HOUSE OF CARDS
The whistle-blower who exposed cheating in pro bridge.
On August 22, 2015, Boye Brogeland posted a provocative comment to the website Bridgewinners.com. “Very soon there will come out mind-boggling stuff,” wrote the Norwegian bridge player, then aged 43, and ranked 64th in the world. “It will give us a tremendous momentum to clean the game up.”
A FEW DAYS LATER, Brogeland launched his own website, bridgecheaters.com. The home page featured a huge photo of Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz, a young Israeli duo who, since breaking into the international ranks in 2011, had snapped up the game’s top trophies. They appeared under the tagline “The greatest scam in the history of bridge!”
Brogeland posted examples of what he claimed to be suspiciously illogical hands played by the pair. He also laid out a pattern of alleged cheating and bad sportsmanship going as far back as 2003, when Fisher and Schwartz were in their mid-teens.
For the game of contract bridge, it was an earthquake equal to the jolt that shook international cycling when Lance Armstrong was banned from competition for doping. Fisher and Schwartz denied all wrongdoing and hired lawyers who dispatched a letter to Brogeland threatening a lawsuit and offering to settle if he paid them US$1 million. In a message he denies was intended for Brogeland, Fisher posted to his Facebook page: “Jealousy made you sick. Get ready for a meeting with the devil.”
BROGELAND LIVES IN Flekkefjord, Norway, with his wife, Tonje, and their two young chi ldren. Having learned bridge at the age of eight from his grandparents, he fell in love with the game and turned professional at 28. In 2013, he was recruited by his current sponsor, Richie Schwartz (no relation to Ron), a Bronx-born bridge addict who made a fortune at the racetrack in the 1970s. Brogeland says Richie Schwartz pays him travel expenses and a base yearly salary of US$50,000 – with big bonuses for strong showings in tournaments.
Not long after Brogeland joined Richie Schwartz’s team, he learned that his employer was also hiring Fisher and Ron Schwartz, about whom he had heard misgivings from other players. Over the next two years, Brogeland and his five teammates won a string of championships.
Nevertheless, Brogeland says he was relieved when, in the summer of 2015, Fisher and Ron Schwartz were lured away by Jimmy Cayne, former CEO of the defunct investment house Bear Stearns. “When they changed teams,” Brogeland says, “I didn’t have to be faced with this kind of environment where you feel something is strange but you can’t really tell.”
Fisher, meanwhile, was enjoying his position at the top of the game, where the lives of many successful young pros resemble those of globe-hopping rock musicians. Charismatic and darkly handsome, Fisher posted Instagram photos of himself in well-cut suits, behind the wheel of luxury cars or partying with an array of people.
There was only one problem: the persistent rumours that he was a
cheat. “But it’s an unwritten rule that you do not publicly accuse anyone – even if you’re sure,” says Steve Weinstein, a top American player. It was a Catch-22 that Fisher seemed to delight in flaunting, shrugging off questions about his suspicious play. “He had the Nietzschean superman personality,” says Fred Gitelman, a professional player who has won championships worldwide. “He just thought he was in a different league.”
CONTRACT BRIDGE is built on the rules of the 18th-century British card game whist. Four people play in two-person partnerships. The player to the dealer’s left leads with a card of any suit, and each player in succession plays a card of the suit led; the highest card wins the trick.
It’s a simple game, slightly complicated by the existence of the trump: a card in a suit that overrules all others. In whist, trump is determined randomly. In auction bridge, a game popularised in England in 1904, each hand has an opening ‘auction’, where the teams, communicating solely by way of spoken bids establish which (if any) suit will be trump and how many tricks they think they can take. Pairs who take more tricks than contracted for are awarded extra points.
Contract bridge emerged from refinements American railroad magnate Harold S. Vanderbilt introduced in 1925. He sought to spice up auction bridge by awarding escalating bonus points to pairs who took the greatest risk in the opening auction, and imposed steep point deductions on those who failed to make the tricks contracted for. Thus did a polite British parlour game take on some of the sweaty-palmed excitement of the big-money trading of Wall Street.
The American Contract Bridge League ( ACBL), the game’s governing body in North America, lists only 168,000 members, with a median age of 71.
