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Staring at Your Opponent to Observe Tells

Staring at Your Opponent to Observe Tells

To some extent I will raise a number of issues involving questions of legality and ethics. I think of myself as being a generally ethical player, perhaps in top third. While I don’t pretend to be an expert on ethics and laws, I will occasionally express an opinion. I think a lot of bridge involves situations which fall into some gray area. I have some reasonably accurate thoughts on how and what information may be gained. How far you should or are allowed to go to get it, I will leave to others. A player must also be aware that even if he does nothing extra to gain information, his opponents might. In order to protect yourself and give nothing away, you must be prepared for most of the situations that typically arise.

In my previous post I made the following distinction: In poker tells can be divided into two broad categories. One category is those unconscious behaviors and mannerisms that inadvertently give away information. For example, acting nervous when you are worried about the last card dealt. The other category includes deliberate behaviors that are designed to create an impression, but which can be equally revealing.

There has been some discussion on BridgeWinners and in the ACBL Bulletin about the ethics (legality?) of staring at an opponent in order to pick up a tell. I don’t think this is specifically forbidden in the rules, but perhaps some of the rules of proper behavior can be interpreted as making this type of maneuver questionable. Most opponents realize when someone is staring out them. This causes some players to freeze and attempt to present a ‘poker-face,’ which gives nothing away. Most people will try to present misleading information. Even though bridge law forbids it, they will sometimes subtly and sometimes flagrantly try to lead you astray. Therefore I’d advise staring at an opponent only if you think you will be able to correctly decode his attempted deceit.

If you want to observe them, but avoid problems of interpreting behavior designed to fool you, don’t stare at them. Instead, if one wants to observe their honest behavior, one shouldn’t make it clear that they are under scrutiny, but instead should focus on your hand or the dummy, while observing them peripherally. Strangely enough, this is more likely to be acceptable conduct and more likely to give you true information. This method will allow you to observe natural behaviors.

There are obviously a lot of other ways of picking up information. Here is an old chestnut: You are declaring 7N with the following hands:


H A432 H KJT9

D K32 D AQ4

C K2 C A3

The opening lead is the Jd. You win in your hand and shoot back the Js, carefully watching you LHO. After cashing some winners to get a count, you later you return to your hand and fire out the Jh. If LHO reacts differently (slower or faster or whatever) you assume he has the Q, since you already know how he reacts without it. Is this type of play, designed to elicit a tell, considered unethical or inappropriate?

Another situation in which you might try to pick up a tell: you are playing a suit contract and have the following holding in a side suit: KT4 in dummy opposite your J3. You win the opening lead and quickly play the 3 of this suit, and watch West’s reaction. Here you are using tempo to gain information.

In poker, it is quite common to ask you opponents a question in the middle of the hand. You are hoping that either their answer or their behavior will reveal something. As bridge systems, understandings, agreements and carding methods have become more diverse, players frequently exercise their option of asking questions. As in poker, you may not care about the actual answer, but you want to see how both opponents react to the question. Does which one chooses to answer reveal something? (Is it ethical to ask purely to derail an opponent’s line of thought or to create a small distraction as you show out by playing a heart on diamonds and quickly turn your card face down? Probably not.)

Kibitzers also present a very reliable source of tells. It is almost always correct to assume the spectators who are more interested in a hand are observing the player with the missing points. There have been cases when the play in a trump suit like AQxxxx opposite JTxxx (6-5 missing the K) become clear based after LHO follows small to the J. If his kibitzers have lost interest, play for the drop. If they are intent, take the finesse.

Another situation in which information may be revealed is watching how players arrange their cards and how they adjust the arrangement as cards are played. You aren’t supposed to be watching and they aren’t supposed to deliberately attempt to mislead you, but it is pretty normal to look at the opponent whose turn it is to play. It is also hard to keep from noticing where in his hand he picked the card he is playing, especially if it was on the end. What if a card is played and then he makes a major shift of the remaining cards? There is a clear inference that the card played was the last of a suit, and that he has reorganized his hand into some sort of red-black-red layout. There are many more situations in which information may be picked up. Players with excellent ‘table feel’ are often capable of intuiting a situation almost unconsciously, just as some live poker players have an accurate feel for when their opponent is bluffing.

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