The Director arrives at the table to be greeted by: “He played a card and then went to change it!”. “No I didn’t, I thought of playing a card and decided on a different one.”
What are the rules (Laws) that apply to played cards?
Different Rules for Declarer and Defenders
For some Laws there is a very important distinction between what applies to declarer and what applies to a defender. As most of you know, neither Declarer nor Dummy have Penalty cards. This is based on the principle that the only players that can possibly benefit from seeing declarer’s cards are the defenders (and Dummy’s are always on display!). However, if one defender sees a card of his partner’s (or similarly, sees a bid out of turn, etc.), he gains information that may assist in the defense and as a consequence, declarer may be damaged.
How Does This Apply To a “Played Card”?
If the defenders get a glimpse of one of declarer’s cards (because he held it so it could be seen, not because they peeked!), they are the only ones who will benefit. What the rules say is that declarer’s intent is what is important.
If he says he is playing a card (e.g. calls for a card from dummy) or touches one of dummy’s cards as if to play it, then the card is played. Otherwise, a card from his hand is not played unless it appears played. That is, he places it face-up on the table, holds it touching (“or nearly touching”) the table so its face can be seen, or holds it in a way that clearly indicates he has played it. Whether one or both defenders can see the card is irrelevant.
On the other hand, when a defender holds a card so it is possible for his partner to see its face, if he was looking, then the card is considered played. It is irrelevant whether his partner actually did see the card — what the Law says, is could see. One of the guidelines given to directors by the ACBL says that if both dummy and declarer could see (and name) a card a defender detached from his hand, then it is likely that his partner could see it as well (if he were looking).
Basically the Law is stricter for defenders than for declarer.
Many defenders appear blissfully unaware that when they detach a card from their hand, put it back and play another, they are conveying unauthorized information to their partners. For example, when following suit a defender who fingers one card and then another is essentially conveying that he is uncertain about his play to the current trick (perhaps he can win or duck a trick) and that he holds more than one card in the suit.
So, just as you can avoid conveying UI by not reaching for the bidding box until you have decided on your call, don’t detach a card from your hand until you have decided on your play. It will avoid conveying UI and will avoid issues over whether you played a card or not.