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How SAYC happened

It’s sort of my fault.

I was at the bridge club a few months ago when a young asian fellow stopped in to see how the games worked. The director invited him to kibitz my table, and I chatted with him a little between hands. He admitted that he enjoyed playing bridge and sometimes played online. And he mentioned that he played SAYC. That’s the Standard American Yellow Card published by the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL)

I had to smile. That’s kind of my fault. I told him the story, but I’m not sure he believed me.

It started with OKBridge

It was 1993 or so when we first started playing bridge online using a system built by Matt Clegg called OKBridge. Matt had learned to play in college, and wanted to find a way to keep playing as his friends scattered around the map after school. OKBridge proved very popular, and started attracting players from every corner of the internet. I loved playing there and became friends with Matt.

Those were the days when you would connect to the net from your Unix system, or dial-up to a Unix host such as Netcom with a terminal emulator. The OKBridge client was a “curses” terminal app, later growing into a Windows app and all the other doodahs you find today. I know Matt turned it into quite a business, but we haven’t kept in touch.

While it was great joy picking up partners and opponents from the four-corners of the world, it was always difficult to agree on a system of bidding conventions quickly for a pick-up game.

I had just the idea.

Mojo “yellow card” Appleseed

Long prior to this, the ACBL had developed a reasonably simple “standard” convention card with a few popular modern conventions for use specifically in individual tournaments, where you would have a different partner for every round. They called these “Yellow Card Individual” events at the tournaments. The convention card itself was printed on yellow paper and they offered a detailed document of exactly the specifications of the system.

I recognized an opportunity. I called ACBL and ordered a stack of 500 Yellow Card convention cards and 100 of the accompanying booklet.

On OKBridge and in discussions on Usenet rec.games.bridge, I offered to send a copy of the card and booklet to anyone who would send me a return envelope. I probably mailed thirty or forty cards and booklets.

I was working for Caere Corporation in Los Gatos at the time; we specialized in optical character recognition. I had access to scanners and OCR software, and soon had an electronic rendition of the convention card itself as a GIF (in color, and yellow of course), and scanned the booklet after work to have the full text description of the system available.

Everyone hates it

I remember the reaction being mixed. The card itself didn’t match anyone’s existing card. Everyone had complaints about this or that agreement in the card. The experts wanted a 2/1 Game Force card, and the beginners couldn’t really take in everything on the card. If I sit down with a partner before a game, our card would be a lot different from SAYC.

Even so, people saw the value of having something concrete that could be agreed to in seconds that should be well-understood, especially given the detailed text description. SAYC hadn’t been known by that abbreviation before then, it was just “the Yellow Card.” In the online bridge shorthand that quickly developed, SAYC as an abbreviation was inevitable.

Fast-forward to November 2009 where I’m attending the ACBL’s Teacher Accreditation Program as a refresher at the San Diego Nationals. I’ve just returned to the game after a nine-year hiatus, and thinking of teaching bridge again. There I learned that they’ve tweaked the “Bidding” course to match with the specifications of the Yellow Card.

In the past month or two I started playing online on BridgeBase, a beautifully constructed online bridge playing network. SAYC is the “default” convention card there.

No one uses it right

Now let me step on my soapbox for a moment.

Here’s a typical profile note on BBO:

“SAYC. Xfers, weak 2’s, jumps, NF Stayman, weak jump response”

What’s wrong with this picture?

First of all transfers, weak two-bids, and weak jump overcalls are already part of the SAYC convention card. Mentioning them again is redundant.

Secondly, weak jump responses and non-forcing Stayman are not part of SAYC. You shouldn’t say you’re playing SAYC when you’re not playing SAYC! Sure, it’s Standard American at its roots, but it’s not the Yellow Card. [Edit: Actually NF Stayman is not excluded from the Yellow Card, (or any other system that uses Stayman).]

To truly play SAYC you should use its set of conventions without changes, love ’em or hate ’em. And it’s not really that bad.

The most complex convention on the card, arguably, is Jacoby 2NT major suit raises. People know the 2NT bid, but many people are unfamiliar with the opener’s rebids, which are spelled out quite precisely in the Yellow Card booklet.

Come play with me

So yes, I have a favorite convention card. I will also play SAYC. All I ask is that if we sit down at a table and you offer to play SAYC, say it like you mean it! There are great advantages to having a precisely spelled-out system that both parties understand.

Find me on BBO as MojoLA.

Postscript: It’s been many years since I’ve seen the original ACBL Yellow Card or its description booklet. I’ll try to find links to the originals and add them to the blog here, just for fun.

6 comments to How SAYC Happened

  • Ed Greenberg

    Nice story.

  • I found this great thread from 1998 archived on Google from rec.games.bridge discussing why SAYC seems so popular on OKBridge.

  • Connie

    Wow, Grear history of your bridge. I only knew you were a life master of ACBL but you much more than that. I am glad that I am one of your partners. See you soon on BBO and local club.

  • Eugene Chan

    SAYC was introduced in 1988 by the ACBL as a standardized system for events that would require no alerts. All players played what was on the card and the only modifications allowed were opening lead and other carding agreements. After a couple of years, SAYC events proved unpopular and were discontinued. With the advent of internet bridge, a simple consensus convention card was needed. Rather than re-invent the wheel, as SAYC was already in place, SAYC became a de facto standard. Much later, Larry King promoted a series of prize money tournaments in an individual format using SAYC. ACBL originally published an 8 page system booklet in 1988. A revised edition circa 2006 (with very little modification) is available for download from the ACBL website.

  • carl weisman

    so why is OKBridge sayc as published different from sayc? (OK has systems on after 1NT-(Dbl), sayc does not)

  • Hello,



    you are listed and some more information about SAYC.
    Volker H. Schendel

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