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Top Bridge Players Withdraw From Bermuda Bowl Amid Cheating Scandal


Now what's so unusual about this year's Bermuda Bowl. That's the tournament played every two years and currently underway in Chennai, India. At stake, the most prestigious title in the game of bridge, the card game. What's unusual is that three countries - Germany, Israel and Monaco - have withdrawn their teams from the Bermuda Bowl after allegations of cheating. John Walters writes about this year's big bridge scandal in Newsweek. Welcome to the program.

JOHN WALTERS: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And explain to us what's been charged here. A game of bridge has two parts. There's the bidding that determines which pair of players goes on offense and how well they say they can do. And then there's the actual playing out of the hand. Is the cheating that's been charged all during the bidding?

WALTERS: It's all during the bidding. And what has happened is Boye Brogeland, who is a professional player ranked 64th in the world out of Norway, came out with allegations against the team from Israel. He used videotaped footage of them to identify a tell between the two players, Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz.

SIEGEL: And when you say a tell, it's sort of like if somebody burps in a particular way that means I've got the queen and the jack of diamonds?

WALTERS: (Laughter). I mean, not that exact situation, but yes. You've identified what they do. In the case of the Israelis, Boye Brogeland found that they would put the tray on which you place the cards on the board in a specific spot. And that spot identified what was the high card in each player's hand.

SIEGEL: So that was the charge against the two Israelis.

WALTERS: Correct.

SIEGEL: There are also two from Germany and two from Monaco. How good are these six players?

WALTERS: Well, the players from Monaco are actually Italians and a month ago were the number one and number two ranked bridge players in the entire world. The reason the Italians are representing Monaco is because even though you only need two players in a hand of bridge, the teams are comprised of six players. What happens in every tournament is a very wealthy sponsor makes himself one of the six players on the team, and then he hires five other players. This is akin to Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots suiting up for a quarter...

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

WALTERS: ...And then saying that he was just as responsible for winning the Super Bowl as Tom Brady was.

SIEGEL: And the rich sponsor of the two Israeli players in this case is Jimmy Cayne, the man who had been head of Bear Stearns, the investment bank, and who was - he was criticized for playing bridge as his bank collapsed during the financial crisis.

WALTERS: Yes. In 2007, when Bear Stearns was in terrible crises and high-ranking VPs were trying to contact Jimmy Cayne for answers to their questions, he was incommunicado. He was playing a 10-day bridge tournament in Nashville, and part of the rules are no cell phones.

SIEGEL: Because they could be used for cheating (laughter).

WALTERS: Exactly, exactly. He has never been implicated as having anything to do with their cheating. He was the sponsor, though. But without that, you would not have professional players in bridge. The interest isn't enough, and it is certainly not a good spectator sport. And that is why the Italians were playing representing Monaco because they had a very wealthy Monegasque sponsor.

SIEGEL: If you look at championship bridge players playing at a tournament, there are screens up so that each player can't see his partner that easily. There's a tray that they pass underneath. I think you're blocked under the tables so you can't just kick the guy in the shin to tell him how many hearts you have or whatever. What can you do short of having the players in different rooms or having them dress up like the Michelin man? How can you have a guaranteed no-cheating bridge tournament?

WALTERS: For me, that's what made the story so humorous. The Marx Brothers in the film "Animal Crackers" do a scene about bridge. And Chico begins by asking the women they're playing against, how do you want to play, honest? So it's always been susceptible to cheating. Most people who play bridge are retirees. They are not the ones who are committing this skullduggery. It's only at the very highest levels where this is taking place.

SIEGEL: John Walters, thanks for talking with us about the story.

WALTERS: Thank you for having me on.

SIEGEL: John Walters, a senior writer for Newsweek, has written about the big scandal in the world of bridge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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