Beginning January 1, bidding boxes will be a bit lighter. At their meetings in Toronto, the ACBL Board of Directors voted 20-5 to remove the red Stop cards from all bidding boxes used at ACBL tournaments.
Why was it eliminated? With spoken bids, players made an announcement before they jumped one or more levels ("Skip bid, please wait"). The purpose was to "warn" the next player that a high-level bid was coming and give him a little extra time to plan his action. This pause was also supposed to prevent very fast and slow actions that could send unauthorized information.
When bidding boxes replaced voice bidding, the announcement was replaced by use of the red Stop card. When you were about to make a skip bid, you placed the Stop card on the table to enforce a pause, then your bidding card. After a few seconds, you removed the Stop card and the next player could then bid.
The Laws use the word "should" when referring to this usage, and that caused a number of problems. In theory, players were supposed to be consistent and either use the card all the time or never. However, some unethical players took advantage of this and sent dual messages -- for example, using the card when they had a strong hand for their bid, not using it when they had a minimum. The Stop procedure also slowed the game down and was hard to understand for newcomers.
Will my club remove the Stop cards? ACBL is encouraging clubs to remove Stop cards from their bidding boxes, but it's not mandatory. Clubs always had the option of setting their own policies about Stop cards and they can still ask their players to use them.
How should we handle skip bids now? Skip bids are no longer announced by voice or Stop cards, but you are still obligated to pause in the direct seat. When your right-hand opponent makes a skip bid, just wait a few extra seconds before choosing your call. There's no need to wait a full ten seconds. A break of four or five seconds is enough.
During that pause, you should look at your hand and at least pretend to be considering your bid. Don't look at the ceiling or do anything else that suggests you have nothing to think about. That communicates the same message as a fast call.
This rule applies to very fast and very slow actions. If you bid or pass immediately or if you huddle for longer than ten seconds, it may communicate extra information about your hand. Partner is then under pressure to ignore it, and it may prevent him from taking an action that is suggested by your speed or lack of it. If your opponent fails to observe this rule and you believe his partner acted on the inferences, you can ask the director to adjudicate.
Are there exceptions? Technically, no, but in practice, you don't need to delay a pass in situations where it's obvious or highly unlikely that you would want to do anything else. No one is going to complain if you fail to pause before passing a 2NT opener, for example, or after a 1NT-3NT auction. The same applies when the opponents are having a long auction and you've made previous passes. In these cases, just try to bid in a normal tempo.