The game of bridge has a long storied history of cheating scandals. There have been entire books written on various incidents, Accusation of a Scandal by Terrence Reese is particularly good, but disquieting because there are such well respected people on both sides of that set of allegations.
The ACBL rules even have distinctions between so-called “hard cheating” and “soft cheating”. (There is an excellent discussion of that fuzzy concept here.)
There seem to be a lot of accusations tossed around in a bridge club, mostly involving “unauthorized information”. Most of the time I think when someone has taken advantage of a bit of U.I. it is subconscious, but I’m a firm believer in the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” and so I find myself giving people the benefit of the doubt. (Either that or I’m not convinced that the average cheater is smart enough to really take advantage of such flimsy data consciously.) I was pretty shocked the first time I witnessed an U.I. call in part because my partner was the one on whom the director was called and my hesitation was exactly and only a result of my RHO using the stop card and my sitting there and counting to ten in my head while staring at my hand just the way my teacher taught me. [An aside: I would later come to realize that most people are actually employing the stop card to alert their partner to the fact they made a jump bid (another bit of soft cheating) so nowadays I usually just count to eight.] Soon enough I realized that such calls were pretty common place, mostly just a nuisance one has to put up with to play bridge in a club with other bridge players. Bridge players just aren’t the most well-adjusted lot.
The first time I witnessed something I considered pretty iffy U.I. wasn’t until the tournament game at which I would become a Life Master (though I didn’t know that at the time). It was the first session of a two-session open pairs game. My partner and I had a pretty routine help-suit game try auction with the opponents silent through-out, I opened the bidding: 1♠-2♠-3♣*-4♠. When I bid 3♣ my LHO asked my partner what my club bid meant, he explained that it was a help-suit game try and that I was asking if he had help in that particular suit (hooray for conventions that are what they sound like). Before she made her opening lead, she asked if I could have a void or a singleton for my bid of clubs. Partner explained that I could not because that would not require any help. (To translate, she wanted to know if it was possibly for the dummy and her partner to have 11 or 12 clubs between them and for me to be the one saying I had something in clubs but needed help with it.) My RHO won the opening lead, cashed her ace of clubs (dummy had Kx) and then led another club which her partner trumped. That was all very suspect, but I failed to call the director because I didn’t think there was any way I could prove what I knew had just happened. There were a few minutes to spare at the end of the round so without saying anything to the opponents I went to the director to explain the situation/ I knew he couldn’t do anything to help me at that point (and, of course, he said that I should have called him at the time), but I wanted there to be some record of something fishy going on with that pair just in case they tried it again with someone who called the director right away.
Which brings me to the stalls in the restroom at my local club which leave something to be desired privacy wise. There are gaps between the walls and the doors, or, to put it another way, it’s easy to tell if the stall is occupied. A couple of months ago between rounds, in the middle of a game I walked into the restroom and through one such gap could clearly see someone standing inside the stall, reading a hand record.
This struck me as profoundly strange. I keep a lot of hand-records, typically I staple them to my score sheet from that day. I look at them often, some of them weeks or even months later, but I don’t think I have ever looked at an old hand record while in the midst of playing a game of bridge. Even if there was a hand I wanted to talk to my partner about from a previous session, I’d do it before or after the current one. Even if we had a sit-out, I would hesitate to bring up a problematic hand because we’d still be in the middle of a game. I certainly wouldn’t be studying a hand record during a game just for my own edification. Mostly in my ample downtime during a game at the club (I may not be good, but I’m fast) I like to play Angry Birds, something about as far removed from bridge as I can get. The point is while I know not everyone is like me in this respect, it sent up a big red flag.
I washed my hands then I left the restroom and waited to see who came out just to make sure it was who I thought it was. Once I had confirmed her identity (and noted that she was not carrying a hand record when she exited), I went back into the restroom and took a look around to see if I could find the hand record in the trash or something (plus I still hadn’t gotten around to my original purpose for visiting in the first place). Not surprisingly, I found no hand record. It’s a good thing I play fast because for once I was the one holding up the works at my table.
I noticed through-out the rest of the day, and on subsequent occasions, that this particular woman took frequent, extended trips to the bathroom. I said nothing about my suspicions because this was the extent of my admittedly circumstantial evidence: I saw her reading a hand record in a bathroom stall, she takes a lot of breaks and she comes in first or second much of the time. She could just be a good player with an inexhaustible thirst for bridge and a small bladder. Not exactly an open-and-shut case, especially since I couldn’t figure out how she might have gotten her hands on that day’s hand record before the fact. I’d never seen them lying around ahead of time. I know the cards are dealt by a computer program that then generates said records and I could come up with an elaborate explanation that involved hacking the program, but it seemed unlikely. The point is that there was nothing there that was worth repeating to anyone; I needed something more concrete.
Then I got a chance to sit at Table #1 which is not a seeding thing, it just so happened I was playing with the owner. As she was setting up the game on the computer, I noticed that she brought up a screen I did not recognize and then the printer in the small office, actually more of a supply closet, whirred to life and started spitting out multiple pages. These then were the hand records, hot off the press and we hadn’t even begun to play yet. The door to that office is open most of the time (apparently the lock is damaged) but there is almost no reason for a player to go in there. Having noted that this woman about whom I had my suspicions was there, in fact she was the first one I saw when I came in the door, I immediately wondered if this then was how she was getting her hands on the hand records.
Sure enough moments after they were printed and almost immediately before the first round was to begin, this snake “wandered” into the office/closet and straight to the printer. The owner had stepped away, but was nearby. I said, “What are you doing? Those are today’s hand records.” I said it loudly enough that the owner would hear me. The woman said that she thought they were the previous day’s records. The owner pointed out that she hadn’t played the previous day. She seemed flustered and confused and offered no explanation for why she needed to go into the office in the first place. She went back to her table seemingly empty-handed (yes, some snakes do have hands). Later when I got a moment alone with the owner, I talked to her about printing the records ahead of time and the previous strange encounter I had with this woman in the bathroom. It might not hold up in a court of law, but as far as I am concerned this was not a coincidence and she has been cheating. There isn’t a happy ending here of course, no justice has been served, no banishment to the hinterlands of party bridge, where they don’t even have Stayman much less hand records, has taken place. And while this “close call” may be just the impetus she needs to either reform or improve her cheating ways, I’ll still be watching, and hopefully now the owner will be too (or at least not printing the hand records until after the last round is underway).