I am fond of the card game bridge, growing up in a bridge playing family and returning to it in retirement and playing a couple of times per week at my local club, formerly in person and now online. I enjoy the intellectual challenge posed by the game but never forget that it is a game and not worth getting all worked up about.
But many of the people who play it are severely competitive and I wrote about a recent cheating scandal involving a Grand Life Master. I just read of a new documentary just released called Dirty Tricks about the big 2015 scandal that rocked the world of bridge involving Lotan Fisher, someone considered the Michael Jordan of the game who possessed exceptional skills. He and his partner Ron Schwartz won millions of dollars playing in tournaments and with wealthy players like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
Bridge is a very logical game of bidding and playing where people have to speak in codes (called conventions) to indicate what cards you hold and what your partner should play. The great bridge players are those who are skilled at using the language of the codes and interpreting the meaning of their partner’s and opponents’ use of the codes. Since so much depends on good communication between partners, cheating takes the form of subtle secret signals that are used to gain an unfair advantage. Cheating is suspected when players seem to make unconventional moves that have a surprisingly high rate of success.
In the 2015 scandal, Boye Brogeland, who had been defeated by the Fisher-Schwartz pair, called upon the internet to investigate and the internet sleuths carefully watched the games and collectively deciphered the secret signals being used.
Brogeland expanded on the accusations in an interview with the New Yorker in 2016. “Bridge is such a logical game,” he told the magazine. “When you do a lot of strange things in a very short period of time, and those strange things are successful– it just doesn’t happen.”
“It all started out, really, when Boye won a match against Lotan and [then] lost it with an appeal,” Sivan says. “He was so frustrated, asking: ‘How could it be that we lost?’ Going over the boards, he saw all these illogical moves that were not settling with him. That [got] the ball rolling. He just erupted, accusing the Israeli team of cheating.”
For Fisher and Schwartz, an unusual process led to their downfall. Brogeland invited people around the world to share tips about the scandal on a website. Eventually, a Swedish player named Per-Ola Cullin alleged that he had cracked the code used by Fisher and Schwartz, which he said involved the players placing the board in a certain way to illegally communicate with each other.
“This was basically the first time, to my knowledge, in history that a cheating scandal was outsourced,” Sivan says. “You never heard local players saying, ‘I suspect Lance Armstrong is juicing. Please, internet community, look for the proof.’ Here was the first time they used crowdfunding, beehive brain, people from all over the world breaking down codes, chasing cheaters … It was totally self-policed.”
Sivan says that it looks like cheating is rampant at the top levels of the game, which to me is really sad. I for one get the greatest pleasure in bidding and playing a hand well. What fun is there in winning by cheating? Of course, I am not playing for money but it appears that there are people who desperately want to win even if there is no financial reward.
As the documentary points out, bridge can arouse the fiercest instincts at all levels as I can testify from personal experience of watching other players. Documentary director Daniel Sivan describes what he found.
“I was going to all the small bridge clubs, counting on people being super nice and relaxed,” he says. “Everywhere I went, they were ruthless. People were there to win. I was talking to senior citizens who were in it for blood.”
The director hopes his film will get more people to play bridge by also showing its ‘cool’ side.
“I really hope [the film] will take this terrible, terrible reputation bridge has and show how crazy cool it is,” Sivan says. “It will make people take this cheating scandal and instead of having a negative effect on the sport, [it will] make it into a sport where people will say, ‘cool, how do you play?’ It could be fantastic. Yes, we are really full of hope that it will make bridge cool again.”
I hope he is right.
Here’s a teaser trailer for the documentary that has not been released for general viewing yet so I have not seen it.