Yet the professional tournament game is a serious pursuit, with wealthy enthusiasts assembling stables of top players, paying them retainers and bonuses – all for the privilege of playing hands with the pros in important tournaments. With six world championships under her belt, Gail Greenberg, one of the game’s greatest female champions, says that such paydays have fuelled cheating by players hoping to be recruited by deep-pocketed sponsors, or to hang onto the one they’ve got.
Pairs are forbidden to say what high cards they hold or in what suit they might be strong – except by way of the koan-like bids (‘Two no
WEALTHY ENTHUSIASTS BACK TOP PLAYERS WITH RETAINERS AND BONUSES
trump’). Any other communication is outlawed. In one of the game’s biggest scandals, British champion J. Terence Reese and his partner, Boris Schapiro, were discovered in 1965 using finger signals to communicate the number of hearts they held.
Tournament organisers would eventual ly respond by erect ing screens to block partners’ view of each other. When players were discovered communicating via footsie, barriers were installed under tables. Pairs can come under suspicion even when no signalling is detected.
“In bridge at the highest level,” says Chris Willenken, a leading American professional, “the best players play in a relentlessly logical fashion, so when something illogical happens, other good players notice it. And if that illogical thing is consistently winning, suspicions can be aroused.”
LESS THAN A MONTH after Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz had left Richie Schwartz’s team, Brogeland met the pair as opponents, in the quarter-final of the 2015 Spingold in Chicago. Brogeland’s team was the clear underdog, but it won by the slimmest margin possible: a single point.
Or it seemed to. Fisher immediately contested the result on a technicality. After an arbitration that stretched until 1.30am, the win was overturned: Brogeland’s team had now lost by one point and been knocked out of the tournament.
That night, a crushed Brogeland could not sleep. He rose at 7am and opened Bridge Base Online (BBO), a website that archives tournament hands, to see exactly how he had lost. He immediately noticed something odd. Ron Schwartz had opened a hand by playing a club lead. Yet, Schwartz’s hand indicated that a heart lead was the obvious play.
Then he saw something even stranger. In one of the hands, Fisher had claimed 11 tricks. Except Fisher, as BBO showed, held the cards for just ten tricks. Brogeland thought it was a mistake and immediately contacted his sponsor. In any event, challenges must be raised within half an hour of a match. The loss would stand.
BROGELAND SPENT THE next two days at the tournament scouring BBO and comparing notes with other players. By the time he flew back to Norway, he was convinced Fisher and Schwartz were signalling to each other, but he had no idea how. Still, he believed that if he amassed enough illogical hands, he could make a convincing case, however circumstantial.
Brogeland contacted governing bodies on both sides of the Atlantic. When he gave suspect hands to the ACBL, he was told to supply more. “They had plenty of hands,” he says. “Fifty, 60. I said, ‘ How many do you need? One hundred? Two hundred? Please do something!’”
Robert Hartman, the CEO of ACBL, declines to discuss the specifics of ongoing investigations but admits that the process for reviewing cheating can take a year or longer to play out.
Fisher and Schwartz aren’t the only pair suspected of cheating in recent history, either. Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes of Italy – ranked first and second in the world in the 2014 European Championships – were expelled by ACBL in 2016.
For his part, Brogeland had no intention of waiting. Despite the risks to his career and reputation – not to mention the fact that he would be challenging rich and powerful interests – he decided to bypass the official channels and go public. And so, on August 28, 2015, he went live with Bridge Cheaters, where he laid out his evidence.
Cheating investigators were underwhelmed. Kit Woolsey, a mathematician who has previously done statistical analyses for the ACBL to help implicate cheaters, wrote on Bridge Winners, “His example hands are an indication of possible wrongdoing, but I do not believe that by themselves they are proof of anything.”
Barry Goren, a US professional, excoriated Brogeland for publicly accusing the pair without due process. “Personally,” Goren wrote on Bridge Winners, “I think Boye should be thrown out of bridge for the way this was handled.”
As if in tacit acknowledgement of how his failure to uncover actual signalling by Fisher and Schwartz weakened his case, Brogeland had included links to three YouTube videos of the pair in match play. On August 30, Brogeland’s friend Per-Ola Cullin, a semi-professional bridge player, watched one of the videos. In it, Fisher makes a suspicious heart lead.
