Partners in crime suspended in online bridge cheating boom

 

The game of bridge can be hard to master, but some rules should need no explanation: do not communicate about your cards with your partner during play, nor sneak a look at an opponent’s hand.

Until the lockdown, the British game had largely lived up to this spirit, attracting well-behaved individuals whose word was their bond.

But standards plummeted during the pandemic as about 30,000 players moved online. The number of investigations by the governing body, the English Bridge Union (EBU), into cheating allegations has shot up from one a year to 50.

 
 

So far 25 people — including seven couples — have been suspended for 18 months to five years for unfair or dishonest play.

Gordon Rainsford, chief executive of the EBU, said: “We knew historically that there had been people happy to cheat online because it was quite easy. But by and large up till the pandemic online bridge had not been so serious. When it was the only bridge available, it did become serious.”

When warning letters failed to act as a deterrent, the matter would go to a full disciplinary committee, he said. “[Partners] don’t start by thinking they are going to cheat. In some cases,
people started doing it accidentally, then the other replies and it’s a little bit more specific.

 

“They say, ‘We’re not, you know . . . We’re just avoiding a misunderstanding.’ People have the ability to rationalise almost anything.”

Bridge is a card game for four people, who play as two pairs. Crucially, only you should see your cards before bidding with your partner to work out how many of the 13 tricks — a trick is four cards — you can both make.

Some cheats took advantage of the fact that spectators could see the players’ cards and logged on under a separate identity. This loophole has subsequently been shut. In other cases, players pretend to be their partner to see their cards as well.

Aficionados include the billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. James Bond, played by Roger Moore, deployed a famous trick deal to outwit the villainous Hugo Drax in the 1979 movie Moonraker.

But most of those caught cheating in Britain are normal members of the public, involved in low-stakes games with no motive of financial gain or sporting glory.

Brenda Macdonald, 78, and her husband, Roew, 79, who live in the northwest of England, found out on Friday that they had been suspended for two years. Between October and December, the EBU said, “they had knowledge of some aspects of each other’s hands obtained by illicit communication”.

The accusation has been upsetting for the couple, who turned to the game online during the pandemic. Brenda said: “Never in my life have I cheated. I’ve never been accused of anything in my life. It just feels so awful. It makes you feel dirty and unrespected — like Big Brother watching you.”

They had struggled to make their case. “We are just two old biddies trying to play bridge,” she said. They have now switched to bowls.

Andrew and Anne Smith, of Essex, were given an 18- month ban after they were caught cheating in a game with friends. Andrew described it as “something out of nothing”, and said the game had not been for money. “People should be aware it’s not the same game when you play online. It takes a lot of the fun out. If you can, keep playing face to face.”

A third couple faced a six-month ordeal after an eminent player accused them. With the help of a lawyer and a statistician, they showed that the case against them was flawed and the hearing was halted mid-way. But the man said that if they had not had the money to unpick the case, they would probably have been found guilty. “It was horrendous, and my partner was distraught. The EBU has to be more careful about which cases it pursues,” he said. “They are trying to do their best, but their best is not good enough.”

David Eddleston, 54, chairman of the Watford and Bushey Bridge Club, said cheating had been rare before the pandemic because it was so difficult: “But online it doesn’t take a genius.”

Sally Brock, the Sunday Times bridge columnist, said the EBU’s response had been “punitive”. She said: “It’s a bit like giving somebody a life sentence for shoplifting a tin of baked beans. It’s too much. They are named, shamed, banned.”

However, Andrew Robson, her counterpart on The Times, said playing against cheats made him feel “weird, helpless — sick, frankly”.

Sometimes, he added, “you are pretty sure they know all your cards” and it is clear that “they are not thinking normal thoughts; rather, they’re thinking, ‘How can I succeed and at the same time make it look as though I can’t see their cards?’ instead of normal bridge thinking”.

Robson supported the efforts to eliminate cheating. “I believe they are weeding out these players using statistical means, and I’m full of admiration for these whistleblowers as it’s a long and tedious process. But it needs to be done, as bridge is a wonderful game and lends itself well to online, provided players play with integrity.”

Rainsford said it would be unfortunate if the cheats obscured the fact that for many people playing online during the pandemic had been a “lifesaver”. He added: “Some of the people who are cheating have gained absolutely nothing from it.”