2015 will be remembered as the year of bridge scandals, as several World Class pairs have been accused of systematically cheating.
Last year it emerged that Dr. Michael Elinescu and Dr. Entscho Wladow had been illegally communicating during the 2013 World Senior Championships. They are now known as the German Coughing Doctors. Their basic code was that one, two, three or four coughs meant Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts or Spades respectively. This was used both in the auction, to tell partner about a shortage in the indicated suit, and just before the opening lead, to suggests a suit to partner. They were an eccentric pair with other mannerisms and hand movements (a theme we will see repeating) and there may have been more to their code. They have been found guilty by both the World Bridge Federation and German Bridge Federation, but maintain their innocence (another recurring theme).
This year things began relatively quietly, when at the end of the 2015 World Championships in Chennai a cryptic note in the Daily Bulletin stated that the well-respected American Senior Mike Passell “was found guilty of violating CDR 3.1 (Laws of Duplicate Bridge), 3.7 (Actions unbecoming a Member participating in an ACBL event), 3.20 (Ethical Violations) and E13 (Prearrange a deal or part thereof).” It eventually emerged that Mike had been accused of deliberately creating a ‘fouled board’, by messing up the cards on a deal he’d already played so it couldn’t be played at the other table, and was therefore unscored. This occurred on a hand where Mike had already received a bad result, so it didn't look good. In his defence Mike explained that he had noticed a card face up on the floor and merely added it to the wrong pocket. He admitted an error of judgement in not calling the director, but denied deliberate wrongdoing.
This was soon overshadowed by much bigger news, when after his narrow quarterfinal loss in the prestigious Spingold tournament Norwegian Boye Brogeland publicly accused Israeli pair Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz of cheating (without saying how), and promised there were more revelations to come. Analysis of video evidence from Per Ola Cullin of Sweden found a link between where a defender placed the tray containing after the auction and the suit he wanted partner to lead.
In this video still Fisher (leftmost) is on opening lead and Schwartz (opposite) is about to place the yellow board down. His board placement matched the suit that he wanted partner to lead, as indicated by the suit symbols. Tellingly, Schwartz’s irregular placement of the board only occurred when his partner was on lead; the rest of the time he placed the board in the middle of the table like everyone else.
Boye set up a website called BridgeCheaters.com outlining the accusations and occasions where F-S achieved good results by suspected foul play, and suggesting there may have also been a coughing code. Naturally F-S denied the allegations, and have hired a lawyer and set up their own Facebook page in defence.
Then came the next bombshell, as BridgeWinners.com announced that they had “received overwhelming evidence alleging improper communication between the world’s #1 and #2 ranked bridge players, Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes, during the 2014 European Championships.”
It took some time before the actual cheating mechanism was unearthed by Maaijke Mevius from the Netherlands. The opening lead is placed vertically when the suit contains an Ace, King or Queen (or is a singleton) else is placed horizontally. This extra nugget of information allowed the partner of the opening leader to defend with much greater accuracy, particularly as ‘Fantunes’ as they are known, play an unusual system of Slawinski leads where the opening lead is often ambiguous.
A team of volunteers (including some Bridge Internationals) reviewed hours of footage and found the orientation of the opening lead followed this system on 82 out of 85 deals. Notably, both F-S and Fantunes were under suspicion before it was known how they were cheating. This was because of their uncanny good fortune and unjustifiable winning decisions had stood out to other experts.
In this video Fantoni (leftmost) makes the opening lead horizontally. His partner now knows he has no high honour in that suit, and no singleton. There may also have been more to their code. The pair were investigated in 2014 for the infamous Blackout Defence, where Nunes made a very illogical but successful action then claimed it was because he had a blackout.
After the Fantunes revelation there were rumours of a ‘third pair’, confirmed German Internationals Alex Smirnov and partner Josef Piekarek announced on the BridgeWinners website that they were “aware of the ‘whispers’ circulating about our ethical conduct, and we are sorry to say there is some truth to them. We regret that in the past as a partnership we committed some ethical violations” (read more here).
Some applauded their honesty, some said they only came forward as they were about to be rumbled (“sounds like an advance sacrifice” said Tom Hanlon of Ireland). With the World Championships about to take place in Chennai in India there were now pairs from Israel, Monaco and Germany under suspicion. All three teams withdrew from the tournament, a blow for their supporters and honest team members.
The Polish team did not withdraw, despite rumours about Cezary Balicki and Adam Zmudzinski (known as B-Z). It was found that they were communicating illegally by how they spaced out their bidding cards. A card placed close to the previous bid indicates a minimum hand for the previous bidding, a well spaced out bid means a maximum for the previous bidding.
The analysis of this was thoroughly done, with one set of analysts looking at the spacing of the bids, and a separate set independently looking at whether the bids were maximum or minimum. A very strong correlation was found. Although the video resolution is poor the spacing of the bids can be seen nicely in the videos in Kit Woolsey’s analysis on BridgeWinners.com.
B-Z are known as an eccentric pair, not least as sometimes Zmudzinski touches the dummy while in defence. Above is a still from Australian Ishmael Del Monte’s article on Bridge Winners entitled ‘A Helping Hand’. Balicki fans out dummy’s Spades with all five fingers. He had five Spades himself (shown above). A correlation was found between the number of fingers he touches a suit with and his own length in that suit (see here).
Just before the World Championship the WBF withdrew the credentials of that pair, but allowed Poland to compete with other players. Controversially they won, and were crowned World Champions.
With the notable exception of Smirnov-Piekarek all the pairs claim their innocence, so in that sense the cases are not settled. National and International bodies are deciding how to act, as are tournament organisers whose previous winners are now tainted. There are also of course rumours of a ‘fifth pair’, and investigations continue.
Collectively the accused pairs have exploited many methods to communicate, which work even with screens, using audible coughs and visible finger, board, bid and card placement. There is even speculation about other possible ways of exchanging information, such as the angle of the scoring pen.
In response to these weaknesses Fred Gitelman of Bridge Base has designed a hybrid computerised version of the game where players meet around a table but input their bids and plays on tablet computers. This would cut out some methods of communication, and make recording suspicious activity much easier. However for some experts, notably Sabine Auken, this lacks the visceral excitement of playing with cards; picking them up and seeing what you’ve been dealt.
Although for most club players the cheating scandal just leaves a bad taste, one positive thing is that the elite game is now cleaner than ever, which is good news for the other top players who have been so active in the investigations.
Finally, here is probably the best summary in the popular press from Newsweek.
If there are any errors or inaccuracies in my article please let me know and I can correct them - Thanks, Danny.