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Bridge cheats are prospering online

A still from the Marx Brothers’ 1930 film Animal Crackers

Elite bridge is built on trust, says Alan Yuhas in The New York Times. Top players can get six-figure sums from wealthy sponsors, usually financiers or rich hobbyists. Pros sit opposite each other in fancy clubs, trying to win a certain number of tricks in each hand, based on a predetermined bid. We “assume people to be gentlemen, and honourable, and ladies”, says a California club director – the average age of American Contract Bridge League members is 74.

But cheating “exploded” during the pandemic. The “Supreme Court of bridge” suspended two elite players last year. This summer 30 league teams forfeited rather than play someone who’d been accused of cheating. Sylvia Shi, a high-level player who was suspended last year until 2023, apologised in an open letter. I didn’t do it for money or glory, she said. “I did it because it was so, so easy, and so tempting.”

In the old days, the only way to cheat was in person, subtly: a head tip from an accomplice indicating a strong hand, a foot tapping out a code. In Ian Fleming’s Moonraker, James Bond notices the villain peeking at his opponents’ cards in a mirrored cigarette case – then rigs the deck to teach him a lesson. Online, though, players can sit side by side at a sofa, chat on the phone or peek at rivals’ hands using spectator accounts. “Odd decisions led to uncanny success” during the pandemic. Players were suddenly competing beyond the abilities of bridge’s all-time best players. Data shows that 2% to 5% of all professional pairs playing online cheat.

A crackdown has begun. League players are recorded while they compete. But “if we don’t do something for the survival of the game”, one 54-year-old player says, “it’s going to die with us”.