After a Year of ‘Intense’ Cheating, Elite Bridge Trying to Clean Up

Ten days after the first elite player Confessed to cheat, one second He said he did it too.

A few months later, wealthy sponsors begged for players to clear the game. Then the authorities suspended one best player, and anotherand 30 teams this summer lost rather than playing someone accused of cheating.

For over a year, the subject of cheating has consumed many players at the highest levels of contract bridge, the card game with a reputation for complex gameplay and the club community.

In interviews, top players, league officials and data analysts described an increase in cheating as the coronavirus pandemic pushed players online, and then backlogs in the game’s byzantine disciplinary system.

“It’s a problem. I think anyone who says it’s not a problem is probably naive,” said AJ Stephani, chairman of the appeals and impeachment committee of the American Contract Bridge League, the largest federation in North America – a kind of bridge Supreme Court.

Bridge is played by partners sitting opposite each other, trying to win a certain number of tricks in both hands based on a predetermined bid or contract. Personally, cheating often meant secret signals to share.unauthorized informationlike ”who has a good suit. A foot can tap a coded message, the angle of a pen can indicate a strong hand, or a card placed vertically or horizontally can guide a partner how to play.

When the pandemic forces players to go online, teammates can effortlessly cheat: talk side-by-side on the couch, chat on the phone, or use spectator accounts to see everyone’s cards.

But Mr. Stephani cautioned that the extent of the problem is unknown, despite claims from some analysts. “We don’t know what percentage of bridge players playing online are cheating,” he said.

Michael Kamil, a player who has won nine North American championships and has turned his skills to detecting cheating, said cheating “absolutely exploded” during the outbreak. He described the problem as “common”. With remote play, organizers cannot search for hidden signals, analyze video of important matches, or tell if partners are speaking.

The game had only a digital record of decisions and an incredibly complex set of rules. The league’s disciplinary code has, until recently, grown to more than 29,000 words.

“You wouldn’t believe how ridiculous this is,” said Mr. Stephani, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati. “This is just terrible.”

He estimated that the league has worked on more than two dozen cases in the last 16 months, barely a drop in the number of suspected cheating cases. League leaders are “exploring different options” to better detect, prevent and handle cases, he said.

Complicating the issue further, cheating was a taboo subject for decades in the genteel, small elite bridge community, a game that evolved from and was replaced by the 19th-century Whist. a Vanderbilt on a yacht in 1925.

“There were rumors about it,” said 60-year-old Ellis Feigenbaum, manager of a club in Costa Mesa, California. “But we assume people are gentlemen, dignified and ladylike.”

This assumption is so strong that the league still has a rule that threatens to suspend a player for publicly accusing him of cheating.

Serious cracks began in that culture. in 2015, best actor named Boye Brogeland cheat explained by top international players. He said that in 2020, internet cheating shocked players, like his claims years ago, and it was critical to confront the problem openly.

“You have to go on some kind of crusade to do something, otherwise it’s very difficult to do something within the system,” he said.

Since 2015, cheating has either “got worse, or our ability to detect it has gotten better, or both,” said Doug Couchman, chairman of the league’s advisory council.

Mr. Couchman said the bridge had to confront the problem publicly. “We can’t keep pretending nothing’s wrong,” he said. “It’s part of the maturation process. We are entering what I hope might be known as the modern bridge age.”

If the bridge is maturing, there has been growing pain. “For a long time, everybody knew that cheating was done, and nobody could prove it,” said Mr. Feigenbaum. “Suddenly they can prove it.”

He said that in the past 18 months, players have lobbied accusations and “poison”. online forumsdiscusses the extent of the problem, the degree of wrongdoing, and the penalties.

“People are starting to realize that the mind sport we love won’t be there anymore if we don’t do what it takes to protect it,” said Mr. Feigenbaum.

Some called for suspension, some for exile for life, others for a slap on the wrist. Gamers wondered why so many people cheated, including experts. (Only a small group of professional gamers continue to receive five- or six-figure paychecks from “sponsors,” often financiers or wealthy hobbyists, who pay to team up with the pros.)

“They’ve caught people everyone loves — normal people you would never think cheated in a million years,” said Jenny Wolpert, one of the world’s top actresses.

Sylvia Shi was a top player. suspended for online cheat last year until 2023, apologized in an open letter“I didn’t do this for money, glory, results, victory, some kind of satisfaction or mastery,” he said, referring to the bridge’s ranking system. “I did it because it was, That’s why easy and very tempting.” (Ms. Shi did not respond to requests for comment.)

Online platforms have not only made cheating simple, but have also left a record of every bid and card played. Players like Mr. Kamil began to analyze the bizarre decision patterns that led to uncanny success. Statistical analysts such as Nicolas Hammond, author of “Cheat Detection in Bridge” suddenly noticed players competing beyond the capabilities of bridge’s all-time best players.

Mr. Hammond, managing director of a software consulting firm, created algorithms to parse data and evaluate players’ performance.

He concluded that cheating dominates the game. Based on data starting in March 2020, he estimates that around 2 to 5 percent of all couples playing online cheat, this figure translates to several hundred players in the league.

“It’s a dreadful statistic,” he said, and with the prosecutions accumulating, game officials “are by no means close to solving the problem.”

Authorities are also concerned about costs: Proceedings can be lengthy and painful, and potentially expensive case and the difficulty of explaining bridge to judges or referees who do not play bridge – in a true, non-bridge justice system.

Defendants face similar dilemmas. 20-time North American champion Tobi Sokolow said he resigned from the league last month to avoid the “costly, time-consuming and extremely stressful process” of facing a trial. Building a defense requires hiring experts and a representative, analyzing the hands, and going through a trial that can take months.

“My ethics were never questioned,” said Ms. Sokolow, 79. But speaking of her age and health, she said, “I didn’t think I could handle a grueling ordeal.”

Several players have argued that among beginners or intermediate players, preventing cheating is less important than stopping it at the top. And some have argued that recent prosecutions have gone a long way toward clearing the game, at least at high levels.

“It was really bad,” said 36-year-old Ms Wolpert.

“But the few who were caught were really important,” he added. “People behave much better.”

Players and officials are also talking about a culture shift. “There’s a lot of pressure from top players for players to do the right thing,” said Mitch Dunitz, a player suing this year.

For example, the United States Bridge Federation, which runs the equivalent of Olympic trials for a US team, held competitions this month using tablets and recording games in monitored hotel rooms. Mr Kamil and Ms Wolpert, who attended, said they were confident the measures prevented cheating in small, tightly controlled environments.

In August’s World National Team Championship qualifying tournament, 30 teams were forfeited when faced with the prospect of playing against an Italian player accused of cheating. Documented this month by The New Yorker.

Mr Couchman said that some degree of cheating will always be a problem.

“We probably need to find a better way, and we’re doing it in more modern ways,” he added.

He and Mr. Stephani said league leaders also discussed what resources should be devoted to prosecutions against other projects, such as teaching young people bridge.

“We can’t let cheating get so out of control that it drives everyone away,” Mr. Stephani said. “We have to do something to rebrand the game, to revive it, and keep it clean along the way.”

The average age of league members is around 74, and memberships are dwindling. Mr. Stephani, 54, said it was “not uncommon” to be the youngest person at a club.

“If we don’t do something to keep the game alive,” he said, “it will die with us.”

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