HOUSE OF CARDS

The whis­tle-blower who ex­posed cheat­ing in pro bridge.

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - JOHN COLAPINTO

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.

80 P.

Ron Schwartz (left) and Lotan Fisher

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