RUMOURS AND ALLEGATIONS - A Brief History of Cheating at Bridge

Friday, 11 December 2015 by Stuart Packington

RUMOURS AND ALLEGATIONS    

- A Brief History of Cheating at Bridge

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Peter Gill

 

A FLAMBOYANT entrepreneur, Ely Culbertson, created an American bridge boom in the 1930s, with two of his bridge books topping best seller lists (of all books, not just bridge books) as duplicate bridge took off.

In 1932 Culbertson's supremacy was challenged when a prominent magazine rated Willard Karn the top American player. Karn had also published a book, and Culbertson hired a private detective in 1933 in an attempt to demonstrate that Karn was cheating.

The detective concluded that Karn was memorising (or possibly arranging) the order of cards while collecting tricks, and using that information to place cards on the next deal (assuming im­perfect shuffling). Today, that process lives on in rubber bridge in the maxim "the Queen lies over the Jack".

The committee of Culbertson's club confronted Karn with a cheating charge, Karn quietly retired from bridge, and the committee dismissed the charges. In Fair Play Or Foul, Cathy Chua writes, "By the simple expedient of accusing a player of cheating, Culbertson was rid of his two most dangerous rivals - both Karn and [his partner] Sims. Sims, of course, was still very keen to play Culbertson. With Karn out of the way, Culbertson was happy to accept and it is history that the Culbertsons demol­ished Dorothy and Hal Sims in 1935."

Karn returned in 1938 with a million dollar lawsuit against Culbertson, the club, and six other players. Karn claimed that Culbertson told him he "killed rivals in June so that they would not bite him in December."

In The Mad World Of Bridge, Jack Olsen writes, "The matter was dropped when each of the defendants sent Karn a letter saying that they had never questioned his honesty, and Karn returned to his quiet world of anonymity. By now it was indisputably too late for him to bite anyone in December." 

Given that the charges were actually dismissed, why did he disappear for so long? Chua proposes that Karn had nothing to gain by staying and fight­ing, as any involvement in a scandal of that type would effectively ruin his ca­reer anyway. She cites an example of another player from that time who was swindled out of $40,000, and refused to press charges - he was afraid that, hav­ing his name connected with a scandal, even on the right side, would affect his business.

Karl Schneider

In 1937, Austria won bridge's first World Championship. Olsen's book describes the Austrians using hand signals to identify hand strength and specific aces, and other codes involv­ing "the positioning of cigarettes and the placement of a pencil on the table". Olsen doesn't mention any names, but Truscott indulges in some speculation in his 2002 New York Times Bridge Book. He compares the following two hands, in both cases vulnerable facing a passed partner.

On the first example, Karl Schneider failed to overcall with 1¨ holding:  

ªQ 10 9 3     Q     ¨K Q 8 7 6 2       §Q 6,

while on another board his partner Jellinek did overcall with 1 holding:

ª9 7 5 3       J 7 6 5 4 3   ¨ ---        §10 6 4 

In the latter case, the auction proceeded:

   WEST          NORTH        EAST         SOUTH

Schneider    Culbertson    Jellinek     J Culbertson

   pass               1¨            1              1NT

   pass              3NT         all pass

Schneider, West, failed to double 1NT (and 3NT) holding:   

ªJ 10 8 6       Q 8          ¨A J 4        §Q J 7 3

He also failed to lead the Q against the eventual 3NT contract. None of these actions are irrational, but Truscott wrote, "This is only explicable if his partner had given a signal to show extreme weakness, both in the hand and in the suit." 

Truscott also reports another incident involving Schneider many years later, at the 1954 World Championships, where he was invited to represent Eu­rope in a first-time partnership with top player Jean Besse:

"Before the match, Schneider told Besse, "You know, we've got to help each other." Besse knew exactly what that meant and refused indignantly." 

Without "help", they lost the world title to the USA.

Schneider made waves again at the 1957 European Championship, playing with Max Reithoffer in the Open Room (where kibitzers could watch the action). Truscott writes that young Swiss expert Jaime Ortiz-Patino no­ticed a strange habit:

"After sorting their hands, Schneider and Reithoffer would invariably hold the cards in a block on the table, either vertically or horizontally. Sometimes the left hand was used, and sometimes the right. Sometimes the cards were angled, with a rocking motion. After taking notes and analysing them qui­etly in private, Ortiz-Patino broke the code. The movements were ace-show­ing, and when he returned to watch he could predict the aces held by the other player without being able to see the cards."

