for newyorker.com, | October 13, 2021

The Great Bridge Boycott

At a recent tournament, thirty teams refused to compete when faced with the prospect of playing against Fulvio Fantoni, a notorious Italian player who has been accused of cheating.

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Four people play bridge at a table with a wooden partition.
Bridge partners can legally signal each other through their bidding and card selection, as long as their methods are fully disclosed.Photograph by Geoff Pugh / Shutterstock

During the last week of August, the European Bridge League held a qualifying tournament for the 2021 World National Team Championships. Nineteen days before it began, two well-known German players withdrew. In a brief post on bridgewinners.com, a lively online forum whose participants include many of the world’s best players, they explained why: “Fulvio Fantoni is confirmed to be a player on the Italian national team.”

Fantoni and a regular playing partner of his, Claudio Nunes, were once ranked No. 1 and No. 2 by the World Bridge Federation, but, for years, opponents suspected that they were cheating. (In 2016, I wrote about the allegations against Fantoni and Nunes in a piece for this magazine.) Bridge is a card game for four players, divided into two partnerships. Partners sit facing each other, and no player can see any other player’s cards until a round of bidding, called an auction, has ended and play begins. More often than seemed mathematically conceivable, Fantoni and Nunes made unusual bids and low-percentage plays that succeeded brilliantly, suggesting that they were illegally exchanging information about their hands. But how?

In 2014, videos of matches at the European bridge championships were uploaded on YouTube for the first time. Maaijke Mevius, a physicist in the Netherlands, had heard the rumors about Fantoni and Nunes—or Fantunes, as they are sometimes known—and decided to study some of their games. She wasn’t an expert player, but she thought that her training as a scientist might help her spot anomalies that better players had missed. Sure enough, she noticed something odd: when Fantoni and Nunes played a card in certain situations, they sometimes placed it on the table horizontally, and sometimes vertically. She shared her observation with Boye Brogeland, a Norwegian professional player, who has been instrumental in exposing prominent cheaters. An ad-hoc team of expert players quickly cracked the code: in eighty-two of eighty-five instances, they determined, Fantoni and Nunes placed a card on the table vertically when their hands contained an unseen ace, king, or queen of the same suit, or when their hands contained no other card of the same suit; otherwise, they placed it horizontally. (Fantoni and Nunes have denied all allegations of cheating, and have declined to comment.)

In 2016, the American Contract Bridge League (A.C.B.L.) permanently expelled both players and stripped them of their titles from the preceding four years; the European Bridge League (E.B.L.) banned them for five years and prohibited them from ever playing again as partners; and the Italian Bridge Federation banned them for three years. Fantoni and Nunes appealed the E.B.L.’s decision before a tribunal that consisted of two practicing lawyers and a law professor. In 2018, the judges ruled in Fantunes’s favor, and, six months later, the Italian Bridge Federation reversed its decision as well. (The punishments imposed by the A.C.B.L. remain in effect.) Some have described the decision by the tribunal as a vindication, even though the judges themselves said that it was not one. (In their ruling, they wrote, “Such conclusion does not mean that the Players are innocent of any wrongdoing, it only means that the EBL did not manage to prove to the comfortable satisfaction of the majority of the Panel that the Players committed an infraction of the EBL Rules.”) Many players who have competed against Fantoni and Nunes, however, believe that the offenses outlined by the E.B.L. and the A.C.B.L. were not only indisputable but also unforgivable. Steve Weinstein—a world champion who has been a leading participant in recent efforts to identify and punish high-level cheaters—told me, “Fantoni and Nunes ruined the records of bridge for years. They stole from honest players dreams and joy and satisfaction, and they did it for almost a decade and a half.”

Fantoni waited until this past August to enter a major international tournament, by which time his five-year European suspension would have expired anyway. Still, many players viewed his inclusion on the Italian team as a hostile act. Italy’s first opponent in the August qualification tournament was Scotland, which forfeited. Shortly afterward, Wales, Italy’s next opponent, forfeited, too. Then the other three teams that were scheduled to play Italy that day—Slovenia, Lithuania, and Ukraine—forfeited as well.

Although the teams didn’t say so explicitly, it was clear that they were forfeiting for the same reason that the German players withdrew: to protest the inclusion of Fantoni in the tournament. None of those teams had had a realistic chance of qualifying for the championship, though, and observers wondered whether stronger teams would follow their example. But they did. By the end of the week, all thirty of Italy’s opponents in the qualifying tournament had forfeited. Fantoni never played a hand.

Bridge has so many moving parts that cheating can be both easy to do and hard to detect. Good poker players watch for “tells”—such as tics, twitches, and nervous gestures—from the other players at the table. Bridge players do the same, but within narrow limits. If one of my opponents hesitates before making a bid or playing a card, I’m allowed to draw inferences; if my partner does, I’m not. Perhaps the oldest form of cheating in bridge is “coffeehousing,” which consists of attempting to fool an opponent through deceptive timing, misleading movements, and the like—forms of bluffing that are standard and unpenalized in poker. The ideal bridge player would always play at the same tempo and with the same inscrutable facial expression. Bridge partners can legally signal each other through their bidding and card selection—as long as their methods are fully disclosed, so that their opponents can read the messages, too—but not with smiles, frowns, gestures, eye rolls, or the vertical or horizontal orientation of their cards.

