I wrote recently about cheating in online chess tournaments. I no longer play chess but do play bridge quite a lot and with the pandemic have done so online, playing in tournaments frequently. Bridge has many more opportunities for cheating than chess, even when playing in physical space with all four players around the same table. This is because chess is played alone and the board is visible to everyone so that the only way to cheat is for a player to secretly get information from a superior player or a chess engine.
But bridge is a game involving partners where the cards held by each are hidden from the others during the bidding process and just one player’s cards are exposed on the table once play has started. So knowing what cards other players have is very helpful. The bidding process consists of conveying information about one’s cards using bidding conventions that have to be shared with opponents using a ‘convention card’ so that opponents know what your bids mean. If one uses a bidding convention that is not standard, you are expected to alert the opponents and, if asked, explicitly tell them what the bid means.
In online bridge, there are many opportunities to cheat, the most obvious being to have phone or text exchanges with your partner while the game is going on. Another problem is that many bridge partners are also partners in real life and live together. In such cases, the ethics require them to play in different rooms where they cannot see or hear each other. Players are also not allowed to refer to notes or other aids while playing.
Of course, it is possible to cheat in bridge even in physical space using subtle gestures and other means and there have been cases of high profile players being caught doing so. The way they get caught is similar to what happens in chess, when opponents suspect that there is cheating and report to the authorities. They then examine games and see if players seem to have a statistically unlikely high rate of success after making unorthodox bids and plays. Players can and do sometime gamble with risky bids and the playing of cards but if you seem to be unusually successful at this, then red flags get raised.
When adjudicating such accusations, like in chess, the judges also take into account your ranking and past playing history to see if your online tournament play matches your performance in physical space games. The accused player can have an advocate on their behalf to plead their case. The defense is usually that they were just lucky or sometimes that their unusual play was because they did not know what they were doing.
But there is one form of online bridge cheating that I was not aware of until I read about it in the latest issue of the monthly bulletin published by the American Contract Bridge League.It mentioned the case of Sylvia Shi who, in 2019 at age 31, became the youngest female Grand Life Master. In August of 2020, she was found guilty of cheating in online tournaments. She admitted that she had been ‘self-kibbitzing’. Another champion player Michal Nowosadzki also confessed to the same offense.
It is possible in online tournaments for people to kibbitz. The word is from Yiddish and means an observer to something, usually one who gives advice and commentary (often unwanted) on what other people are doing. In the context of bridge, it means to observe the play at tables. People can choose to become kibbiitzers online when they want to observe good players. When you sign on to a table as a kibbitzer, you can see the cards of every player, just as if you were at a physical tournament and you wander around behind each player and see all their cards. But what Shi and Nowosadzki had done was, while playing, signing in using another account on a different device and then kibbitzing their own games, allowing them to see everyone’s cards.
Why does the online system allow such a glaring opportunity to cheat? I don’t know. Perhaps they want to cater to those bridge enthusiasts who like to see high-level play in real time. I myself have never kibbitzed a bridge game and indeed did not know the possibility existed until reading about the cheating cases, and have little desire to do so.
The psychological underpinnings of the desire to cheat are elusive. Bridge is a challenging game and for me personally, the greatest pleasure is when I have played a hand really well. If you can do that fairly consistently and do well in a tournament, that is even better. But if you win by cheating, that psychological reward disappears, leaving nothing in its wake. If one is a professional player and there’s money involved, I can understand the temptation to cheat. But otherwise it seems so pointless. These tournaments charge a small fee so you are essentially paying money to cheat yourself of the pleasure of testing your skills.
Of course, there are people for whom even the words ‘friendly’ or ‘casual’ games mean little. Their competitive instincts are aroused by any contest and it becomes really important for them to win at any cost. In bridge, such people can get very angry and it is almost always aimed at their partners for making a mistake, not the opponents. I have observed the most awful behaviors at the bridge table. At a big regional tournament held at a hotel last year, my partner and I played a married couple and the husband was abominably rude and condescending towards his wife after each hand, berating her for perceived mistakes. She would have been perfectly justified in giving him a piece of her mind for his boorish behavior but she didn’t. The phrase “It’s only a game” should be constantly borne in mind.
Playing online at a level that is well above your ranking is reasonable grounds for suspicions of cheating and it could have caused me problems. This is because I had played quite a lot when I was in Sri Lanka as a young man and am a reasonably good player though by no means an expert, unlike my mother and sister who were both national champions and also competed internationally as members of the national team. After I came to the US, I hardly played for about four decades until I came to Monterey a couple of years ago and started again and it was only then that I joined the American Contract Bridge League and started accumulating the points that determine your ranking. Thus my official ACBL ranking started out at the lowest level of novice, though my quality of play was higher than that.
To rise up in the rankings requires you to play and win a lot. When online bridge started in earnest with the pandemic, my ranking started to rise rapidly as I was playing a lot more and doing well in the club tournaments, usually ending up in the top five and sometimes winning. This rapid rise in my ranking, punching above my weight so to speak, could well have raised suspicions that I was cheating. Fortunately I had played face to face bridge at the bridge club for about five months before the pandemic shut everything down, during which time I did well in several club contests with a wide variety of partners, so the club tournament directors and other players had got to know me and what my level of play was. I was also not making unusual plays that had a high rate of success. But it does show that a rapid rise in ranking while playing online need not necessarily imply that cheating is occurring.