Ten days after the first elite player confessed to cheat, a second said she had done it too.
A few months later, rich sponsors pleaded for the players to clean up the game. Then the officials suspended a Best player, and another, and this summer 30 teams lost rather than playing someone accused of cheating.
For over a year, the topic of cheating has consumed many players at the highest levels of contract bridge, the card game renowned for its complex gameplay and clubby community.
In interviews, top players, league officials and data analysts described an increase in cheating as the coronavirus pandemic pushed gamers online, and a subsequent backlog of cases 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 charges committee – a sort of Supreme Court of bridge – for the American Contract Bridge League, the largest federation in North America.
Bridge is played by partners sitting opposite each other, trying to win a certain number of tricks in each hand based on a predetermined offer, or contract. In person, cheating usually meant surreptitious signals to be shared “unauthorized informationâ, Like who has a good costume. A foot can type a coded message, the angle of a pencil can signal a strong hand, or a card placed vertically or horizontally can guide a partner on how to play.
When the pandemic forced players to log in, teammates could effortlessly cheat: talk side-by-side on the couch, chat over the phone, or use spectator accounts to see each other’s cards.
But Mr Stephani warned that, despite claims by some analysts, the extent of the problem was unknown. âWe just don’t know what percentage of bridge players who play online cheat,â he said.
“Creeping” 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 turned his skills to detecting cheating. He called the problem “creeping”. With remote play, organizers couldn’t look for secret signals, analyze videos of important matches, or tell if partners were talking.
They only had a digital record of in-game decisions and an incredibly complicated set of rules. The league’s disciplinary code, until recently, was over 29,000 words long.
“You wouldn’t believe how ridiculous this is,” said Stephani, who is also a law professor at the University of Cincinnati. “It’s just awful.”
He estimated the league had handled more than two dozen cases in the past 16 months, barely a dent in the number of suspected cheating cases. League leaders “were exploring different options” to better detect, prevent and treat cases, he said.
To compound the problem, cheating has been a taboo subject for decades in the small, genteel 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, there were rumors,” said Ellis Feigenbaum, 60, manager of a club in Costa Mesa, Calif. “But we assume people are gentlemen, and honorable, and ladies.”
This assumption is so strong that the league still has a rule that threatens a player with suspension for publicly accusing another of cheating.
“They caught people everyone loves”
Serious cracks in this culture have started in 2015, when a top player named Boye Brogeland describes cheating by top international players. He said internet cheating in 2020 shocked players much like its allegations years ago, and it was essential to face the issue openly.
âYou have to do some kind of crusade to do something, otherwise within the system it’s so hard to do anything,â he said.
Since 2015, cheating “has either worsened or our ability to detect it has improved, or both,” said Doug Couchman, chairman of the league’s advisory board.
Mr. Couchman said the bridge should face the problem publicly. âWe cannot continue to pretend that something is not there,â he said. âIt’s part of the maturation process. We are entering what I hope could become the modern era of bridge.
If the bridge is maturing, there has been growing pains. âFor a long time, everyone knew there was cheating and no one could prove it,â Feigenbaum said. “All of a sudden, they could prove it.”
Over the past 18 months, he said, players have thrown accusations and “venom” in online forum, debating the extent of the problem, the degrees of wrongdoing and the penalties.
âPeople are starting to realize,â Mr. Feigenbaum said, âthat the mental sport we love, if we don’t do what it takes to protect it, it won’t be there anymore.â
Some have called for suspensions, others for a lifetime ban, still others for a slap on the wrist. Players wondered why so many people, including experts, would cheat. (Only a small group of professional players are able to write five- or six-figure paychecks from âsponsors,â who are often financiers or wealthy amateurs who pay to team up with the pros.)
âThey caught people that everyone loves – normal people that you never thought you would cheat in a million years,â said Jenny Wolpert, one of the best players in the world.
Sylvia Shi, a high level player who was suspended last year until 2023 for online cheating, apologized in an open letter: “I didn’t do it for the money, the fame, the results, the wins, some sort of accomplishment or master points,” she said, referring to the bridge ranking system . “I did it because it was so, so easy and so tempting. (Ms. Shi did not respond to requests for comment.)
A digital recording of each lap
Online platforms have not only made cheating easier, but also left a record of every bid and card played. Players like Mr. Kamil began to analyze strange decision patterns that led to strange success. Statistical analysts like Nicolas Hammond, author of “Detecting Cheating in Bridge,” have noticed players who suddenly compete beyond the capabilities of the best bridge players of all time.
Mr Hammond, managing director of a software consulting company, created algorithms to analyze data and assess player performance.
He concluded that cheating permeates the game. He estimates that, based on data starting in March 2020, around 2-5% of all pairs playing online were cheating, a figure that translates into several hundred players in the game. league.
“It’s a horrible statistic,” he said, and, with a backlog of lawsuits, those responsible for the game “are a long way from solving the problem.”
Officials are also concerned about the costs: lawsuits can be long and painful, Dear litigation and the challenge of explaining bridge to judges or referees – in the current court system, without bridge – who do not play.
The defendants face similar dilemmas. 20-time North American champion Tobi Sokolow said she quit the league last month to avoid the “costly, lengthy and extremely stressful process” of facing a hearing. Mounting a defense would require hiring experts and a representative, analyzing hands and holding a hearing that could last for months.
“My ethics have never been questioned,” said Ms Sokolow, 79. But citing her age and health, she said: “I didn’t think I could endure a grueling ordeal.”
Several players have argued that it is less important to crack down on cheating among beginner or intermediate players than to stop it at the top. And some have argued that recent and significant lawsuits have gone a long way in cleaning up the game, at least to high levels.
“It was really bad,” said Ms Wolpert, 36.
“But the few people who got caught, it really mattered,” she added. âPeople are behaving a lot better. “
A threat to the future of the bridge
Players and officials are also talking about a culture change. “There is a lot of pressure from the top players to get the players to do the right thing,” said Mitch Dunitz, a player who has sued a case this year.
The American Bridge Federation, for example, which hosts the equivalent of the Olympic trials for an American team, held competitions this month in supervised hotel rooms, using tablets and recording games. Mr Kamil and Ms Wolpert, who participated, said they were convinced the measures prevent cheating in small, tightly controlled settings.
In a qualifying tournament in August for the world national team championships, 30 teams withdrew at the prospect of playing against an Italian player accused of cheating, a case documented this month by The New Yorker.
Cheating will always be a problem to some extent, Couchman said.
“We probably need to master better, and with more modern methods, we are doing it,” he added.
He and Mr Stephani said league leaders are also debating resources that should be spent on prosecutions versus other projects, such as teaching bridge to younger children.
“We cannot let cheating get so out of hand that it drives everyone away,” Stephani said. “We have to do something to rename the game, reinvigorate it, and we have to keep it clean along the way.”
The average age of league members is around 74 and membership numbers are declining. Mr Stephani, who is 54, said it was “not uncommon” to be the youngest in a club.
âIf we don’t do something for the survival of the game,â he said, âhe’s going to die with us.â