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The Great Bridge Boycott

The Great Bridge Boycott

During the last week of August, the European Bridge League held a qualifying tournament for the 2021 World National Team Championships. Nineteen days before it began, two well-known German players withdrew. In a brief post on bridgewinners.com, a lively online forum whose participants include many of the world’s best players, they explained why: “Fulvio Fantoni is confirmed to be a player on the Italian national team.”

Fantoni and a regular playing partner of his, Claudio Nunes, were once ranked No. 1 and No. 2 by the World Bridge Federation, but, for years, opponents suspected that they were cheating. (In 2016, I wrote about the allegations against Fantoni and Nunes in a piece for this magazine.) Bridge is a card game for four players, divided into two partnerships. Partners sit facing each other, and no player can see any other player’s cards until a round of bidding, called an auction, has ended and play begins. More often than seemed mathematically conceivable, Fantoni and Nunes made unusual bids and low-percentage plays that succeeded brilliantly, suggesting that they were illegally exchanging information about their hands. But how?

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In 2014, videos of matches at the European bridge championships were uploaded on YouTube for the first time. Maaijke Mevius, a physicist in the Netherlands, had heard the rumors about Fantoni and Nunes—or Fantunes, as they are sometimes known—and decided to study some of their games. She wasn’t an expert player, but she thought that her training as a scientist might help her spot anomalies that better players had missed. Sure enough, she noticed something odd: when Fantoni and Nunes played a card in certain situations, they sometimes placed it on the table horizontally, and sometimes vertically. She shared her observation with Boye Brogeland, a Norwegian professional player, who has been instrumental in exposing prominent cheaters. An ad-hoc team of expert players quickly cracked the code: in eighty-two of eighty-five instances, they determined, Fantoni and Nunes placed a card on the table vertically when their hands contained an unseen ace, king, or queen of the same suit, or when their hands contained no other card of the same suit; otherwise, they placed it horizontally. (Fantoni and Nunes have denied all allegations of cheating, and have declined to comment.)

In 2016, the American Contract Bridge League (A.C.B.L.) permanently expelled both players and stripped them of their titles from the preceding four years; the European Bridge League (E.B.L.) banned them for five years and prohibited them from ever playing again as partners; and the Italian Bridge Federation banned them for three years. Fantoni and Nunes appealed the E.B.L.’s decision before a tribunal that consisted of two practicing lawyers and a law professor. In 2018, the judges ruled in Fantunes’s favor, and, six months later, the Italian Bridge Federation reversed its decision as well. (The punishments imposed by the A.C.B.L. remain in effect.) Some have described the decision by the tribunal as a vindication, even though the judges themselves said that it was not one. (In their ruling, they wrote, “Such conclusion does not mean that the Players are innocent of any wrongdoing, it only means that the EBL did not manage to prove to the comfortable satisfaction of the majority of the Panel that the Players committed an infraction of the EBL Rules.”) Many players who have competed against Fantoni and Nunes, however, believe that the offenses outlined by the E.B.L. and the A.C.B.L. were not only indisputable but also unforgivable. Steve Weinstein—a world champion who has been a leading participant in recent efforts to identify and punish high-level cheaters—told me, “Fantoni and Nunes ruined the records of bridge for years. They stole from honest players dreams and joy and satisfaction, and they did it for almost a decade and a half.”

Fantoni waited until this past August to enter a major international tournament, by which time his five-year European suspension would have expired anyway. Still, many players viewed his inclusion on the Italian team as a hostile act. Italy’s first opponent in the August qualification tournament was Scotland, which forfeited. Shortly afterward, Wales, Italy’s next opponent, forfeited, too. Then the other three teams that were scheduled to play Italy that day—Slovenia, Lithuania, and Ukraine—forfeited as well.

Although the teams didn’t say so explicitly, it was clear that they were forfeiting for the same reason that the German players withdrew: to protest the inclusion of Fantoni in the tournament. None of those teams had had a realistic chance of qualifying for the championship, though, and observers wondered whether stronger teams would follow their example. But they did. By the end of the week, all thirty of Italy’s opponents in the qualifying tournament had forfeited. Fantoni never played a hand.