This suspicion was subsequently strengthened when Schneider doubled the opponents' 1ª-4 With Reithoffer being the tournament organiser, a diplomatic solution was agreed that they never play together again. 

France

In the early 1950s, a French pair Franck Bodier and Pierre Figeac rocketed to fame, winning almost everything in Europe. Truscott says they virtually never mis-guessed on opening lead. On lead to 6NT with an ace and a KQ, they led a third suit in which partner had KQ. When asked to appear before a committee, they resigned from the French Federation and disappeared from bridge.

In 1960 the French pair Claude Delmouly and Gerard Bourchtoff were accused by Simone Albarran, the widow of France's greatest bridge per­sonality, of using "l'ascenseur", the lift. Cards held at chest level with maxi­mum values, belt level with minimum, in between with in between. No case was ever proven.

Rumours swirled about another top French pair, Pierre Jais and Roger Trezel, at the 1958 European Champi­onships. France played Britain, and at both tables East opened 14 in second seat. At favourable vulnerability, South overcalled 14 holding:

ª7 6 3    A 8 6 5 3    ¨8 6 5       §10 9.

Which player made a 1ª overcall on nothing but *763 and an ace? Both of them - Pierre Jais for France and Terence Reese for England! The psyche hit its mark, as East-West were able to make 6ª on a trump finesse. The British pair actually reached 6ª in spite of the psyche, but went down after naively playing the 1ª bidder for the ªQ.

6§ was laydown (no finesse needed) and Britain would have won the event (and a spot in the Bermuda Bowl) if they had played there instead of at­tempting to play in South's bid suit. If anything, the 14 psyche should have pushed Britain out of the 50% slam into the making one.

Discussing this issue years later, Alan Truscott (one of the players who would have gone to the Bermuda Bowl if England had made 6ª) goes so far as to say that 1ª is a good bid if you hap­pen to know how many hearts partner has - in other words, if partner is sig­nalling you. 

That period was the heyday of psychic bids so perhaps it is not so remarkable for two very inventive bidders to make such a crazy call. It must be stressed that a psychic bid is not cheating - it is only cheating if partner knows about the psyche and the opponents do not.

The recent implementation of a "psyche register" at major tournaments has given many players the wrong idea about psyching. I was once called to a table in time to hear an indignant player tell her psyching opponent, "In New Zealand they have a three strikes and you're out policy." This unfortunate terminology makes it sound like the "first strike" is an offence in itself, which is completely untrue.

In fact the psyche register is nothing more than a tool to identify the point when psyching becomes regular enough to be considered a partnership agreement. Also, the "three strike" limit typically applies to a short event - it's not a lifetime ration!

Reese and Schapiro

Truscott's comment, about knowing how many hearts partner has, may seem odd given that the psyche hap­pened in spades. Of course, as most readers will already know, this was more than just random speculation.

The events of the 1965 Bermuda Bowl are amply covered elsewhere, particu­larly in the books The Great Bridge Scandal and Story Of An Accusation. Here is a brief summary of the case.

In the first match between Britain and USA, an opponent noticed something unusual, almost uncomfortable, about the way Reese and Schapiro held their cards. He suspected signals were being exchanged, and engaged the assistance of some other players and officials to quietly observe and take notes.

Eventually Dorothy Truscott identified a pattern, indicating that the pair were using finger signals to indicate how many hearts they had. The theory was confirmed by subsequent observation.

The World Bridge Federation found the pair guilty of cheating, and handed the case over to the British Bridge League to deal with it. The BBL dealt with it by holding a new trial, finding the pair not guilty; however, Reese and Schapiro wisely stopped playing to­gether after that point.

The Confession

The June 2005 issue of this magazine carried a lead story, reprinted from the New York Times, with an alleged con­fession from Reese. The author claimed that he had promised not to publish until after the deaths of both players.

The article claims that Reese intended to demonstrate that it was possible to cheat consistently without being de­tected, although neither player ever used any of the information signalled. His goal was to show that "urgent re­medial action was needed." Once they were caught, they felt they had no op­tion but to plead innocence.

The fact that Reese knew that he was already under suspicion of cheating in 1960, makes it unlikely that he would be continuing his experiment as late as 1965. However, under the alternative theory, that he had been cheating for gain, it's equally unlikely that he would continue after the first accusation.

