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.
I’m uncertain as to who said this first, but once status or wealth is in play:
“It’s not how you play the game, it’s about whether you win or lose.”
There’s another saying I’ve heard elsewhere:
“If you’re not cheating, you’re giving your opponent(s) an unfair advantage.
Where this is more critical, of course, is not gaming but in business, especially the stock markets. Anyone who doesn’t think the big players are constantly trading in insider information isn’t paying attention.
There are two kinds of motivation for cheating observed in various cases. One is simply the desire to be seen as a good player when your play is not sufficiently good; this is by far the most common motive. The second case is more convoluted; this kind of cheating is only done by highly talented players. Suppose that you are one of the best players but your partner is not as good. Then although you are the best, you do not win as often as you feel you should; indeed, bridge is quite a high variance game so not winning is something all players are condemned to no matter how good they may be. There are several high level cases where the more talented player is believed to have pressured their partner to cheat, to “get help” to bring them up to the level of their partner so that they both can win as often as their partner “deserves”.
Mano Singham says
Thanks for that insight into the pressure to cheat by good players. That is why finding the right partner in bridge is so important, and by ‘right’ I mean not only in terms of skill level but also in terms of attitude to winning and losing. I like to play with people who enjoy playing well and learn from our mistakes, but never forget that it is only a game.
The high variance of bridge that you highlight is very apt. Recently, my partner and I had a run in which we came first or second in about four tournaments in a row, and then right after that we came last and next to last! That’s bridge life.
“Another problem is that many chess partners are also partners in real life and live together.”
No, this is not correct. It might apply to bridge though. 🙂
I was taught to play bridge by three friends who needed a fourth, which was fine until my partner, who also became my romantic partner, decided we should be winning more than we were, despite the fact that I had only been playing for a few months, and started the sort of abuse Mano mentions. Unsurprisingly I ceased to enjoy playing as did the other two, so meets up that were meant to be for playing bridge somehow never got round to the actual game. Smilarly unsurprisingly the romantic involvement didn’t last either, although one of the other players is still my closest friend, I’m in vauge conatct with the other other player, but not with the former romantic partner.
Joel Grant says
“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.”
I only played one duplicate tournament, ever. It was many years ago, probably shortly after I was graduated from college (1974-ish). My partner was my mother, who lived in Arizona. I was visiting and she suggested we enter a tournament. We had never played as partners before, but she was a very good player and I was only moderatlely lousy, having played quite a bit with a regular partner while I was in college.
Our opponents did what Mano describes above. They alerted us to the fact that they were using a non-standard convention and asked us if we wanted an explanation. My mother automatically replied that she wanted them to explain.
They (or one of them, at least) launched into what was essentially a complete functional description of his hand. It occurred to me that what he said would be far more helpful to his partner than to us.
The next time they alerted us to a non-standard convention, I jumped in and said ‘no’, we did not want to hear the explanation. Coincidentally or not, without the deep dive into the one partner’s cards, they wound up over-bidding and got unceremoniously dumped.
I suspect my experience was not unique.
file thirteen says
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.
I can’t speak about Bridge, but talking about chess (and although I didn’t comment on the “cheating in chess” post) those points really resonate with me. When money isn’t involved, cheating in chess online is just a form of deluding yourself that you’re better than you are.
I have an in-law of much lower skill than my own who ashamedly admitted he’d been cheating when playing online, giving him an artificially high rating. He asked what he should do. I told him to keep playing (without cheating) and his rating would soon settle back to what it should be given his skill level! I don’t know whether he did, as I’ve rarely seen him since and we haven’t discussed it again, but I could see in his face that the message (that his cheating was just wishful thinking and self-delusion) had hit home.
Many of us are driven by our competitive nature (I certainly am). But for games, unless you sacrifice your life to them there will always be others better than you. If you find yourself obsessed with a game to the point where you feel impelled to cheat to make up for your shortcomings, well, there are plenty of more worthwhile pursuits.
