Cheating in Bridge - how do National Bridge Organisations investigate allegations?

By Sarah Bell

This column draws on my experience with the English Bridge Union (EBU). I chaired the EBU team investigating allegations of unfair play online. We tried to identify what, if anything had happened and reported back to the EBU’s Laws and Ethics Committee on how we’d come to our conclusions. Lots of people have asked about the process we used to do this work, and so here’s a brief overview.

Cheating is a tricky topic to discuss because it’s one that people feel strongly about. In my time working with the EBU, half of the people I spoke to thought we were policing the online game too aggressively and the other half felt we weren’t doing enough. People also often changed their mind about the process if someone they knew became involved; when they believed someone to be cheating who wasn’t quickly thrown out of the game, or when a friend they trusted was being investigated. Most people who play bridge online were impacted by cheating to some extent and investigations felt intensely personal for those being investigated. It’s no surprise such strong emotional responses resulted.

Guest Columnist, Sarah Bell

Setting up a process was difficult and there were a lot of questions to consider as we did it. To what extent were existing offline protocols for investigation fit for application to online cases? Who would investigate allegations of unfair play online? How would they go about this? What would the standard of proof be? What about reasonable and proportionate sanctions? Every NBO had to grapple with these questions, and many came up with different approaches. There’ve been a lot of discussions about this on online forums.

I’m convinced many people cheated online because they felt it “didn’t really count” or that online bridge “isn’t really bridge”. I have some sympathy with this insofar as prior to Covid, there weren’t many highly prestigious events taking place online and online bridge clubs tended to be casual. A top English player was quoted in a newspaper describing banning players for cheating online as like imprisoning someone for stealing a tin of baked beans. We’d regard that crime as being more serious, however, if that tin of baked beans was all anyone had to eat. When online bridge became the only form of bridge that any of us could play, cheating online became just cheating.

Central to our process was to consider all the different strands of evidence. No one piece of evidence was likely to prove anything, but many separate pieces of evidence could add up to a strong case or, indeed, show that that one suspicious-looking incident didn’t fit with the general picture.

You may be aware of Nicolas Hammond’s work in using statistics to detect cheating; statistical measures played their part as pieces of our evidential puzzle. One example that shows this nicely is the opening lead. How often does a player make the double-dummy best lead? If you have access to a large number of hands that someone has played it is easy to calculate their double-dummy lead success rate over those hands, using a computer program. An expert calculated this statistic, and others, over tens of thousands of hands from honest players who volunteered and then looked at how that related to their rank on the EBU’s grading system, finding that it correlated pretty closely. This helped us to contextualise data from players who were being investigated – if someone was leading significantly better than even the strongest players over a large number of hands that was suggestive that something might be amiss.

Obviously, not everyone who leads unusually successfully over lots of hands is cheating, and there are other influencing factors: forms of scoring, partnership aggression in the auction, whether they were on lead to suit contracts or no trumps etc. But it formed part of our evaluation. Something. We used other statistical measures too, and these were especially useful when two large comparative datasets were available, for example comparing data from events where kibitzers were and weren’t allowed.

We also looked at hands. It’s all very well to say that someone was leading or playing statistically outside the norm but what if they’d just run into a set of hands that suited their style? Or where the normal action was the best one? We examined hundreds of hands per case to see whether the player had taken unusual actions, consistent with illicit knowledge of the deal. If they did a lot of unusual things that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, it suggested they weren’t cheating. If they routinely overcalled on four-card suits at the two level, vulnerable, when partner had a big fit but never when they didn’t, that suggested something else. Clearly, this is subjective, which is why multiple analysts looked at the hands separately to reach their own conclusions before coming together to discuss what they thought was going on. This is the sort of analysis that could be developed through crowdsourcing. I can imagine a future in which hands could be made available online to a network of analysts, who’d be able to work through them as and when they have time. This would make it easy to throw “dummy” hands in, where no player was under suspicion, and to reduce bias by anonymising all hands and randomising their order.

