Last update: 14 March 2021 Polling & Comments

Fair Play in 42 Tournaments
(Approximately 10% of polled players have participated in 42 tournaments)
INTRODUCTION: The vast majority of 42 players are honest people who enjoy playing with others who also have a passion for the game.  Experienced players have a keen sense of perception, and their skills in playing are often rewarded when they play less experienced players.  When equally matched, the luck of the draw usually determines the outcome of a game.  This is what makes 42 such an intriguing game.  A few players, however, wittingly or unwittingly, benefit from advantages over their opponents via questionable and unethical practices discussed in this document.  Remedial considerations are addressed.

BRIDGE VERSUS 42: The American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) states: "A major tenet of active ethics (in Bridge) is the principle of full disclosure.  This means that all information available to your partnership must be made available to your opponents."  In contrast, 42 partners do not have to share information with their opponents.  As such, tournament partners are sometimes creative (and unethical) in how they communicate with each other without their opponents being aware of the communications.

To safeguard against unfair practices in sanctioned 42 tournaments, the National 42 Players Association (N42PA) does not allow information-sharing between partners during the bidding process or play action on the board: "Players shall not provide any physical cues or verbal statements (talking across the table) to their partner."  There is no rule, however, that says that tournament players cannot explain to their opponents any uncommon indicating systems used during competition.

DISCUSSION: The domino game 42 is often compared to and has similarities to the card game Bridge.  Both are trick-taking games, have four players (partnered pairs), bidding, and trumps.

Differences between the two games include the following:
      • Bridge uses playing cards; 42 uses domino tiles.
      • Bridge has four optional trump suits; 42 has eight optional trump suits.
      • In Bridge, the bid can go around the table more than once.
      • Bridge players use bidding conventions, and all players at the table know their meanings.
      • In Bridge, the partner of the high bidder does not play (cards exposed for play by the bidder).

In sanctioned 42 tournaments, there are no bidding conventions per se.  Since "talking across the table" (verbal cues) is a no-no, players often resort to common, questionable, or unethical playing practices:

      • Subtle body language, e.g., hovering over or touching an unplayed domino, pointing when pushing a domino, placement of dominos, left and right hand indications, clearing throat, rubbing nose, pulling an ear, pauses, and other intentional (and unethical) hidden-meaning gestures and sounds.

      • Indicating doubles during play action on the board (common practices):
            1. Sluffing a double to indicate the next highest domino in that suit is held.
            2. Sluffing a domino whose high end indicates the double in that suit is held.

      • Private bidding communications between partners that have specific meanings, e.g., a 30-bid to indicate the bidder has three or more doubles and can indicate at least one of them, a 33-bid meaning the bidder has the double-five, and other unethical schemes to indicate specific information to one's partner that the opponents might not be privy to. (Bidding 30 to indicate a generic helping hand is common practice.)

      • Familiarity with playing styles between partners is a significant advantage because both players in a recurring partnership have observed each other's bidding and playing patterns over a period of time.  This advantage is inherent in tournaments when players regularly play with the same partners.  Full disclosure does not encompass familiarity of playing styles between partners; however, the assignment of random partners in each round minimizes these advantages.

Each of the above items has its downside or legitimate purpose, i.e., some are unfair and others may or may not be good playing form.  For example, sluffing a domino whose high end indicates the double in that suit might be unwise.  False indications can occur when a sluff is not an intended indicator.  On the other hand, sluffing a double to indicate the next highest domino in that suit can be an effective indication since a player would not normally sluff a double unless he is holding the next highest domino in that suit.

Bidding 30 to indicate specific information to one's partner, e.g., number of doubles or a specific domino in the bidder's hand, is unethical unless all four players at the table are privy to that information.  Same with other show-bids.  Though difficult to enforce, most tournaments do not tolerate these practices.

The general rule in 42 tournaments regarding fair play is simple: No verbal communications or physical cues between partners that have anything to do with the hand being bid or played.  Indicating and bidding signals, if prearranged and whose meanings are not known to the opposing team, are considered unfair.  All players at the table should be able to interpret behavior without either team having an unfair advantage.

Bottom Line: If the intent of a tournament player is to communicate specific information about his hand to his partner (other than legal indications), then it's unethical.  It doesn't matter if that's how he learned to play the game or how others play where he comes from.  If he resorts to subtle indicating practices known only to his partner, it's an unfair advantage against the opposing team if they cannot deduce the true meaning when first observed.

CLOSING: Social 42 players have some latitude in their playing styles provided all four players at the table are aware of the indications (or can readily deduce their meanings).  In tournament play, however, the rules are not flexible.  This is necessary to ensure a level playing field for all participating players.

Some 42 players have adopted rules that conform to Bridge rules regarding full disclosure, e.g., "In Tuscaloosa, indicator bids and plays are an important part of the game.  We call them 'signal' bids and plays.  But, to make it fair play, everyone, including your opposition, must know what indicator bidding and playing system you are using.  As long as all players know, it is totally fair.  It is not fair only if the opposition is not informed of your system."

No subterfuge is needed in applying the above example of full disclosure; however, it changes the traditional game of 42 such that existing rules would have to be amended to accommodate the practice.  Most 42 players might not embrace this concept as an improvement in the game since it does not completely eliminate the inherent advantage of prearranged bidding and indicating signals.  If this is the case, then it behooves the leadership in the 42 community to publish a code of ethics which effectively addresses improper player conduct in formal tournament settings.

Another method tried that can help level the playing field in tournaments is the random selection of partners in each round of the competition.  It might not be popular with some players, but it would certainly limit the ability of regular partners to exercise uncommon and mutually understood indications.  It also minimizes familiarity with playing styles between recurring partnerships.  The logistics and methodology need refinement, but the process is doable.

Last, but not least, special thanks go to the tournament players who reviewed the draft of this document and offered noteworthy comments and constructive criticism.  And, for the reader who wishes to add his/her two bits to this discussion on 42 tournaments, you are invited to participate in the following surveys and send your comments via e-mail.  Pertinent representative comments will be posted anonymously in reverse order received, in the listing following the survey forms below.

Paul Proft, 8 June 2010


Revised document 23 Sep 2016:  Bidding & Indicatng in 42 Tournaments

Added 4 Jul 2012: Some players believe that indicating doubles during play action on the board is cheating (because it has to be prearranged); however, many streetwise players recognize it as a common practice and use their knowledge to help defeat their opponents. Some even opt to use it when partnered with equally savvy players. (It can be learned via observation without any prior agreements.) Other players think indicating is bad form and is too risky to be reliable (false indications). Dennis Roberson makes a pretty good case about this in his commentary.   - PP

10 May 2012: Added Comment #33 (link to archived blog).   - PP

2 Apr 2012: Added fair play survey question (below)   - PP

24 Mar 2012: Added another difference between 42 and Bridge (above). The "dummy" hand in Bridge can be another consideration for minimizing creative bidding indications in 42 (reference). Also added strength bidding link to Comment #8. Eliminate partnerships (Comment #30)?  - PP

27 Feb 2012 addendum: The mechanics for doing it need to be worked out, but the novel idea of silent bidding (concealed written bids addressed in Comment #31 below) also has merit and can certainly be considered in attempts to minimize show-bidding and other prearranged indications used by some "creative" playing partners.   - PP

14 Mar 2021: The National 42 Players Association amended the N42PA rules on 27 Sep 2019 and defined "talking across the table" to include private agreements between partners away from the table (Rule #17). - PP

Random Partners Survey Question

Would you participate in a 42 tournament in which
your partners would be selected on a random basis?
Fair Play Survey Question

Bidding in the 32-34 range to indicate the relative strength of a player's helping hand sometimes occurs when 30 has already been bid, and an opponent also has a helping hand that he wants to indicate to his partner. This is fairly common in some locations; however, some players believe it is show-bidding and disapprove of the practice. Others believe it is no different from a generic helping hand 30-bid as long as it doesn't indicate specific information.

