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