Having said that, despite knowing it’s just a game I still can’t resist playing chess on occasion. I never cheat, but boy do I hate losing!
@#6 When an explanation of a bid is requested, the partner of the person who made the bid must give the explanation, not the bidder. It does tell the bidder what their partner imagines the bid meant, but it doesn’t allow them to describe their own hand.
Mano Singham says
I want to reinforce what leftygomez said @#8. When you query an opponent’s bid in a face-to-face game, you ask the bidder’s partner to explain what the bid meant to them. What happened to you and you mother was wrong.
In online games, it is different. The bids appear on the screen and if you want an explanation of a bid, you click on that bid. This alerts the bidder (not the partner) to explain the bid they made. But the explanation is only seen by the bidder’s two opponents and not the partner.
Mano, it is nearly impossible to prevent such a cheating method. All those devices have to do is contact the game server from a different IP location, such as with a VPN, and the server will see those connections as if in coming from different cities, even different continents.
Mano Singham says
I understand that. What I meant was why not disable the kibbitzing feature entirely so that no can can do it?
I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that people cheat at games because of some kind of insecurity. They need to be the best, and they need the attention and admiration that goes with it. Greed is also a great driver of cheating. Also, cheating has become more acceptable in the “win at all costs” world we have lived in for the last 40 years or so. You see it in politics, in sports, in college admissions, in just about everything. Personal integrity and honor seem to have lost much value. Maybe it was always like that, but was blocked by my rose-colored glasses.
Legend/hero Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”. A false idol, perhaps.
Joel Grant says
re: LeftyGomez #8 and Mano #9 -- It has been decades so my memory of who explained the convention may be warped. I do know that the way the convention was explained raised my eyebrows, and they misfired badly when they were not allowed to vocalize. Not sure how it worked -- but I do vividly remember, at the time, feeling that they were up to something fishy.
I kind of miss playing bridge but I do not miss the players who angrily scolded their partners. My father was like that. I used to hear him berate my mother (“You had NO RIGHT to bid five clubs!”) and it was not pretty. But I never got real serious, certainly not enough to consider any kind of a cheat in a duplicate tournament.
Mano Singham says
I know some couples who play bridge but not with each other as partners, which is a wise move for some.
In my family, my father was pretty cavalier about bidding. As I said in my post, my mother and sisters were championship quality players and on the occasions when my father and I were partnered against the two of them, it was the proverbial lambs led to the slaughter as we got well and truly clobbered. But my father did not take bridge seriously and neither did I so we had fun even when losing badly.
John Morales says
I don’t actually know the specifics, but I reckon because likely a great deal of their pay-viewer base would depart, were that feature not to be available.
(So, economic reasons)
Oh yeah! The frustration and rancour that can cause is extreme.
John Morales says
[That’s why we switched to whist, back in the day]
Sam N says
I find this to be a fascinating topic. My natural inclination is to challenge myself, although my favored game is beach volleyball. Much more difficult to cheat at that. But if the teams are uneven I become very frustrated, regardless of whether I’m on the winning or losing side.
I will confess that when I played counterstrike around ’99. I would call my friend on the family line and feed him information. It was dirty and despicable. I was always too rash to be the last member of the team alive. I took front lines.
Tabby Lavalamp says
This is an issue in game streaming as well where streamers have to take precautions to avoid opponents watching their stream if they recognize the streamers name. Poker streamers tend to have a several minute delay in their streams. Magic the Gathering players will too if it’s a tournament, but tend not to with casual play so this happens more frequently.
I think I’ll stick to Euchre, thanks. It’s simple enough even for my limited brain power but still fun. 🙂
Tabby Lavalamp says
So this happened…
I wonder whether it’s success at the cheating itself that gives the cheaters a sense of self-worth. That’s the feeling I get from folks for whom Trump is an extreme example.
John Morales says
[Tabby — everything in your link from the question mark is tracking info.
The actual link is just https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-56579449 ]