Is it fair play to bid in the 32-34 range to indicate
a generic helping hand to your partner?

(message extracts)

Send your comment(s)

33.  Archive on fair play (archived): Back in 2005 when discussions on indicating in 42 were becoming more open, a 42 purist stated his position in a blog at The blog and comments posted by others demonstrate the diversity of opinions at the time on the subject.  - PP, May 2012

32.  Fair play: "Any bids are indicating some kind of strength of a hand. Most players will not bid unless they feel they have a bid-able hand. Which in most cases they have some kind of trumps (usually at least 3) and one to two doubles. Their bid indicates the strength of the hand and/or how much they can lose without going set. I don't agree with bidding 33-34 to indicate a helping hand. I feel that is a type of show bidding because I think it would require some kind of communication to your partner that 33 or 34 bids were in fact an indication of help! How would a person know when the player was bidding to inform his partner of a helping hand or a hand that he wanted to play? In most cases, I would tend to believe that the player had a strong bidding hand when they bid that high. Now based on the fact that a player bid anything would be an indication of some kind of trumps (usually at least 3) and one or two doubles and with that knowledge, a partner could assume that their bidding indicates a hand that could help your hand if you decided to overbid your partner or overbid an opponent that had overbid your partner's 33 or 34 bid."

This comment was received in response to the fair play survey question above.  - PP

31.  Fair play: "...'Show' or 'call' bidding is simply providing information about your hand that your partner should not have. Heck, there is enough information given out by real bids that cheating bids are pointless (and often a hindrance). The best way to bid a game would be to have everyone write their name and a bid... highest bid wins. Any subsequent '84' after the first gets 42 added to it. Basically a 'Silent Auction 42.'  ... if two or more bids are the same, the first (in bidding order) gets that bid, the rest are treated as a pass. This pushes folks to bid their hand, and not just bid for the sake of bidding."

30.  Fair play & partner familiarity: "One way to eliminate indicating and familiarity between partners is to (eliminate partnerships). All four players sitting at the table would be opponents, and the minimum bid might be less than 30. The traditional mystique of the game would suffer a setback, but the outcome would lend itself more to individual playing skills."

29.  Fair play: "I don't believe that players will lay out their conventions for all to see. For instance: I had one player tell me that when he bid 84, he wanted to play his hand, but if he bid 2 marks, he wanted me to take him off. The problem with this style is that he had to tell me what I was to do, which is considered cheating!"

28.  Open disclosure: "If you aren't cheating then your convention should be put on the table along with the other teams so that everyone is privy to the info."

27.  Fair play: "Should somebody bid an unprompted 32, 33, 37, or 38 they are EXPECTING to be outbid by their partner. I, for one, believe that those four bids should be outlawed unless they are a +1 to the current bid. There is absolutely no way to plan to make any of those exactly as they all involve losing a majority of the tricks while catching all of the count."

26.  Fair play: "Not everyone uses the same definition of show bid. Some people mean it shows a specific domino or set of dominoes. Others mean it shows a general feature (like a supporting hand of any sort)."

25.  Fair play: "The general rule on show bidding vs cheating is that if a specific bid means a specific something then it's cheating, but indicator/show bids that give strength types of biddings have continued to be considered legal as long as it doesn't mean something specifically (and I can't fathom how anyone could justify ruling that otherwise)."

24.  Random partners: "... the true measure of a player's skill is how well they play with many different partners rather than how well they know the habits, or signals, of one in particular."

23.  Fair play: "When I have a helping hand and 30 is not available, I'll bid 34. The idea being that if I am raised by the opponent's bid of 35, my partner will be more likely to attempt a 36 bid with a marginal hand. If my hand is not so helpful, I'll push it up to 35 so that my partner will be looking at 37 with that marginal hand, and that makes it less likely they will bid looking to me for help. This influences by partner's bidding without me telling them anything about what's going on."

22.  Random partners: "Per Item 20, that is a problem when a random partner is kept the whole time. The random partner each round gives no one the advantage or disadvantage. One time, you may have a weak partner, but the next time a strong partner."

