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Letís look at the law on Penalty Cards [Law 50 if you really want to know] something which everybody has a view on and which is consequently largely misunderstood. A penalty card is simply a card prematurely exposed but not led by a defender. It may have been dropped face up while playing another card. It may have been played in error such as the wrong suit, or leading out of turn. Any card exposed during the auction is left face up on the table until the auction is complete. If the offender becomes dummy or declarer the card is picked up, otherwise it becomes a penalty card. Note that only the defending side can have a penalty card.
Is this a major or minor penalty card? Nearly every exposed card becomes a major penalty card. Only if the exposure was accidental, as in a dropped card, and even then only if the card is below a ten, does it become a minor penalty card. If the card was played deliberately, though in error, or is an honour, then it is a major penalty card.
Whatís the difference? If a defender has a minor penalty card, he cannot play any other card of the same suit below an honour until he has played the penalty card. He may however play an honour instead. Neither is he forced to lead the penalty card if he is on lead. There are no lead restrictions on the offenderís partner.
A major penalty card, as might be expected, carries a heavier burden. Firstly it must be played at the first legal opportunity, whether leading, following suit, discarding or trumping. If defender has managed to get two or more major penalty cards, it is declarer who decides which is to be played.
Should a defender be on lead when his partner has a major penalty card, he has lead restrictions and may not lead until declarer decides what he wants him to do. The options are:
Defender must lead the same suit as the penalty card. If declarer chooses this option, the penalty card is picked up and any legal card can be played to the trick.
Defender is prohibited from leading the penalty card suit. This prohibition lasts for as long as defender retains the lead. If declarer chooses this option, the penalty card is picked up and may be played at any legal opportunity. There is no obligation to play it as soon as possible.
Defender may lead any card, in which case the penalty card remains on the table and remains a penalty card. The same lead restrictions will apply should defender retain the lead, or regain it before the penalty card is played.
Obviously, having a card face up on the table is giving information to all players that they would not otherwise have. All information regarding the playing of the penalty card or regarding the potential lead restrictions, is authorised for all players. Other information derived from sight of the playing card is authorised for declarer, but unauthorised for the partner of the player who has the penalty card. If the director judges that the defending side has gained an advantage by seeing the penalty card, he may award an adjusted score.
Remember that the laws on penalty cards, like all other laws are not there to penalise or punish offending behaviour. They are there to restore equity to the side that may have been damaged through the inadvertent or mistaken exposure of a card. Please apply the laws as written and call the director if a card is exposed. It is good practice and there is no stigma or blame attached.