Tricks, Tics and Taps: The Cheating Scandal Rocking Professional Bridge

With millionaires at the table and hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, the stakes are high in contract bridge – and so is the cost of getting caught bending the rules

Credit: Illustration by Ryan Casey

His elbow resting on the table, Lotan Fisher cups his right hand over his mouth. He slides that hand to the side of his face, while looking down at the table. During these little tics, Fisher keeps one action constant: The index and middle fingers of his left hand hold a yellow plastic board steady, squarely underneath the center of a plywood screen. All told, the entire sequence takes about two and a half seconds.

Those two and a half seconds might seem innocuous to the untrained eye. But for the world-class players who make up the exclusive world of high-level contract bridge, they represent something far more sinister: an accused case of cheating, one that's threatened the careers of one of the world's most successful pairs, and reignited ethical debates in a game that relies heavily on an honor system that will occasionally fail rather spectacularly.

Contract bridge is played by four people using a standard 52-card deck. The four players are split into pairs, who bid on hands, then compete to take tricks. At the highest levels, the game is played under duplicate bridge rules, where the same hands are replayed so different pairs can test their skill while playing the same cards. Although there's prize money at the top tournaments, the real draw for the game's biggest pros is the opportunity to play on teams sponsored by multimillionaire aficionados. Players of that caliber can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year playing high-level tournaments year-round.

That money, some players claim, further incentivizes competitors to cheat.

In 2014 and much of 2015, Fisher and fellow Israeli Ron Schwartz exploded, going on one of the most impressive runs in recent bridge history. Playing with Norwegians Boye Brogeland and Espen Lindqvist, as well as Canadian Allan Graves and American team sponsor Richie Schwartz, the six-man team won the prestigious Spingold and Reisinger titles in 2014, then triumphed in the Jacoby Swiss event last March. Those were the glory days.

That summer, the two Israelis left Richie Schwartz's team to go play for former Bear Stearns CEO and passionate bridge aficionado Jimmy Cayne. Although the split ended the sextet's incredibly successful run, the move itself made sense, given the stakes. The best bridge players in the world often seek ways to monetize their talents, above and beyond the prize pools offered at major tournaments. Moneymen like Cayne will in turn court those top players to play on their six-person teams; it's akin to Mark Cuban suiting up alongside Dirk Nowitzki to chase the Warriors around an NBA court, with Cuban also heaving money at free agents to give himself a stronger supporting cast.

When well-heeled sponsors like Cayne are eager to pay top players to play with them, that creates a heightened incentive for winning. A defection like the one engineered by Fisher-Schwartz can thus generate a healthy rivalry between players. And in a delicious twist, the quarterfinals of the Spingold championships in August 2015 would pit Fisher and Ron Schwartz against their ex-teammates Brogeland, Lindqvist and Graves, as well as their old sponsor, Richie Schwartz, in Chicago.

"We treated it like a normal match," Brogeland insists. "And we played very, very well."

Due to the quirks of six-man team play, none of Brogeland's hands came against the Fisher-Schwartz pair. By excelling against the top-ranked Italian pair of Lorenzo Lauria and Alfredo Versace, Brogeland and Lindqvist did enough to push their team to victory – by one point (or one IMP in bridge parlance).

Thing is, bridge isn't the NBA. The director in charge of matches will make judgment calls on the outcomes of hands, in a way that's far more nebulous than watching a 3-pointer catch nothing but net. Because of the nature of those judgment calls, the outcome of a close match can be appealed.

Immediately after seemingly losing by that one measly point, the Israelis and their four new teammates filed just such an appeal, arguing that Graves had made a bid based on information he'd gleaned from a hesitation made by his partner. It is indeed against the rules to use that kind of cue to gain an advantage in a hand. But there's also no hard-and-fast rule on what constitutes a hesitation. It's also possible that a player's bid could be the same whether or not his partner paused a bit too long before submitting his own bid. Still, Fisher wanted to win badly. If he had to use the murky appeals process to his advantage, so be it.

That appeal dragged on deep into the night. Finally, just after 1:30 a.m. on August 15, the five-person committee evaluating the appeal issued its decision: The final outcome was now reversed, with the Fisher-Schwartz team winning by one point. Exhausted, mystified and frustrated by the decision, Brogeland would get a full dose of salt in the wound. When Fisher found out that his team had won, he didn't hold back.

"He was pumping his fist, shouting, 'YES! YES! YES!'" Brogeland recalls.

