By Bill Michael, Tournament Director from Colorado

I have received a lot of questions about what calls are alertable. I’m going to talk generically about alerts, then address a couple of specific examples. When discussing alertability, it is important to keep in mind the intent behind the alert procedure. Throughout this article, the term “announcement” equates to “alert,” so when I say “failure to alert,” read it as “failure to alert, or announce.”

The ACBL Alert procedure is prefaced with the following: “The objective of the Alert system is for both pairs at the table to have equal access to all information contained in any auction.” It further discusses in greater detail that the ethical player will practice “full disclosure.” This is a two-way street as well. Experienced players are expected to protect themselves when an opposing pair fails to follow the alert procedure, and the “non-offending” pair should probably be aware that the opponents are failing in their full disclosure duties. Failing to clarify a situation, hoping that the opponents are having a disaster may reduce or eliminate your protection under the laws. For example, if an auction begins 1NT - P - 2H (no alert, no announcement) and the next hand, holding AQxxx of hearts doesn’t look at the opponents’ convention card or ask if they are playing transfers he is gambling and will have to live with the results, even if he is damaged because of the failure to alert. The director may choose to assign a two-way ruling - not protecting those players who should have but didn’t protect themselves, but not allowing the pair that failed in its duty to alert to profit from that failure.

Generally speaking, natural calls are not alertable. Most doubles and passes are also not alertable. As a rule of thumb, calls become alertable only when they carry a meaning that would not be obvious to a hypothetical outside observer. Negative inferences are not alertable; this is most easily shown using the example of support doubles: When the opponents bid at the one or two level after your side opens the bidding and responds one of a major - e.g., 1C - P - 1H - 1S or 1H - P - 1S -2D - opener doubles if he has three card support and only bids two of responder’s major if he has four card support (with less than three card support opener passes or bids something else). Of these three calls - 2H, pass, and double - which is alertable and why? The 2H bid is not alertable. An outside observer would expect four card support - there is nothing that your partnership knows that another player wouldn’t be expected to know. Neither is pass alertable, although many people mistakenly believe that it is because it absolutely denies holding even three card support. While there is some force to this argument, our hypothetical outside observer would not expect that the passer had more than three card support, with three card support occurring only very rarely. That pass denies three or more card support is a negative inference and therefore is not alertable. The only alertable call is the double. It “artificially” shows three card support. Our outside observer would expect that the double is penalty for spades. (If you are playing it not as support, but as a responsive type of double - takeout of spades and hearts, that would be a different, but still an alertable meaning.)

If you’re in doubt whether something you play is alertable, please consult with your director. If you and your director can’t decide, then it probably is. The ACBL publishes an alert chart, and an alert pamphlet - both are available online at Take the time to download these and familiarize yourselves with them. The last refuge in answering whether to alert a call is this: it is a far smaller sin to alert a non-alertable call than to not alert an alertable one.

Let’s look at two more examples: Suppose you open one if a major and partner jumps to three of a new suit, natural but not forcing. If the jump to the three level is by an unpassed hand it is alertable - the expectation would be that it is a forcing bid. By a passed hand, the expected normal treatment of a jump shift is a “maximum passed hand,” so it falls right into the definition of “natural but not forcing,” and does not require an alert. Suppose you open in third or fourth seat (so partner is a passed hand) and responder jump shifts, showing the suit he jumped in plus a fit. Here the jump shift is alertable. Although the jump shift is natural, it carries the additional, totally hidden meaning that responder has support for opener’s suit. The only way that an opponent would know about this secondary meaning is through an alert.

Another issue it’s important to understand is when to call the director if there has been a failure to alert, or a misexplanation. The timing is carefully spelled out in the laws and, once you understand the logic behind that timing, you shouldn’t ever get it wrong. If your partner has failed to alert, or misexplained one of your bids, you are required to call the director and state what the problem is. The time to call the director depends on whether your side is declaring or defending. In no case should you call the director during a live auction for your partner’s mistake.

If your side is defending, you are required to wait to call the director until after the hand has been played out. The logic is this - your partner may be confused as to your agreements. You are not allowed to do anything to “wake him up.” Stating that he has failed to alert or misexplained one of your calls unfortunately falls into the category of “waking him up.” He isn’t to be brought into the loop until the hand is over - as a defender he is still an active part of the hand.

If your side is declaring, however, you are required to call the director and correct a mistaken explanation (or failure to alert) before the opening lead is made. The logic behind the timing here is that as the declaring side your partner is either dummy or declarer. If your partner is dummy, he’s out of it, so it doesn’t matter if he is awoken or continues to slumber. If your partner is declarer, he’s going to see the combined assets of the partnership anyway, so, again, it doesn’t matter if you wake him up, he’ll see your hand shortly.

Conversely, if you realize that you have made a mistaken explanation, or failed to alert one (or more) of your partner’s calls you should stop the action, and call the director immediately. Don’t wait until your turn to bid or play.

It is in your own best interest to follow these guidelines; they offer the best chance of avoiding a negative adjustment or, in some cases, a penalty for failing to follow proper procedure.
Play hard, but fair, and have fun.

See you at the table.

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