Is there anything more entertaining in Bridge than watching a good old fashioned “Break in Tempo” infraction being processed? It starts with that blood curdling scream for the Director, the arrival of the director at the table with great pomp and circumstance, the allegations and accusations of high crimes that flow seem to rise to the level of sexual assault or worse. This is followed by fervent denials that no break in tempo occurred since partner always takes 30 seconds to fidget and pass, and finally that these miscreant opponents would not know a Tempo Break if they saw one. Well it’s entertaining unless you are involved. Let’s look at a few issues that create misunderstanding:
(i) Is a Break in Tempo clearly defined under the Laws of Bridge: No. Whether a break in tempo occurred is not a matter of law but rather, a question of fact, there is no bright line test. If you read some of the appeals you will see that this is a “facts and circumstances” test that takes into consideration many factors, including the skill of the players. In club games I believe in restraint if the players possess less skill and have less experience. The novice you beat up on today will be the missing half table next week.
(ii) How about ethics? Unless it is done with the intention of passing unauthorized information, players have every right to take the time they need to make a decision. I think it is safe to say that less than 1% of the Tempo Breaks are intentional. Bridge is a difficult game that requires difficult decisions that are not always susceptible to “in tempo” responses.
(iii) So What is the big deal? You can break tempo, but in doing you will be deemed to have passed unauthorized information to your partner. Partner is not barred from the auction, but you will have put serious handcuffs on his continuing action in the auction. Partner must now choose from among the “logical alternatives” available to him the action that is least suggested by the break in tempo. Mostly those alternatives are pass or bid, but they can also include whether to pull partner’s double or leave it in or make a sacrifice at a higher level. This is the decision the director will make, but if you are aware of your obligations you can you can make a selection that will minimize your risk of using the unauthorized information and the resulting damage. And by the way, passing is not always safe if that alternative was suggested by partner’s hesitation.
(iv) Are we destined to be Penalized on this Board? Not at all. In most cases the director will wait until the completion of the board or later to make a decision. An adjusted score will only be awarded if the director concludes that your fellow competitors suffered some damage as a result of the unauthorized information. In most cases the directors conclude that no damage has occurred and the board will be scored as played. As a practical matter, most infractions result in a “no damage” conclusion, especially ones that occur early in the auction.
(v) What’s new? In bridge if it happened within 10 years it is new. In the 2008 update of the Laws a procedural change was made providing an alternative way to deal with tempo breaks. If you decide that a break in tempo has occurred by your opponents, all you need to do is ask them in a civil tone if they agree that there has been a break in tempo. If they concur, then the auction and play can continue to the end of the hand and there is no immediate need to call the director. At least in club games, if your opponents think a break in tempo occurred, it probably did. As you can imagine, this often breaks down into a "he-says she-says" disagreement to be settled by a director who was on the other side of the room eating a brownie or replenishing the coffee. If you are waiting for the director to say that there was not a hesitation, don’t hold your breath.
At the end of the play if the offended parties believe that there has been actual damage resulting from the unauthorized information, then director can then be called to settle the issue. If it is agreed that no damage has occurred, you have avoided a director call with all the resulting trimmings.
Still, this procedure is elective and if you want to get the director to the table that is your right. My experience with the alternative procedure is that it works well, saves time, avoids lack of continuity in the play, circumvents potential acrimony and avoids disruption.
In writing this post I am not attempting to discourage tempo calls. At clubs, I think players for the most part are indulgent in an effort not to intimidate their fellow competitors with what are nothing more than tactical calls. At Sectionals, Regionals and Nationals, don’t expect this courtesy. Knowing your rights is being prepared.
(vi) And now the disclaimer. I am not the first person to write on this subject, there is ample material on the internet, and I have benefitted from the writing of others, especially my sometimes partner, Jim Thomas, who directs for the ACBL I am not a director and do not profess to be an expert on the Bridge Laws. If I have made mistakes, let’s hope they are small ones and are counterbalanced by the value of my main message.