Dumbfounded, Brogeland walked toward the committee members. What happened? he asked. Why did the committee side with the claim made by Fisher's team? Joel Wooldridge, one of the best bridge players in the world and one of the five people charged with making the ruling, had a simple reply:

"We tend to believe people."

Published in 1928, The Laws of Duplicate Bridge outlines all the rules and customs of the sport – and it would take far too long for me to explain them here. Suffice it to say, bridge is a game that takes a day to learn, and a lifetime (or more) to master. Law 73 B2, however, sends a crystal-clear message: "The gravest possible offence is for a partnership to exchange information through prearranged methods of communication other than those sanctioned by these Laws."

So when Per-Ola Cullin called Brogeland a couple weeks after the Chicago Spingold event, the implications were grave. A world-class player who is also a judge in Sweden, Cullin had spent hours watching video of old hands played by Fisher and Schwartz. He then paired that information with data gleaned from VuGraph, a system that shows all the cards held by all four players during any given hand, after that hand has been completed. What he found looked like a possible signaling system, one that would be highly illegal by bridge rules if it did in fact happen.

The pattern, Cullin argued, took shape whenever Fisher and Schwartz were defending a hand. The player making the lead bid would place the bidding board at a certain spot on the table to signal to his partner which suit was his strongest. Push it to the middle, and he's strong on diamonds; up and to his right, hearts; leave the board close to his own hand, clubs; clear through the trap door in the screen to the other side of the table, spades – that last move being so obvious, opponents would occasionally shove the bidding board back toward the middle, as a simple force of habit.

A bridge player named Michael Clark compiled an eight-minute video which highlights these unusual board placements. For many in the bridge world, that video became a smoking gun.

"I always felt that there is cheating [in bridge]," says Zia Mahmood, one of the most decorated players in the game and a 2007 inductee into the American Contract Bridge League Hall of Fame. "I just didn't realize the extent, or the level that the players who were caught cheating were at."

The key word is "caught." After Cullin relayed his suspicions to Brogeland, Brogeland published a series of posts at BridgeWinners.com, a popular site for both high-level pros and more casual players. The Israel Bridge Federation quickly suspended Fisher and Schwartz, who haven't played in a major tournament since last summer's controversy in Chicago.

The larger World Bridge Federation has remained curiously subdued about the entire matter. In a statement issued last October, the WBF wrote: "Those who decide that they wish to obtain an unfair advantage by cheating should be aware that they will be pursued without exception; if found to have cheated they will be subject to severe sanctions that will result in them not being a part of bridge for a very long time." But in a telltale sign of the priorities shared by many in the highest levels of the bridge world, the statement added: "However, the WBF does not approve of the current lynch mob mentality and approach that is being utilised by a small number of people."

Meanwhile, Fisher vigorously denies the charges, and is mounting a spirited defense. After Brogeland's writing inspired some high-level pros to lash out publicly at the Israeli pair, Fisher fired back on Facebook. "Jealousy made you sick," he wrote. "Get ready for a meeting with the devil."

Six months later, Fisher remains steadfast in his denials, albeit with more public restraint now. A bridge prodigy as a child, Fisher also ran into trouble with the sport in his youth. When he was 14, the IBF's Juniors Committee suspended him for both unsportsmanlike conduct and forging results. Since then, he's fashioned a successful career. But he also hasn't won many friends in the international bridge world – a result, Fisher says, of his victories, sometimes being loud and emotional during matches and not socializing much with other players away from the table. He also acknowledges that the charges brought against him carry, at least, a whiff of truth.

"If it didn't look suspicious, then no one would have talked about it," Fisher says during a recent a phone call from Israel. "We are aware that the way we pass the boards looks suspicious."

Undaunted, he maintains his innocence. "Between looking suspicious and having a system and cheating/transferring info between both sides...that's like the difference between black and white."

If this were simply one case of he said-he said, the professional bridge world likely wouldn't have reacted as strongly as it has. But cheating has been woven into the fabric of the game for ages, so much so that top pros can recite the most notorious instances off the top of their heads.