Among inexperienced bridge players, illegal behavior is common but usually inadvertent. The meaningful cases are the ones in which the violations are intentional and the players are skilled enough to exploit them—and the possible advantages are so great that, even for players who would seem to have no reason to cheat, the temptation can be overwhelming. (With few exceptions, major bridge tournaments do not have cash prizes, but, for the best players, bridge can be lucrative. The money comes from fees, salaries, and bonuses paid by wealthy enthusiasts, who hire experts to play with them in tournaments, and who sometimes assemble and finance entire teams. Weinstein—who also plays poker professionally—once told me that truly world-class players are so relatively scarce that rich “clients” compete for their services.) In 1965, at a major tournament in Buenos Aires, the late Terence Reese—who is still viewed as possibly the greatest British player of all time—was accused of using the position of his fingers to show his partner how many hearts he was holding. (In his account of the scandal, “Story of an Accusation,” published the following year, Reese defended himself against the claims.) Fourteen years later, a highly regarded American pair was caught doing something similar, using their scoring pencils.

Italy is strikingly well represented in the pantheon of the game’s alleged cheaters. In 1975, Gianfranco Facchini was caught tapping the feet of his partner, Sergio Zucchelli, under the table during the Bermuda Bowl. At a World Bridge Federation Appeals Committee hearing, Facchini denied moving his feet, attributing it to nervous tension, and Zucchelli said that he was not aware of any foot actions by his partner. But they’ve been known ever since as the Italian Foot Soldiers, and, because of them, the tables at big tournaments now have floor partitions. In 2005, Massimo Lanzarotti was caught looking at his opponent’s cards and then positioning his arms and fingers in a particular way, in order to signal information to his partner, Andrea Buratti. (Lanzarotti later denied looking at the cards; he and Buratti are known as the Race Cars.) Fantoni and Nunes were living in Monaco and playing for the Monegasque national team at the time they were caught, but they grew up in Italy and spent most of their playing careers there.

The most effective bridge cheaters of all time may have been the members of Italy’s Blue Team, which dominated international competitions between the late fifties and the early seventies. (The Italian Bridge Federation did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations against the Blue Team.) Tournament bridge in that era offered many opportunities for dishonesty: security even at big events was lax, few matches were filmed, accurate hand records weren’t always preserved, players had more opportunities to signal each other than they do today, and accusations often led nowhere, or even to the punishment of the accuser. In 2018, Avon Wilsmore, an Australian bridge expert, gathered evidence from many primary and secondary sources, including his own analysis of critical hands, and published “Under the Table: The Case Against the Blue Team.” In the book, Wilsmore builds his argument like a skilled district attorney. Some of the plot twists are worthy of Raymond Chandler.

In 1976, for example, Leandro Burgay, an Italian expert player, spoke on the phone to Benito Bianchi, a member of the Blue Team. According to Burgay, Wilsmore writes, Bianchi described the cheating methods favored by some Blue Team members, noting that “the methods involved the use of cigarette positioning and head movements.” The call lasted about half an hour, and Burgay recorded it. He then gave a copy of the tape to the head of the Italian Bridge Federation. The federation conducted no serious investigation and suspended Burgay for six years, although his suspension was later reduced. When the World Bridge Federation objected to the handling of the case, the president of the Italian federation responded with anger: “The accusations against the Italian players have never been proved and are solely the result of envy over our victories. Should things not change, it would not be the World Bridge Federation taking measures against us—we would pull out of the competitions. What would a bridge championship be like without the Italians?” As it happened, the Blue Team’s remarkable run on championship titles had ended the year before, with a victory at the Bermuda Bowl in 1975—which, coincidentally or not, was also the year in which the organizers of major tournaments began placing screens diagonally across bridge tables, so that partners could no longer see each other as they played. (That was the same Bermuda Bowl at which the Foot Soldiers were caught signalling each other under the table.)

The Italian Bridge Federation’s response to the thirty-team boycott of the Italian team at the European qualifier, in August, was reminiscent of the federation’s responses, decades earlier, to accusations about the Blue Team. In a letter to bridge authorities, the organization’s current president said, “The League should have expelled those who did not show up for the competition. If it had done so after the first or second match, the other teams might have behaved differently. We asked for the cancellation of the competition with appropriate measures: the damage to Italy’s image was enormous.”

The pandemic hit the bridge world hard. Under normal circumstances, tournaments are crowded, and players spend hours breathing on one another across tables that are less than three feet wide. Since early 2020, when quarantines first went into effect, the game has taken place mainly online. The European trials were held on a Web platform called RealBridge, and, although individual teams assembled to play in single locations (where they were independently supervised), their opponents were often many miles away.