21.  Fair play: "This practice is especially prolific in (playing 42 online). A standard code of ethics, including disallowing indicator bids, or requiring full disclosure of said indicators prior to tournament play, would go a long way to improving the fairness and competitive balance in such a lawless medium as the internet."

Original reference replaced by parenthetic content.  - PP

20.  Random partners: "I have played in tournaments w/random partnering. They are good to an extent. I have only played in one T that I got a partner that had never played at all in their life and it was tuff to play because they had no clue of how the game went or the object of the game. Other than that most people know how to play so random wouldn't be too bad."

19.  Random partners: "Your point about random tournaments may be misleading. Playing random rounds with different partners works well in groups that are at least familiar with each other. The interesting part is the weaker players rapidly increase in skill level in that type of group. The true test of a 42 tournament player may be a duplicate tournament where all the players play exactly the same dominoes ie: 5 tables and player A,B,C, and D all play the same dominoes and at the end if the day compare the scores. It has been my experience that good Players will not travel 2 blocks to play with folks they have never met and that is what a random Tournament is asking of their participants."

18.  Fair play: "There is a big 42 tournament ... every year in (this) County. (A former partner) and ... friend won it a couple of years ago. This last year (two other players) came in second. (The tournament has) no formal rules and I am sure everyone who does well has the opportunity to slant the game in their favor. You must know ... I have played 42 with both pairs and barely won. We were of course cheating and I believe the way they carried on they were too. Is it possible for a pair to be so savvy on 42 they could actually compete with someone cheating. (My partner) and I however were just checking out a theory that if you know where the double six and double five are you can win. Not true. These (other players) played us respectably. We only won by a couple of marks."

Names and locations omitted (or paraphrased in parentheses).  - PP

17.  Random partners: "I attended my first tournament with a random draw partner's format. Each round I had a new partner. I played with some really good players and few weaker ones. The weaker players just didn't bid as high as stronger players did, otherwise they played fine. I got to meet a lot of different people, had a really fun time, and really enjoyed the random draw format. Looking forward to the next one!"

16.  Fair play & partner familiarity: "Just because you think someone is cheating is no sign that they are, unless you can prove it. I can assure ... that me and my partner (do) not cheat altho I am sure (that some may think so). In our case it was pure luck. There were no prearranged signals."

15.  Comment #13 follow-up: (Removed per request)

14.  Random partners: "Random assignments so each player has a different partner in each round sounds like a good idea."

13.  Partner familiarity: "Playing 42 is an extremely intriguing game. Too much time and emphasis is placed on who is cheating or signaling in various ways. I have found that by paying attention to who plays what and evaluating my own hand as to what my possiblities are is the best way for success. I don't have the patience to try and figure out who is using what signals and it takes away from the enjoyment of the game. I do like to play with a partner that I am familiar with and would not like to drive any distance to put my money on a draw partner. I think the really good players really don't signal as much as people think."

See also another viewer's response.  - PP

12.  Random partners: "The unfair playing of those I have observed has definitely taken away the enjoyment of the game. It is about time something like drawing partners has been introduced."

11.  Fair play & partner familiarity: "When the winning purses at 42 tournaments become big enough, participants will insist on fair opportunity to compete for and win the cash prizes. If effective remedy doesn't occur, tournaments with large winning purses will attract mostly seasoned and/or colluding partnerships, essentially discouraging less advantaged players from competing. If 42 is considered a team sport, then the less advantaged need to become streetwise to winning tactics and acquire compatible partners so they can be more competitive. Otherwise, the random selection of partners appears to have merit in levelling the playing field."

Just my two bits. (I don't do tournaments, so I voted "Uncertain" in the poll.)   - PP

10.  Random partners: "I voted for 'Random Selection' of partners. For me, if individuals do not agree to 'Random Selection', that is 'prima facie' evidence that communication of some sort is going on between the two individuals."

See also Comment #4 below by another reviewer.  - PP

9.  Random partners: "Probably most tournaments should have random selected partners so as to minimize prearranged signaling."

8.  Ethics & random partners: "Other signals include 34 bid to mean the 44 (double-four). Another 'cheat' is to play a domino with the 'non-standard' hand (hand with fingers) to mean they have the other trump. BTW, I'm on-board with the concept of bids are bids and cheating is cheating. Indicating isn't cheating because everyone knows the game. Some believe that reverse indicating (low end of domino) is cheating which I understand because you have to discuss it before hand. Some believe that strength bidding* is cheating. I don't because you don't have to discuss it before hand. For me, cheating is anything that signals something exactly (like the 55) rather that some ambiguous aspect (I have a helping hand). I do agree that about the only way we'll be able to stop it is to move to a random partner methodology."

* Strength bidding is bidding in the 32-34 range to indicate a helping hand to one's partner.

7.  Open disclosure: "...simply sharing your pre-arranged bid indications with the opposing team DOES NOT eliminate the advantage that such signaling provides. If neither I nor my partner have the dominoes with which to exploit whatever the indication is, the knowledge does us no good. Likewise, if his partner IS able to exploit it to their advantage, our knowledge of what has just happened does us no good. The other team cheated with pre-arranged signals, and this inherently changed the nature and outcome of the match. Itís that simple. This is why the practice is considered unethical in the first place. Itís not that the other team doesnít know how you are cheating, itís that the other team is automatically at a disadvantage in the bidding and playing of the hand, whether it knows it or not."

6. Random selection of partners: "The format is a round robin of 5 games; each player will be assigned a new random partner for each game. Each game will be with a new random partner, and we'll either draw bones between games for partners or use another random technique approved by the tournament director. Everyone plays all games (unless we have to have byes)."

Source: Mini-tournament guidelines by a popular 42 club in Central Texas.  - PP

5. "Way too much is made of all this. Bidding 30 as a "helping hand" bid is all but universal. If you make a particular bid that indicates that you have a wheel-barrow load of doubles, is different from bidding a bid that means you have 6/6 & 5/5. Indication of what to come back in by playing a suit you can cover is all but universal. Everyone sees it and everyone knows what is going on. The only thing in the game that is sneaky or underhanded is using bids that reveal specific dominoes or combinations of dominoes."

Agreed. I edited the above discussion to clarify the differences. Thanks.  - PP

4.  Random selection of partners: "I have no desire to drive 1-2 hours each way somewhere and play 42 for 4-6 hours with people with whom I have no idea how good they are. I would happily do it in a regular social group, where I know everyone, and itís all for fun. Even just a for-fun ďtournament.Ē But for serious tournaments? No way."

Each player would have a different partner in each round of the competition. See also Comment #3.  - PP

3.  Random selection of partners: "Even though tournament rules are strict and are designed to put all players on the same playing field, playing with the same partner over some period of time definitely gives you a tremendous advantage over other opponents. Tournaments that draw for partners take away that advantage and a person has to rely on their own skill or luck to win." ... (more)

See also Comment #4 above by another reviewer.  - PP

2.  Random selection of partners: "There is no elimination, all players play 10 Games. That is what people say they like about my tournaments, they don't get eliminated. They play 10 and go home... No waiting on any team to get done...everyone finishes together. ... No one likes to be playing for 12 hours. It is just a 10 game round robin, winner of most games and/or points wins."

1.  Open disclosure: "I realize that the 42 game played here (Tuscaloosa) is certainly a 'local variation' of the 'pure 42 game' played in Texas. I have the utmost respect for the game as developed and played by the Texas purists. Texas is certainly the cradle of the game. For sure, if I played in a 42 tournament in Texas, or in a domino club in Odessa, or in a road house in Waco, I would never consider using indicator bids and plays. The culture of the game in the state that is the cradle of the game would always have my enthusiastic support. I have relatives in (Texas). When they visit us we play a lot of 42. We always play the game as the Texas 42 purists play it. No indicators of any sort! And, we have loads of fun. But, with my group of local friends, we will continue to play the game according to our local variations. And, we still have loads of fun."

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