The 2015 Bridge Scandal - a way forward?

I’m more a social than a good Bridge player, but even I know about the scandal that has rocked the world of Bridge recently. I rather suspect that there’s a Doper or two who play seriously. I’m wondering if in competitions, physical cards should be replaced by tablets, with all players getting a Bridgebase-like view? This would stop dead the issues of card, tray, and bidding box placement.


http://bridgewinners.com/article/series/2015-cheating-scandal/

This is potentially an interesting topic but your links do not help a casual reader understand what’s going on. Link 2 is another message board and Link 1 presents the story

  1. Really, really badly, from a formatting point of view, and
  2. In Bridgespeak, which is incomprehensible to people who aren’t experienced bridge players.

It was kind of easy for me to find some links to more accessible explanations:

It seems to me, as you allude to, that any card game played with partners in physical proximity to each other will invite cheating. If I can see my partner, the temptation to signal in some way is always there; there’s no getting around it, and there is no way to catch every possible way you can signal. The only surefire solutions are

  1. Yours but I’d take it a step further; play on computers* in separate rooms.*
  2. A full audit of every match after the fact. This cheating was caught by post-match analysis; illogical play that can only be explained by cheating becomes pretty apparent after the fact unless the edge sought is very, very small.

Sad situation. The seeds were sown many years ago when the governing bodies didn’t ban Professionals. Now there is a monetary incentive among the Pros to boost their status (and thus the rates they can charge to clients) by winning events. And money will corrupt sports - that is guaranteed.

Money corrupts but professional sports at the highest levels have largely succeeded in keeping cheating to a minimum. That’s why when it happens it’s a huge deal in the media.

In this case what you have is a situation where the organizers of the game failed to anticipate something that really should have been anticipated… indeed, it’s kind of stunning that they didn’t. I mean, people cheat playing euchre against their friends for fun. If you held a major euchre tournament for fancy trophies and prize money it’d be insane not to assume partners would collude. If you are running a serious sport or gaming event, you ASSUME cheating will take place and put safeguards in place. It’s as if the people who run the World Series of Poker let the competitors bring their own cards and do the dealing themselves and were then surprised when someone dealt themselves pocket aces off the bottom of the deck.

Because bridge can be analyzed after the fact it seems to me you can catch it almost every time it happens - not perfectly, because the tiniest taking of an advantage could go undetected, but in the case presented here the cheaters were brazen enough to elicit immediate suspicion and played in a way that only cheating could explain. Just knowing that an independent party will analyze the hands and run them though some sort of “Find the cheater algorithm” will discourage cheaters.

Thanks for the extra link, RickJay - I was floundering a bit, too.

This isn’t quite right. As Brogeland said, if you lead Kd from:

KQJ10xx
xx
Kx
xxx

(or whatever it was) and find partner with AQJxx in diamonds, you’re going to be thrown out for cheating immediately. What actually happened here was the cheaters found a way to cheat that gave them a small but significant advantage that wasn’t immediately obvious, and therefore took a lot of analysis from a number of expert players to expose. Although it was hard work, it has also presented the solution you describe, in that professionals will now be extremely wary of doing this again.

Having said that, I agree the only way to stamp it out completely is to play on computers in separate rooms. Even then someone might be able to hack the software, but I doubt this could be done without being easily detected. You’d also have to have a supervisor in each room I guess, so it would get expensive.

It’s a shame because Bridge, like most games, is sociable at heart, but I suppose you have to make sacrifices at professional level, just like you can have fun playing football in the park without a referee whereas that would never work at professional level.

Even on unhackable computers in separate rooms, you could still find ways to communicate. Vary the time at which you make your moves, for instance: Both partners synchronize their watches before the match, and if the move is made at a number of seconds divisible by four, it means this, and if it’s one more than a multiple of four, it means that, and so on. Yeah, it’s not much information, but I’ll bet that clever players could find a way to leverage advantage from even just a single bit.

And you can’t just rely on after-the-fact analyses, because there’s no way to distinguish between a deliberate cheat and an accidental suboptimal play that turned out to get lucky.

You can tell the difference between cheating and lucky. You just have to be very lucky What are the odds that this sub optimal play would result in winning. 1% of the time .1% something like that. You do this sort of thing in physics experiments all the time. If you are tacking something subtle in the noise you take a lot of measurements and apply statistics to convince your self and others that this is a real process and not noise.

Competitive Bridge is trying to solve a tricky problem here. Having team members not acting as a team.

I think an electronic environment is probably inevitable for the top level events - sucks, because who wants to play bridge like that, but it will eliminate cheating by physical signaling.