I sometimes play with three friends on the game’s most popular Internet platform, Bridge Base Online, and as we play we chat on Skype. We do that to be sociable, but, if bridge partners are of a mind to collude, Skype can make it easy, as can any number of other communication technologies, including ordinary telephones. Bridge tournaments usually allow spectators, called kibitzers, to observe at least some of the tables. Kibitzers at online tournaments can see all four hands, and if they’re watching in real time they can easily pass information to a cheating player, even one on the other side of the world. Online bridge also creates the possibility of “self-kibitzing,” which occurs when a tournament participant signs on as a player with one account and as a kibitzer with another, then plays with perfect knowledge of all the cards.

Technology has also helped expose cheaters, however. Online players (especially older ones) may have thought initially that the Internet made their cheating invisible, but in reality it did the opposite—both directly, by providing evidence of things like shared I.P. addresses, and indirectly, by making it easier to quickly gather and analyze playing data. The easiest online bridge cheaters to catch so far have been those whose tournament results were substantially better when real-time kibitzing was allowed than when it wasn’t. Something comparable happened in Major League Baseball this year, when officials cracked down on pitchers who were illegally applying sticky substances to balls, to make them spin faster. In July, the Times published a chart identifying the ten pitchers whose spin rates had dropped the most since enforcement began. Such a chart does not necessarily prove that a pitcher was cheating—maybe he sprained his index finger on the day the change occurred—but it clearly isolates a likely cohort for closer investigation.

Bridge’s most devastating statistical analyst at the moment is probably Nicolas Hammond, who is both an accomplished player and an Internet-security consultant. He has built an immense database of hands played by top players in big tournaments from the nineteen-fifties to the present, and he has devised a suite of algorithms that he believes can detect dishonest play with a high degree of confidence, both online and at the table—at least partly by identifying odds-defying successes. “It quickly identifies all the recent known cheating pairs,” he wrote, of his method, in 2019, shortly before publishing a book, “Detecting Cheating in Bridge.” (While researching the book, Hammond discovered that he could also spot players who were suffering temporary lapses caused by “divorce, having an affair, undisclosed sickness/family issues etc.”) Hammond has not disclosed all of his algorithms, partly because they’re proprietary and partly, he has said, because he doesn’t want players to figure out how to outwit them.

This past March, Curtis Cheek, a highly ranked player, admitted to having cheated in an online tournament in 2020, and was suspended from the United States Bridge Federation for two years. Hammond prepared a statistical analysis, including a scatter chart that contrasted Cheek’s tournament results with those of other top-level players; the chart suggests that there might be more to investigate. The American Contract Bridge League publishes a list of players “currently under discipline.” It includes players who have been expelled permanently, among them Fantoni and Nunes; players who have been suspended for various periods, among them Cheek and a former regular partner of his; and players who “resigned to avoid possible disciplinary action”—perhaps because, guilty or not, they couldn’t bear the burden of defending themselves.

The cheating scandals of the past few years have had a similar effect on bridge that Anya Taylor-Joy’s wardrobe and living-room furniture in “The Queen’s Gambit” have had on chess: they’ve made the game seem more interesting to some people who’ve never played it. When I mentioned recent incidents to a friend, he laughed, because he assumed that I must be talking about little old ladies. When I explained that the incidents involved world champions using secret signals, he perked up. Samantha Punch, a former member of the Scottish national women’s team, is leading a push to persuade school systems to include bridge in their curricula—something that is under way in Norway and Northern Ireland—and she said that the game’s dark side may have made it easier to attract young students: “It does help, I suppose, to shift people’s image of bridge and what bridge is about.” Punch is also a professor of sociology at the University of Stirling; this past summer, she ran an online conference called “Bridging Academia, Policy and Practice,” which included a session on cheating in bridge. Its participants included the professional players Boye Brogeland and Steve Weinstein, who both talked about the effects of cheating on the game’s highest levels. Brogeland said that the impact on tournament bridge is greater than it is on other games because the potential advantages are so large. “I would say that any good player that would really put their mind to cheating could become a world-class player,” he said. “And every top-level player could become unbeatable.”

A challenge faced by honest players, and by all the game’s governing bodies, is that proving cases against cheaters consumes thousands of hours of volunteer time—most of it from experts who would prefer to be playing, and much of it involving complex hand analysis that isn’t easy to explain to laymen or less skilled players. In addition, successfully defending convictions before non-expert tribunals can be both difficult and expensive, as the case of Fantoni and Nunes proved. A further challenge is that the bridge world consists of multiple non-overlapping jurisdictions, which apply different standards, impose different penalties, and operate under different levels of anxiety about the cost of litigation. Weinstein said that, if he were accused of cheating, he would gladly submit to the judgment of his peers, and that if he were found guilty he would accept his punishment—which, for a player of his calibre, should be to be “thrown out for life,” he said. But, of course, the problem isn’t players like him.

The European trials took place not quite two months after Punch’s conference, and the cascading forfeitures there suggested another response to cheating. I spoke on the phone with Weinstein a few days after the trials concluded. “I have so much respect for what all the European teams did,” he said. “I don’t know of another incident in history where players boycotted another player because administrators weren’t able to handle the discipline. It wasn’t easy for any of those teams, and I’m sure it was difficult to be the first. I love what those teams did. That, to me, was one of the greatest days in bridge.”


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