The claim that Reese was working on an article wasn't taken seriously, but we do have some evidence to support the claim. In 1964, in British Bridge World magazine, Reese did in fact write a series of articles about the 1937 World Championships, demonstrating that he did have an interest in the sub­ject. These articles were published 38 years before the Truscott book that claims the Austrians cheated. Reese's articles are curious because he never mentions the possibility of the Austri­ans cheating, but several of his selection of hands in the article give hints for the observant or suspicious reader.

His second article includes this deal featuring the afore-mentioned Karl Schneider: 

After South's 2§ psyche, both oppo­nents misjudged their hands. North led his partner's bid suit, clubs, and the defence took nine tricks for +1400.

Reese makes no comment on Jellinek's failure to support a two-level overcall with five-card support and excellent playing strength. 

Indonesia

In the mid 1970s Ron Klinger wrote two articles called Eeny Meeny Miny Manoppo 1 and 2 in Australian Bridge magazine. The Manoppo brothers never played international bridge again as a pair. (See our Online Supple­ment for a reprint of those articles. Log on to the Subscribers Only area using your last name and postcode).

Preventative Measures

In the 1970s, several Americans, the loudest of whom was Alfred Sheinwold, claimed the Italian World Champions were cheating. Screens, so that part­ners cannot see each other, were introduced in Italy, in USA in 1974 and at the 1975 World Championships.

In 1975 several observers, including Jimmy O'Sullivan from Queensland, observed the Italian pair Gianfranco Facchini and Sergio 7ucchelli tapping each other's feet under the table. Cof­fee tables were then inserted under the tables. The suspect pair played on, be­cause nobody could match the taps to their bridge actions. With 48 deals re­maining in the Grand Final, USA led Italy by 73 imps. Giorgio Belladonna and Benito Garozzo of the Italian team demanded that their captain bench Facchini - Zucchelli. The remaining four Italians surged back to win the World Championship final by 25 imps, a 98 imp turnaround.

AB founding Editor Denis Howard wrote a masterly article called Anat­omy of a Scandal in AB magazine about the 1975 events. (See our Online Supplement for a reprint of that article. Log on to the Subscribers Only area using your last name and postcode).

Leandro Burgay vs Benito Bianchi In February 1976, an Italian player Leandro Burgay gave the President of the Italian Bridge Federation a tape of a telephone conversation between Burgay and Bianchi. In the tape, Bianchi allegedly explains cheating methods which Burgay said that Bianchi used with Italian star Pietro Forquet and which Giorgio Belladonna used with another partner Renato Mondolfo, involving cigarettes and head positions. Partly because Bella­donna smoked cigars, not cigarettes, all three were cleared in Italy, but many American experts in 2015 will claim that the Italians in the 1960s and 1970s cheated USA out of many World Championships.

Australia's late great player Tim Seres was among those who steadfastly defended the honour of the Italian su­perstars. American expert Alan Sontag also presents a different assessment of Burgay and Belladonna in his book The Bridge Bum. In a big money tourna­ment in Monte Carlo, a kibitzer appeared to be following Burgay and his partner, and exchanging informa­tion with them. Sontag and Weichsel believed the kibitzer would regularly look into an opponent's hand, and then have a conversation with Burgay or his partner (always in some language other than the one spoken by the opponents).

The head tournament director asked Sontag to drop the matter, but suffi­cient complaints were made to force a hearing. Burgay not only maintained his innocence, but countered by saying that Weichsel and Sontag were proba­bly doing the cheating. At this point Garozzo and Belladonna stepped in and affirmed that Weichsel and Sontag were both "players of the highest repu­tations and ethical standards".

Sontag speaks very highly of Bella­donna, from both an ethical and personal perspective.

Burgay and his partner were acquitted, and Sontag and Weichsel were repri­manded for "initiating the whole mess". 

1977 US Trials

In 1977, Dick Katz, Larry Cohen (not the Larry Cohen of Total Tricks fame, a different one), Roger Bates, John Mohan and George Rosenkranz led the Grand Final of the US Trials by 40 imps with 32 boards to play. After closed door conferences about possible cheating, Katz and Cohen resigned from their team and from the ACBL, so their team, reduced to three players, had to forfeit.

A $44 million lawsuit was later filed against the ACBL and three tourna­ment officials for "defamation of character, false allegations of miscon­duct, and forced resignation from the League." The suit was settled for sig­nificantly less than the requested amount; the complainants received zero dollars, and had to promise that they would never play together again. Controversy about this incident contin­ues today, with a very large number of people believing that they were com­pletely innocent.

