I come from a bridge-playing family. My father, mother, older sister, and I would spend many evenings at home in Sri Lanka playing the game. My mother and sister were excellent players of championship quality, and would later go on to regularly win national and international titles. My father and I were nowhere near their class and when we partnered each other would regularly receive thorough drubbings at the hands of my mother and sister.
I like the game because it has a logical structure and can be played socially. I would classify myself as a mediocre player, someone who knows basic bidding conventions but not the more sophisticated ones, and can play hands passably.
Bridge is a game in which people can cheat. This is because a pair of partners plays against another pair. It obviously helps to know what cards your partner holds but you are only allowed to communicate with your partner using a highly restricted set of statements whose meaning has a range of possibilities and also depends on what other players have said. Expert players use a whole host of bidding conventions and, from the sequence of bids, can glean a lot more information than novices. But some want an added edge and use illegal codes and signals to convey information to their partners. As a result, elaborate measures have been introduced at the highest levels to try and keep the game honest.
But just this week, the world of bridge was rocked by a huge cheating scandal that has resulted in six of the world’s best players (Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz representing Israel, Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes from Monaco, and Germany’s top pair) withdrawing from the Bermuda Bowl, one of the three world championship tournaments, that is currently underway in Chennai, India.
John Walters gives a fascinating account how they cheated and how they were unmasked. The detective work was led by a Norwegian player Boye Brogeland, who is ranked 64th in the world and received death threats for his pains. The unmasking involved essentially crowd sourcing the detective work so that many people pored over videos of the tournaments and uncovered the signaling system.
Imagine, if you will, NFL fans, a crusader who took on the most successful teams in his chosen sport and who just happened to have facts on his side. Who conducted his investigation not by spending millions of dollars on private investigators, but rather via crowdsourcing YouTube videos and enlisting the help of willing volunteers from as far away as Australia, from legends of the game (such as Hamman) to an anonymous astronomer from the Netherlands.
Now imagine that none of this was undertaken for personal gain or image safeguarding—was in fact initiated at both fiscal and professional expense—and that the provocateur, Brogeland, demanded that any Master Points he had “won” (his quotations) as an erstwhile teammate of Fisher and Schwartz be vacated. And that he continued unbowed after one of the men he accused, Fisher, posted these words on Facebook: “Jealousy made you sick. Get ready for a meeting with the devil.”
“My only motivation is to try to clean up the game and do the right thing,” says Brogeland, whose grandparents taught him to play bridge when he was 8 years old. “Don’t worry about the consequences. This is what my mother would do. This is what my father would do. I hope this is what my children would do.”
Bridge is a very logical game. What the bridge fraud detectors did was to focus on just those hands where players did something illogical or random and yet achieved success.
Thanks to a system called VuGraphs, bridge fans and watchdogs are able to see a chart of the complete hands all four players are holding during any one hand (after the match has been played). If an experienced student of the game matches those charts to the videos of the hands, he or she might eventually find a recurring signal being passed between partners, one that correlates to a specific play. “Bridge is a relentlessly logical game,” says Willenken, one of a coterie of top-level players whom Brogeland enlisted to help him uncover Fisher’s and Schwartz’s chicanery. “There’s a three-step process to cracking the code: Look at actions that are illogical; find a disproportionate amount of winning hands preceded by illogical actions; and analyze what is going on in those hands.”
The article also gives an interesting insight into the sociology of the top levels of the game. The age demographics of bridge skew rather old and there is not much money to be made from sponsorships and other forms of sports revenue. But there are some very wealthy fans of the game and what they do is recruit five good players (at often very high salaries) to form a team with them.
While each game features two-player pairs, a registered team is composed of three pairs, or six players overall. At the world-class levels, that sextet is usually composed of five handsomely rewarded players and one sponsor, a very wealthy bridge aficionado who plays the minimum number of hands in order to be considered part of the team.
To the outsider, it sounds like an NBA owner suiting up, playing one quarter with the Spurs, and then claiming he and Tim Duncan won the NBA title together. Bridge pros are not so, well, cynical. “They get to call themselves champions,” says Woolsey, “and why shouldn’t they?”
While some people play bridge for money and sometimes the stakes can be extremely high, I never play bridge for money. I enjoy the game purely for the intellectual challenge it provides even though, as I said before, I am a mediocre player. Back in the day, college was often the place where people developed an addiction to the game. That seems to be no longer the case, though the availability of online bridge may bring back some level of popularity since it is no longer such a chore to set up a foursome.