I could never seem to follow the rules to my big sister's games. She would invent these sports that involved throwing balls at objects (only occasionally at me) or scoring goals or finding things. I would always think that I was winning, only to discover that I had violated some rule, like I didn't hop on every third step or had thrown the ball with my right hand.
One time, I thought I had at long last learned all of the rules and played perfectly. I was in the middle of a victory dance when my sister broke the bad news: it was opposite day!
Bridge is almost as complicated a game as the ones my sister devised. At least in bridge, the rules should be relatively consistent. That doesn't mean that you have to read the rulebook… that’s why we have directors. That said, you should be aware of how the rules can affect your play. After going on a Regional at Sea which featured "Ask a Director", I have some key takeaways.
1) Directors are there to help
Too many people worry that it looks rude to call a director over. They worry that they are calling the director on the opponents and that this will seem mean. In response to this fear, director David Metcalf said, “I have never been called 'on someone'. I am called to the table.” Directors are there to help with irregularities. If something strange has happened or might happen, call the director to help out. You should go out of your way not to make rulings of your own, this is like defending yourself in court or cutting your own hair—sure it might work out, but often things will be worse. Make sure you do this politely, and remember that all directors have the same last name: "please".
2) What do you do when something goes wrong with the alerts?
The alert system is complicated and it can change from time to time. That said, remember the point of alerts: alerts are designed to help the OPPONENTS understand the auction. We alert our partner’s bid (never our own) in order to allow the opponents to know that a bid isn't natural. If you aren’t sure whether a convention is alertable, it’s always good to err on the side of alerting. Remember that when you alert all you do is say alert (and use the alert card in the bidding box to help those people with hearing problems). Only explain a bid’s meaning if asked.
3) What do I do if my partner gives incorrect information?
If your partner makes a mistaken explanation, and you are the declaring side, correct the explanation before a lead is made. If you are the defenders, you should tell your opponents after the play has concluded that partner gave a wrong explanation. If your partner gives an explanation and you realize that the explanation is right, but your bid was wrong then you might call a director to help you out. The rule is that A) You should bid like you never heard your partner's information and B) You do not have to tell the opponents what is in your hand.
4) What do I do if I’m not sure what my opponents' bids mean?
Bridge is a game where we are entitled to know everything the opponents know. If your opponent makes a bid that might be weak or strong and they don’t alert (or even if they do) you can ask what it means when it’s your turn to bid. Don’t be embarrassed for not knowing something. If their explanation of what a bid means is just to say the name of a convention: Michaels, Cappelletti, Jacoby, Jordan, etc., and that means nothing to you, you should ask to explain what it actually shows. If it doesn't matter to you what your opponents' bids mean, because you aren't about to bid or make a lead directing double, you are better off waiting until the auction is completed to ask any questions.
5) What do I do if I'm not sure what my partner's bid means?
Don't say anything! If asked, you can answer that you aren't sure. The director may have to get involved to sort out the issue, but that's why they get the big bucks. Don't give any incorrect information if you can avoid it. A simple, "We haven't discussed this auction," is best if you don't know. If you have discussed it, then say "I forget," and the the director may be able to help by taking you away from the table and letting the opponents ask partner.
6) A director just told me something that sounds very different from what I heard before. How do I know what's right?
You always have a right to ask to see the lawbook. Even if a director doesn't have it on them, they can look up the relevant law on the ACBL's website here. Some situations can seem similar but are very different. For instance, there's a big difference between a defender accidentally failing to follow suit (and realizing it immediately) and the same thing happening to declarer. Similarly, there's a large difference between making a mistaken bid (a bid that doesn't follow your agreements) and making a mistaken explanation (an explanation that doesn't follow your agreement). While some players think that a director is after them, the truth is that the laws are clear about specific situations and a director should be able to help a player understand why a particular ruling was made.
If you want more detailed explanations of how to behave ethically, check out Larry's series on ethics and cheating in bridge here.