Pencil Positioning

In 1979, Americans Steve Sion and Alan Cokin were found to be cheating, using pencil placement. Cokin con­fessed, repented and dedicated himself to good works to make amends. Sion was involved in another serious proprieties case in 1997 and was expelled from the ACBL.

21st Century

In 2005, Andrea Buratti and Massimo Lanzarotti were banned after Buratti played ¨J 8 5 4 3 opposite ¨A K 9 2 by running the jack, making 6¨. The opponent claimed that dummy had looked into his hand and signalled declarer, and Buratti had no sensible explanation as to why he made such an anti-percentage play. 

In 2014 two German doctors (Michael Elinescu and Entsco Wladow) who had won the World Senior Championships in Bali in 2013 were found guilty of cheating by coughing. America's Eddie Wold matched up their coughs to vari­ous shortages in their hands. 

At the Cavendish tournament after Bali, more people were able to match up the code. Videos of much of this can be found on YouTube. An appeal is pend­ing, and the result will be published on our web site. 

The Present Day: Fisher and Schwartz

In August, Norwegian Boye Brogeland broke a story that was labelled the big­gest scandal in bridge history (a title it was only able to retain for three weeks). After playing against his former team­mates in a Spingold quarter final, Boye lost two imps in an appeal, leaving his team with a one imp loss. No longer taking part in the semi final, Boye found himself with an unexpected day off, and used the time to go over the hands and find out what went wrong. 

Looking at the results from the other table, he was surprised at many of his opponents' actions, particularly with how often they found success with a non-expert opening lead. 

Boye published his suspicions on the Bridge Winners website, with a prom­ise that more evidence would be forthcoming. While many people criti­cised Boye for making a public accusation with insufficient evidence, many others rallied behind him and started searching the video archives for the required evidence. 

Per Ola Cullin was the first to identify a pattern, which was subsequently supported by Ishmael Del'Monte and Kit Woolsey as they analysed more videos. The allegation is that Fisher and Schwartz used the placement of the board and bidding tray to indicate the suit they wanted led. It is also al­leged that coughing and other noises were being used to indicate weakness. 

In a podcast on BridgeVid, Ishmael told a story of a match against Helgemo - Helness, where Helness had a bad cough. Fisher, Helness' screenmate, made a comment about the coughing —Ishmael suggested that the comment may have been designed to let Schwartz, on the other side of the screen, know that the cough wasn't coming from him! 

Fisher and Schwartz continue to main­tain their innocence, and are currently threatening a lawsuit against Brogeland. Israel have withdrawn from the Bermuda Bowl, stressing that this was simply a practical decision, not a statement that they believe the pair to be guilty. 

The Ultimate Scandal

 Fisher - Schwartz were not the only top pair commonly suspected of cheat­ing, and with a horde of volunteers dedicating themselves to video analy­sis, an opportunity arose to build on Boye's start. 

After analysing video archives of the two top-ranked players in the world, Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes, a Dutch player named Maaijke Mevius came up with a theory about the way they led their cards.

The allegation is that when they lead a card vertically, it shows either a single­ton or an honour in that suit. If true, this would be a particularly useful sig­nal for Fantoni - Nunes, as they play Slawinsky leads: when holding an honour in the suit, they lead low from odd and high from even; when hold­ing no honour, they do the opposite. Playing this method, knowledge about the honour would clarify count as well as attitude, while keeping both from the opponents. 

Other theories, all currently unproven, include: 

- placement of the personal scoresheet to indicate either five or six cards in their natural     two-level openings 

- placement of the pass card on the bidding tray to indicate a minimum pass 

- other arrangements when breaking a new suit or following in third seat.

 The secondary theories are unlikely to be tested properly, as it is believed the primary theory provides sufficient evi­dence. Fantoni and Nunes have not responded to the accusations, but Monaco has withdrawn from the Ber­muda Bowl (again, this was a practical decision and not a declaration of guilt). 

The Future 

Neither of the two current cases are resolved yet, and no charges have been filed. The crowd-sourcing group known as "Boye's Posse" will continue to scour the archives for a more com­plete picture. All new developments will continue to be posted at the Bridge Winners web site, and we will include links to the most important items at :www.australianbridge.com.

 References:

 Fair Play Or Foul? Cheating Scandals In Bridge by Cathy Chua.

 The Mad World of Bridge by Jack Olsen.

 New York Times Bridge Book by Alan Truscott.

 The Bridge Bum by Alan Sontag.

 British Bridge World magazine, April 1964.

 The Great Bridge Scandal by Alan Truscott.