Cullin noticed that Schwartz set down the small slotted board that holds the cards. This was normal. But he didn’t place the board in the centre of the table, its usual spot. Instead he slid it a few centimetres to the right, to one side of the opening in the trapdoor of the anti-cheating
screen. Cullin decided to watch the previous hand. The board had been positioned in the same peculiar spot – but this time by Fisher. As with the succeeding hand, the team led hearts. “My adrenalin started pumping,” Cullin says. “I started watching all the matches from the European championships.”
After several hours, Cullin was convinced the board’s placement signalled what suit the partner should lead with. He texted Brogeland, who forwarded the information to Woolsey.
Three days later, Woolsey posted to Br idge Winners an essay entitled, ‘ The Videos Speak’, confirming Cullin’s hypothesis. Fisher and Schwartz were suspended by the ACBL and placed under investigation by that body and the European Bridge League (EBL). It was an extraordinary exoneration for Brogeland. But he wasn’t done yet.
MAAIJKE MEVIUS, a 45 year old living in the Netherlands, is a physicist and an avid recreational bridge player. While watching Fantoni and Nunes in YouTube videos, she grew convinced she had decoded how they were using card placement to signal to their partner whether they held any high honour cards (ace, king or queen). Mevius emailed the information to Brogeland.
On September 13, 2015, Bridge Winners publ ished ‘ The Videos Speak: Fantoni–Nunes’, a damning analysis by Woolsey. In a statement from that month, the pair said, “We will not comment on allegations at this time.”
On Bridge Winners, the first reader comment in response to this news said it al l: “Is this the end? Speechless now…”
IT WASN’T QUITE the end. Brogeland soon received an anonymous email tip from someone identifying himself as ‘No Matter’. The tipster advised looking at videos of Germany’s Alex Smirnov and Josef Piekarek, as well as the Polish pair Cezary Balicki and Adam Zmudzinski. In subsequent emails, No Matter pointed out what to watch for: signalling based on where the pair put the special bidding cards in the bidding tray that is passed between the players during the auction.
Smirnov and Piekarek, told of the discovery, admitted to the violation in a statement. Balicki and Zmudzinski denied the charges.
Still more astonishing, however, is the fact that Brogeland believes the person behind the mask of No
VIDEO CAMERAS AND MICROPHONES ARE NOW INSTALLED AT SOME MATCHES
Matter is the disgraced Lotan Fisher.
Brogeland cannot explain why Fisher would assist in the quest to root out cheaters – unless, by helping to expose others, he hoped to take the focus off himself. Fisher, in an email to this writer, claims that he only aided No Matter and that his motivation was the same as Brogeland’s – to clean up the game. “I love [bridge] more than Boye or anyone else,” he wrote, adding, “My next step is to prove that me and Ron Schwartz didn’t cheat. NEVER.”
IN MAY 2016, Bridge Winners announced that the EBL had issued Fisher and Schwartz a five-year ban from its events and a lifetime ban on playing as partners. The other pairs have also faced repercussions from various leagues and events.
Brogeland’s actions have also had a more permanent effect on the game. In December 2015, the ACBL held one of bridge’s biggest annual tournaments, the American nationals. For the first time, the ACBL had installed small video cameras and microphones at the tables to record all matches from the quarter-finals through to the finals – since no one imagines that every dishonest pair has been rooted out.
Before the end of the tournament, ACBL CEO Robert Hartman convened the first meeting of a new anti-cheating task force – including Willenken, Woolsey and Cullin – who discussed means for streamlining the process of investigating complaints.
Meanwhile, the Internat ional Bridge Press Association named Brogeland the Bridge Personality of the Year for 2015. When he arrived for his first match at the Denver nationals later that year, he had to fight his way through the crowd that had collected outside the tournament room. “Thank you for your service,” said a bearded man who had stopped Brogeland at the door of the game room.
“Well, I had to do it,” Brogeland said, shaking the man’s hand and trying to move off.
“You really put yourself on the line,” the man persisted.
Brogeland smiled. “Bridge deserves it,” he said, then headed for his table.
Ron Schwartz (left) and Lotan Fisher