It’s striking how rudimentary the cheating methods have been - like Fantoni-Nunes have been taking the piss out of the entire bridge world for years with things like the orientation of their lead card (!) and getting away with it. This leads to the depressing conclusion that we haven’t found the clever cheats, as you could easily cheat selectively, randomising your methods, and never be caught. It’s a ton of work to prove cheating from hand records and even video evidence (last I read the BZ cheating story was not completely clear cut, but I haven’t checked bridgewinners in a while as it was bringing me down).

Interestingly, one of the indications that Fisher-Schwartz (the Israeli pair who were the first to be exposed by Brogeland) were bent was that one of them (Schwartz) wasn’t that good by international standards. You can’t cheat in declarer play, and his play wasn’t at the expected level for a pair that was crushing the opposition.

These sort of cheating scandals make you wonder at the personalities involved - I can’t believe they’re all total sociopaths. I think it’s a slippery, incremental slope with each step down being justified by some specious reasoning (ie everyone is cheating so we need to, just to be competitive). An electronic bridge environment might provide a sort of watershed in that respect - it seems easier to be tempted by the darkside when you’re talking about card placement and coughing. Stuff like putting a radio transmitter in your shoe (or whatever) to beat an electronic game has more of a cheating activation energy.

One of Andrew Robson’s books has a line to the effect that if you make the perfect lead every time, you will be the best player in the world; declarer play is secondary.

Don’t give them any ideas…

I can see it now:

  1. Signals in the glasses (not necessarily Google Glass, but different colored lights in the rims, similar to what an early blackjack card counter used)

  2. Four cellphones, set on vibrate and taped to different parts of the body (this was discussed as a potential strategy for the UK’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheat)

I’ve only ever played Contract Bridge, not Auction, but I have to say I’m a little mystified by this. The bidding in Contract is all designed to tell the sort of things. The cheaters plan, described here -

All that sort of thing - asking for a suit, settling on a lead - can be conveyed quite openly by the bidding process. (For the uninitiated, the early rounds of bids are about conveying information about your hand to your partner. If you open with 1 Spade, it doesn’t mean that you want to play a 1 Spade game).

This is all perfectly legal and above board. You can use several different systems. Some lunatics even invent their own systems. But the players are required to be honest with their opponents. So if I make a bid of 1 No Trump, my opponents are entitled to ask my partner what he understood that bid to mean.

The people I played with, including my Dad, knew exactly what cards everyone was holding and the order they ought to go down, barring mishaps (usually mine).

I guess the difference is that using the cheater’s method, wouldn’t necessarily be conveying the correct information to the opponents. But in that case the bidding wouldn’t match the results in play. Any respectable Bridge player should have realized that the bidding wasn’t matching what the cards conveyed. When they wrote it up later, it should have been obvious that the actual distribution of the cards wasn’t matching the bids.

I played with people who made real money betting on Bridge. They would have been all over this shit, if their opponents bids never matched the hands and their gameplay didn’t match their bids.

Think your Dad might have been kidding you a bit there Merneith, he didn’t know exactly what cards everyone was holding and the order they ought to go down, because that would make the game simplistically boring - when the game is infamous for its complexity.

You often do know what to lead from the bidding - if partner has overcalled, or they’ve made a lead-directing double, or you have a very obvious suit of your own to establish etc etc. but equally often you do not know because not enough information has been exchanged. Or the obvious lead is wrong.
This applies to all levels of play - even experts will be on a guess on the lead or a switch many times in a session. Hence Robson’s comment that Quartz mentions above - a decent club player would be transformed into an international if they could always find the right lead.

This is why it’s such a vulnerable part of the game for the cheater’s to exploit, as you can justify any lead that isn’t obviously stupid. And even then, good players make anti-field, off-beat leads now and again to avoid getting predictable with their play.

No. I know I’m arguing for anecdote here, but my Dad was also a chess master. I played cards with him for forty years. He was really that good. And his partner, who was the pro, was even better.

I’ll concede that it might have been my own duffer play that made it easy for him. I’m not much of a poker face and Dad and I could always crack each other up. Still.

I found that 90% of the play was pretty straightforward. Most of the game, at least when we played it, was in the bidding. The player can see half the cards in the deck and hear what the other two players were saying about their hand. The game play - count the suits as they go down, keep track of trumps - is pretty straightforward. It’s complex because there’s so much to pay attention to, and lots of people can’t follow the bidding or count all the cards, but the rules themselves are quite straightforward.

I maintain that my Dad and his hustler partner could have read the bidding and the gameplay write up and spotted the discrepancy between what they were saying and what they were doing.

[Firesign]
“No, son, and there won’t be, until free hands on both sides of the Big Ditch can press the same button at the same time.”
[/Firesign]

I had the privilege of playing against the Hackett twins, who were world-class players even then, a number of times in about 2000 and it was scary how they were able to place cards with people.