Bridge has so many moving parts that cheating can be both easy to do and hard to detect. Good poker players watch for “tells”—such as tics, twitches, and nervous gestures—from the other players at the table. Bridge players do the same, but within narrow limits. If one of my opponents hesitates before making a bid or playing a card, I’m allowed to draw inferences; if my partner does, I’m not. Perhaps the oldest form of cheating in bridge is “coffeehousing,” which consists of attempting to fool an opponent through deceptive timing, misleading movements, and the like—forms of bluffing that are standard and unpenalized in poker. The ideal bridge player would always play at the same tempo and with the same inscrutable facial expression. Bridge partners can legally signal each other through their bidding and card selection—as long as their methods are fully disclosed, so that their opponents can read the messages, too—but not with smiles, frowns, gestures, eye rolls, or the vertical or horizontal orientation of their cards.

Among inexperienced bridge players, illegal behavior is common but usually inadvertent. The meaningful cases are the ones in which the violations are intentional and the players are skilled enough to exploit them—and the possible advantages are so great that, even for players who would seem to have no reason to cheat, the temptation can be overwhelming. (With few exceptions, major bridge tournaments do not have cash prizes, but, for the best players, bridge can be lucrative. The money comes from fees, salaries, and bonuses paid by wealthy enthusiasts, who hire experts to play with them in tournaments, and who sometimes assemble and finance entire teams. Weinstein—who also plays poker professionally—once told me that truly world-class players are so relatively scarce that rich “clients” compete for their services.) In 1965, at a major tournament in Buenos Aires, the late Terence Reese—who is still viewed as possibly the greatest British player of all time—was accused of using the position of his fingers to show his partner how many hearts he was holding. (In his account of the scandal, “Story of an Accusation,” published the following year, Reese defended himself against the claims.) Fourteen years later, a highly regarded American pair was caught doing something similar, using their scoring pencils.

Italy is strikingly well represented in the pantheon of the game’s alleged cheaters. In 1975, Gianfranco Facchini was caught tapping the feet of his partner, Sergio Zucchelli, under the table during the Bermuda Bowl. At a World Bridge Federation Appeals Committee hearing, Facchini denied moving his feet, attributing it to nervous tension, and Zucchelli said that he was not aware of any foot actions by his partner. But they’ve been known ever since as the Italian Foot Soldiers, and, because of them, the tables at big tournaments now have floor partitions. In 2005, Massimo Lanzarotti was caught looking at his opponent’s cards and then positioning his arms and fingers in a particular way, in order to signal information to his partner, Andrea Buratti. (Lanzarotti later denied looking at the cards; he and Buratti are known as the Race Cars.) Fantoni and Nunes were living in Monaco and playing for the Monegasque national team at the time they were caught, but they grew up in Italy and spent most of their playing careers there.

The most effective bridge cheaters of all time may have been the members of Italy’s Blue Team, which dominated international competitions between the late fifties and the early seventies. (The Italian Bridge Federation did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations against the Blue Team.) Tournament bridge in that era offered many opportunities for dishonesty: security even at big events was lax, few matches were filmed, accurate hand records weren’t always preserved, players had more opportunities to signal each other than they do today, and accusations often led nowhere, or even to the punishment of the accuser. In 2018, Avon Wilsmore, an Australian bridge expert, gathered evidence from many primary and secondary sources, including his own analysis of critical hands, and published “Under the Table: The Case Against the Blue Team.” In the book, Wilsmore builds his argument like a skilled district attorney. Some of the plot twists are worthy of Raymond Chandler.

In 1976, for example, Leandro Burgay, an Italian expert player, spoke on the phone to Benito Bianchi, a member of the Blue Team. According to Burgay, Wilsmore writes, Bianchi described the cheating methods favored by some Blue Team members, noting that “the methods involved the use of cigarette positioning and head movements.” The call lasted about half an hour, and Burgay recorded it. He then gave a copy of the tape to the head of the Italian Bridge Federation. The federation conducted no serious investigation and suspended Burgay for six years, although his suspension was later reduced. When the World Bridge Federation objected to the handling of the case, the president of the Italian federation responded with anger: “The accusations against the Italian players have never been proved and are solely the result of envy over our victories. Should things not change, it would not be the World Bridge Federation taking measures against us—we would pull out of the competitions. What would a bridge championship be like without the Italians?” As it happened, the Blue Team’s remarkable run on championship titles had ended the year before, with a victory at the Bermuda Bowl in 1975—which, coincidentally or not, was also the year in which the organizers of major tournaments began placing screens diagonally across bridge tables, so that partners could no longer see each other as they played. (That was the same Bermuda Bowl at which the Foot Soldiers were caught signalling each other under the table.)

The Great Bridge Boycott