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How you handle your cards is important in protecting yourself from unscrupulous players. There are a lot of sleazy ways to glean information from other players, and in serious events it's best to take whatever measures you can to ensure your own safety. Here are some of the ways unethical players can get information that they shouldn't have access to.

If you don't shuffle your hand at the end of a deal, the next player to pick up your hand can often determine what happened at your table. For example, let's say you are dealt a balanced 10-count at teams and hear three passes to you. You pass and return your hand into the duplicate tray without shuffling it. When you send the board over to the other table, the player in your seat can easily figure out what happened at your table, particularly if it goes Pass-Pass-Pass to him. Let's say his team is way ahead in the match. He can simply pass to avoid a swing. If his team is behind, he may decide to open it for a swing, knowing that your table passed it out.

This sort of deduction can also happen when a hand is played. If the hand is fairly unshuffled, there's a good chance that a claim was made early on. Sometimes a player can even see what happened, trick by trick, at the previous table. So it's a good habit, which becomes automatic after time, to give your hand a thorough shuffle after every board.

Another means of protecting yourself is to not sort your hand when you pick it up. Shuffle it a few times to randomize it, if you want, but when you pick it up just count out your pattern and points. This way, your opponents can't make any deductions about your hand when you pull a card from the left end, middle, or right end. Because normally, when an unethical player sees his opponents sorting their hands, he can assume they are sorting by suit. Now let's say the unethical player declares a hand, and his LHO leads a high spade that looks like a singleton. Is it one? If the unethical player was watching where she pulled it from her hand, he may have a clue. Here is a crude diagram.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Assume that each of these numbers represents one card in LHO's hand. Cards 1 and 13 represent the cards at either end of her hand. If she leads card 1 or 13, she might be leading a singleton. But if she leads card 2 or card 12, it is very unlikely that she is leading a stiff. Because if she sorted her hand by suits and card 2 or 12 is a stiff, card 1 or card 13, respectively, must also be a stiff. This is the kind of information you want to avoid offering your opponents.

It takes time to get used to having an unsorted hand, but after a while it is surprisingly easy. You don't have to bother leaving your hand unsorted in a four-table club game, but in big events that you are serious about, leaving your hand unsorted will offer some protection from anyone out there who tries to watch where you pull your cards from.

A friend of mine doesn't agree with me. He says he simply puts his singletons in the center of his hand. In my opinion, that's a superficial solution. An observant opponent will take notice after one hand, and the next time my friend makes an opening lead with a card toward either end of his hand, what will his opponent know? That it's probably not a stiff. And these types of deductions aren't limited to sniffing out singletons. Let's say you lead the second-to-last card in your hand (the 2 or 12 in the above example), and it is a king. If declarer doesn't have the queen or ace, he can probably place you with the ace. Because for a king to be the second-to-last card in your hand, you're either leading from AKx (where the ace is card 3 or 11), or AK(any length), where the ace is card #1 or 13. The only other possibilities are KQ tight and king-doubleton.

I was lucky enough to kibitz the American expert Eddie Wold once, and he not only kept his cards unsorted, he had them very tight together. This made kibitzing tough (on top of it all he played very rapidly), but it's a good, sensible practice. The closer you keep your cards together, the less surface area your opponents can "accidentally" glimpse. It's also a good idea to keep your hand close to you, and to make sure your body isn't too close to the table. Holding your hand like a spread fan away from your body isn't such a hot idea.

Finally, there's a matter of using tempo, which can often determine what an opponent's holding in a suit is. For example, let's say you are defending a 3NT contract and make your opening lead. Declarer yawns and starts to play his cards very rapidly. Don't get caught up in declarer's fast tempo, because if you do, you will start fingering the card you expect to play before declarer plays before you. Let's give declarer this suit layout:

A K 9

Q T 5 2

The sleazy declarer rapidly calls for the ace and quickly drops the two as soon as RHO plays. Next he calls for the king and again plays immediately from his hand. Now he calls for the nine, and as soon as RHO follows suit, declarer looks at you. Are you playing in declarer's rapid-fire tempo, with your fingers already on the jack? If so, declarer plays the queen from hand. If you've been playing in tempo and don't have your fingers on a card, and haven't had to make a discard yet, the chances are this suit is breaking 4-2. Like all of the underhanded "techniques" I've described, this one is pretty tough to punish. You can call the director and say, "Declarer was looking at my hand, trying to determine how the suit broke," but what director is going to punish a player for innocently glancing in your direction? The point here is to play your cards in an even tempo, and to not have your fingers on a card until it's time for you to play one.

Unfortunately there are a lot of ways you can get cheated at the bridge table, and I'm sure there are more ways you can protect yourself than the ones I have thought up here. (Incidentally, most or nearly all cheaters seem to be male.) But fortunately, the vast majority of players are (fairly) ethical. I am certainly not an expert on cheating or on cheating prevention, and moreover the above suggestions are only that — suggestions, for serious tournament play. In normal, social bridge, it doesn't really matter how you sort or shuffle your hand. But in the tournament world, it doesn't hurt to protect yourself as best as possible.