There was the 1957 case of Karl Schneider and Max Reithoffer, two Austrian pros who held their cards in a particular manner to show their partners when they were holding aces. They got caught, and agreed to quit bridge forever. From '57 to 1975, the wildly successful Italian "Blue Team" won 16 world titles...and got accused early in that run of holding their cards high to send signals to each other, a charge that never stuck. In 1965, the British pair of Terence Reese and Boris Schapiro got busted in Buenos Aires for signaling how many hearts each held in their hands based on how fingers they used to hold the back of their cards. Bridge authorities took steps to try to curb signaling and other forms of cheating. Most notably, they installed a screen in the middle of the table to prevent partners from seeing each other. Cheaters simply found other ways. In 1975, Italians Gianfranco Facchini and Sergio Zucchelli got caught tapping their feet under the table to give signals. Bridge federations responded by stretching the screen all the way to the floor, to prevent under-table signaling.

Still, the transgressions continued. In 1977, Americans Larry Cohen and Richard Katz got caught using coughs to signal to each other. In '79, Americans Steve Sion and Allan Cokin went down for signaling with pencils. And in the most scandalous case the sport had seen in decades, the German team of Michael Elinescu and Entscho Wladow got caught executing their own elaborate set of signals transmitted via coughs. They'd won a world championship, only to be stripped of that crown in 2014.

The Fisher-Schwartz scandal has now spawned a new round of accusations and investigations. Soon after Brogeland rocked the bridge world with his Fisher-Schwartz accusations, a Dutch recreational bridge player named Maaijke Mevius emailed Brogeland with new information. The men who faced Fisher and Schwartz in the 2014 European Championship finals were Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes, a far more experienced pair with a lot more wins under their belt.

A physicist by trade, Mevius became curious about the habits of Fantoni and Nunes in their own matches. After hours of scrutinizing videos, she found what she deemed to be suspicious behavior by the Italians, too. Fantoni would lead a trick by placing his card either vertically or horizontally – if he did it vertically, that meant he was holding either very high cards like an ace or a king, or that he held just one card in that suit.

With the help of a few high-level bridge friends, Brogeland vetted these allegations too. In September, player Kit Woolsey published the accusations against Fantoni and Nunes on BridgeWinners.com. Fantoni and Nunes are considered arguably the best pair in the world, having won bridge's triple crown of the Bermuda Bowl, the Olympiad and the World Open Pairs, a feat only 10 players have ever pulled off. If they're found to have cheated too, the blowback could be enormous.

Marion Michielsen, a two-time world champion and World Women Grand Master who at age 30 is one of the best players of her generation, started playing bridge with her family as a teenager. When she began playing competitively, she looked up to Fantoni and Nunes, a team considered one of the most strategically brilliant in the game. Michielsen says she's never encountered cheating during a match she's played, and remains a huge fan of playing high-level bridge. But she too has been rattled by the scandal.

"When you find out your childhood hero might be a cheater," she says, "it's just...kind of sad."

Those in charge remain confident the scandal will blow over, and that the game will thrive in the long run. In late November, ACBL CEO Robert Hartman and spokesperson Darbi Padbury led me down the halls of the downtown Denver Sheraton, pointing to the swarms of people who'd descended on the city to play in the fall nationals. There were hundreds of pros making their way toward tables, but also scores of recreational players who wouldn't know Fisher or Fantoni if they flipped a four of clubs in their face. Padbury said that ACBL registration levels continue to rise, regardless of whatever's happening at the top of the sport.

But the elite level remains under fire. The Polish pair of Cezary Balicki and Adam Zmudzinski had their invitation to the 2015 Bermuda Bowl withdrawn as accusations of cheating swirled. Fisher and Schwartz are in the midst of appealing their IBF-issued suspension, while investigations continue in the Fantoni-Nunes case. Even if they're all cleared, the appearance of suspicious behavior could be enough to harm their careers: Cayne has already kicked the Israeli pair off his team, and it's likely that other pros won't want to team up with players widely accused of cheating.

The scandal could also cripple those players' earnings. Fisher says Cayne only promised him about $50,000 annually for playing in three big events a year, but several pros I spoke to estimated the earnings of a few players, including Fantoni and Nunes, in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Therein lies the strongest motivation to bend the rules. The sport's sometimes ambiguous scoring methods and judging procedures can in turn make it more beneficial to try.

Then again, the same fluid conventions that govern a bridge hand also make players beam about the game. Pros like Mahmood, Michielsen and all-time great Bob Hamman all lamented the ongoing scandal, while also raving about how much they still love playing bridge.

"This is a real game of thinking and analysis," says Hamman, who's been playing competitively for 58 years. "In a group of runners you'll know immediately who's the fastest. In tennis there's so much separation of results when you have just a small separation of skill. There are better players in bridge, of course. But it's still a real challenge to win, even when you're really good. That's what makes it so great."