As the pandemic forced most players online, the problem of cheating consumed the game's highest levels. Top players say a tight-lipped culture is finally changing.
Ten days after the first elite player confessed to cheating, a second said she had done it, too.
A few months later, wealthy sponsors pleaded for players to clean up the game. Then officials suspended one top player, and another, and this summer 30 teams forfeited rather than play someone accused of cheating.
For more than a year, the topic of cheating has consumed many players in the highest levels of contract bridge, the card game with a reputation for complex gameplay and clubby community.
In interviews, top players, league officials and data analysts described a surge in cheating as the coronavirus pandemic pushed players online, and a subsequent backlog of cases in the game's byzantine disciplinary system.
"It's a problem. I think anybody who says it's not a problem is probably naive," said A.J. Stephani, chair of the appeals and charges committee — a kind of Supreme Court of bridge — for the American Contract Bridge League, North America's biggest federation.
Bridge is played by partners sitting opposite each other, trying to win a certain number of tricks in each hand based on a predetermined bid, or contract. In person, cheating usually meant surreptitious signals to share "unauthorised information," like who has a good suit. A foot might tap out a coded message, a pencil's angle could signal a strong hand, or a card placed vertically or horizontally could guide a partner how to play.
When the pandemic forced players online, teammates could cheat effortlessly: talking side-by-side on the sofa, chatting by phone or using spectator accounts to see everyone's cards.
But Stephani cautioned that, despite assertions by some analysts, the extent of the problem was unknown. "We just don't know what percent of bridge players playing online are cheating," he said.
'Rampant' cheating and a 'ridiculous' set of rules
Cheating has "absolutely exploded" during the pandemic, said Michael Kamil, winner of nine North American championships and a player who has turned his skills toward detecting cheating. He described the problem as "rampant." With remote play, organisers couldn't look for secret signals, analyze video of important matches or tell whether partners were talking.
They had only a digital record of decisions in the game and an incredibly complicated set of rules. The league's disciplinary code, until recently, ran to more than 29,000 words.
"You wouldn't believe how ridiculous it is," said Stephani, who is also a law professor at the University of Cincinnati. "It's just awful."
He estimated that the league had worked through more than two dozen cases in the past 16 months, barely a dent in the number of suspected instances of cheating. League leaders were "exploring different options" for how to better detect, prevent and process cases, he said.
Compounding the problem, cheating was for decades a taboo subject in the genteel, tiny community of elite bridge — a game that evolved from 19th-century whist and was modified by a Vanderbilt on a yacht in 1925.
"It was whispered about. There were rumours," said Ellis Feigenbaum, 60, director of a club in Costa Mesa, California. "But we assume people to be gentlemen, and honorable, and ladies."
That assumption is so strong that the league still has a rule that threatens a player with suspension for publicly accusing another of cheating.
'They've caught people who everybody likes'
Serious cracks in that culture began in 2015 when a top player named Boye Brogeland described cheating by top international players. He said internet cheating in 2020 had shocked players much like his allegations years ago and that it was critical to confront the problem openly.
"You have to go on some sort of crusade to do something. Otherwise, within the system, it's just so hard to get anything done," he said.
Since 2015, cheating has either "gotten worse, or our ability to detect it has gotten better, or both," said Doug Couchman, chair of the league's advisory council.
Couchman said that bridge should confront the problem publicly. "We can't keep pretending something isn't there," he said. "It's part of the maturation process. We're entering what I hope could become known as the modern era of bridge."
If bridge is maturing, there have been growing pains. "For a long time, everyone knew cheating was going on, and no one could prove it," Feigenbaum said. "All of a sudden they could prove it."
Over the past 18 months, he said, players have lobbed accusations and "venom" in online forums, debating the extent of the problem, degrees of wrongdoing and penalties.
"People are beginning to realize," Feigenbaum said, "that the mind sport that we love, if we don't do what we need to to protect it, it won't be there anymore."
Some have called for suspensions, others for lifelong banishment, still others for a slap on the wrist. Players wondered why so many, including experts, would cheat. (Only a small group of professional players stand to make five- or six-figure paychecks from "sponsors," who are often financiers or rich hobbyists who pay to team up with pros.)
"They've caught people who everybody likes — normal people you would never in a million years think were cheating," said Jenny Wolpert, one of the world's top players.
Sylvia Shi, a high-level player who was suspended last year until 2023 for online cheating, apologised in an open letter: "I didn't do it for money, glory, results, victories, some sort of fulfillment, or masterpoints," she said, referring to bridge's ranking system. "I did it because it was so, so easy, and so tempting." (Shi did not respond to requests for comment.)
A Digital record of every trick
Online platforms not only simplified cheating, but they also left a record of every bid and card played. Players like Kamil began to analyze patterns of odd decisions that led to uncanny success. Statistical analysts like Nicolas Hammond, author of "Detecting Cheating in Bridge," noticed players who were suddenly competing beyond the abilities of bridge's all-time best players.
Hammond, CEO of a software consulting company, created algorithms to parse the data and assess players' performance.
He concluded that cheating pervades the game. He estimates that, based on data beginning in March 2020, about 2 per cent-5 per cent of all pairs playing online were cheating, a figure that translates to several hundred players in the league.
"It's a horrible statistic," he said, and with a backlog of prosecutions, gaming officials are "nowhere close to addressing the problem."
Officials are also concerned about costs: Prosecutions can be long and painful, potentially leading to expensive litigation and the challenge of explaining bridge to judges or arbiters — in the actual, nonbridge judicial system — who don't play.
Defendants face similar dilemmas. Tobi Sokolow, a 20-time North American champion, said she resigned from the league last month to avoid the "costly, time-consuming and extremely stressful process" of facing a hearing. Mounting a defense would require hiring experts and a representative, analysing hands and enduring a hearing that could last months.
"My ethics have never once been questioned," Sokolow, 79, said. But citing her age and her health, she said, "I did not feel I could handle a gruelling ordeal."
Several players argued that cracking down on cheating among beginner or intermediate players was less important than stopping it at the top. And some argued that recent, prominent prosecutions had gone a long way to cleaning up the game, at least at high levels.
"It was really bad," Wolpert, 36, said.
"But the few people that got caught, it really mattered," she added. "People are behaving much better."
A threat to bridge's future
Players and officials also speak of a culture shift. "There's a lot of pressure from the top players down to make players do the right thing," said Mitch Dunitz, a player who prosecuted a case this year.
The United States Bridge Federation, for instance, which runs the equivalent of Olympic trials for a US team, held competitions this month in monitored hotel rooms, using tablets and recording games. Kamil and Wolpert, who participated, said they felt confident the measures prevented cheating in small, tightly controlled settings.
At a qualifying tournament in August for the World National Team Championships, 30 teams forfeited when faced with the prospect of playing against an Italian player who had been accused of cheating, a case documented this month by The New Yorker.
Cheating will always be a problem to some degree, Couchman said.
"We probably need to get a better handle, and with more modern methods, we're doing so," he added.
He and Stephani said league leaders were also debating what resources should be devoted to prosecutions versus other projects, like teaching bridge to younger people.
"We can't let cheating get so out of control it drives everyone away," Stephani said. "We've got to do something to rebrand the game, reinvigorate it, and we need to keep it clean along the way."
The average age of league members is about 74, and membership is declining. Stephani, who is 54, said it was "not uncommon" to be the youngest person in a club.
"If we don't do something for the survival of the game," he said, "it's going to die with us."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Alan Yuhas
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES