This is entirely due to slow play.

In the finals of the Mitchell Open BAM in San Francisco we were following a very slow pair. They finished 3+ minutes into the next round at least 5 or 6 times. Once the clock was in single digits. Another time, the directors allowed them to start the second board of the round with one minute on the clock. The online recaps do not have a field for penalties (huh?), so I don't know if they were penalized.

Pairs like this are playing by a different set of rules. Bridge is a timed game; you have an allotted amount of time to play your boards, and that's it. You don't get to go over that, or you need to be penalized. This is so obvious in any sport, why are we so fuzzy about it in bridge? Basketball has a shot clock: you have a set amount of time in which to run your play and shoot. If you don't accomplish this in the allotted time, you receive a penalty. Same in football: you have to get the play started within a certain amount of time or you are penalized.

In theory bridge has penalties for time violations, but they are applied so sparingly and randomly that they do not discourage slow play. It's not fair to the field when some players are getting more time to think about the hands. Imagine if one team in a basketball game had a 24-second shot clock and the other had as long as they wanted to shoot.

It's not fair to the tournament directors to have to enforce these rules. Players are understandably upset when they are told they are being warned or penalized for slow play, since most people get away with it. And it's always someone else's fault that you're late! We need to track slow play automatically.

In a limited way, we already have that capability. Every result that comes in from the BridgeMates includes a time stamp. We know how long each board is taking. (Or at least how long it takes to get a score entered, which of course isn't always the same thing.) We know what time every table is finishing a round. (Again, entering the final score.) We might not know why a specific late incident occurred--it could be either pair's fault. But over time we get a record and can establish which pairs are chronically slow. If I am late during two rounds against pairs A and B but I'm on time the rest of them, and pairs A and B are late eight or nine rounds of the session, I think it's safe to assume that my two late rounds were not my fault. If you are chronically slow, you lose all benefit of the doubt.

Tracking overall tempo over time is useful, but it won't do anything to stop the ridiculous tanks, which are a huge part of the problem. I believe it is incredibly rare that you find a better solution to a problem in minute 4 than you did in minute 1. You might consider more information the longer you think, or have time to crunch some numbers, but there really aren't very many situations that require more than a minute or two of thought. Even if you can get to a better answer in five minutes than you can in one, you shouldn't be able to. For the sake of everyone at the table, not to mention the people who may be watching on VuGraph, you shouldn't be able to tank for that long. Bridge is a timed game, and you should be rewarded for making your decisions in a timely manner and penalized for taking longer.

Here's my suggestion: There is a mandatory pause at trick 1, where everyone can think. To throw some specific numbers out there, let's say at least 30 seconds, up to 3 minutes, no penalties. From that point on, any given stop in play while someone thinks can be a maximum of 1 minute. And an individual player can use only a total of 3 minutes thinking time for the entire hand. Going over these limits results in automatic IMP/matchpoint penalties. The specific numbers can be tweaked, and perhaps we afford a little more time for game and slam contracts at IMPs. But that's the general idea.

How we monitor this is the big hurdle, since we don't currently have the capability. Chess clocks are one option, but they create a burden; we want something automatic. I think cameras are the solution. There was a system tested years ago at the world championships in the Netherlands that never went anywhere. Technology has come a long way since then, so it should be trivial at this point to parse and track bidding and play from a camera mounted above the table. RFID chips in bidding and playing cards is another possible solution. I like cameras better, since it doesn't mean replacing existing equipment and also helps combat cheating.

Whatever the practical solutions, we need to do something.

Maybe you disagree with that sentiment. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Maybe you like snail-paced bridge. We could have both. Chess has different types of games differentiated by the time allotted on the clock -- "Standard," "Rapid," "Blitz," "Bullet." Bridge has "fast pairs," though many of us consider this event the "reasonably paced pairs." And no major events are conducted at this pace. Imagine a Spingold where you had 6 minutes per board. Would that change the game? Of course. It would give an advantage to those who play and think quickly. That's a skill. We should have events that reward that. Not exclusively. But we should give those of us who want a faster-paced game events worth playing.

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