BBO were also hugely helpful in providing information about kibitzing activity for our investigations. I’m not going to go into detail about this, both because I’ve already written more than I promised the editor, but also to avoid giving something away that could help people avoid detection.  That said, it’s no exaggeration to say their input has changed the game of bridge, bringing cases to the fore that would never have been heard were it not for their input.

This might all sound a bit bleak, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that dishonest players are a small minority. The truth, however, is that a lot of NBOs and individuals have done fantastic work in promoting honest play. On a personal note, one positive that has come out of my work is that I have met and worked with genuinely awesome people from around the world, who care hugely about protecting integrity and honesty in the game we all love. I hope that this is an area where people from different countries can continue to co-operate with and learn from each other, and that that might promote deeper links between bridge nations.

Sarah Bell is a part time professional bridge player and full time teacher. She writes a regular column in English Bridge. She will represent England in the European Championships in Madeira this June, playing in partnership with Michael Byrne in the mixed team. She has served on the EBU's Laws and Ethics Committee and was founding chair of their Online Ethics Investigation Group.

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70 comments on “Cheating in Bridge - how do National Bridge Organisations investigate allegations?”

  1. Hi, I’m relatively new to BBO and I haven’t played any live bridge. What do you mean by ‘hesitating on a singleton’ and why is it not allowed? How can I find out what constitutes cheating?
    Thanks
    PW

  2. A cheater has an ego problem ... obviously they don't think they are good enough and need all the help they can get to prop up that ego.
    I welcome somebody trying to figure out my game ... all I can say is Aces don't beat voids. Doubling a suit contract getting your agreed suit outbid is not too sharp if you are counting on 2 tricks in your suit.

  3. I think cheaters hurt honest players most. I and another player have reported an obviously cheater. We followed that player for years. Well documented. No action taken againts him. It seems like the olatform did not bother a bit since it was free tournaments. So I had to ban that player (and some more cheaters too) for life.

  4. Yes it does hurt emotionally why people have to cheat after all it is only a game.
    Some times when I notice obvious CHEAT action I just say Hope you are Happy!!

  5. Great post. Thank you for the time you put into writing this.

    I am an ACBL Director and a local club manager.

    Playing in an ACBL sanctioned game, I witnessed cheating. I sent the DIC historically verifiable proof of the cheating. The DIC did absolutely nothing. And the ACBL did nothing.

    After 6 weeks of playing on line and witnessing rampant cheating (although none with similar historically verifiable proof), I stopped playing on line.

    As an ACBL Director, I can tell you that the organization unreceptive to the suggestions you put forth.

  6. Imagine what our country might be like if every time citizens witnessed a crime being committed, they would be required to submit a written report to the Department of Justice. Then, if, and only if, enough reports were received, the DOJ might refer the matter to the FBI for investigation and possible prosecution. All local and state law enforcement agencies would be relegated to handling minor issues such as directing traffic. Only the federal government would be allowed to investigate crimes, and then only after multiple written complaints had been filed by citizens.

    It's a scary thought, right? But that’s exactly what the ACBL is doing about the “crime” of cheating in sanctioned online games and tournaments. Every sanctioned game offered by the ACBL or by its member clubs, is monitored by a director. That person is certified by the ACBL to direct sanctioned events and tournaments (games). It’s a bit like your local police monitoring the goings on in your community. If a member of the community (a player) calls attention to an irregularity by another citizen (player), the local police (directors, managers, owners) normally investigate and take whatever action is required. It is, for the most part, how we control crime. The system isn’t perfect, but it works quite well most of the time. Not so in our events.

    The ACBL’s rickety, top-down approach to the control of cheating can’t possibly work very well. It is, on its face, inefficient. Here we have this very large, continent-wide (North America) organization trying to police dishonesty in its ranks by ignoring its vast system of resources (directors, managers, owners) and funneling the bulk of its enforcement efforts through a single person: the National Recorder. It’s just nuts! No wonder the ACBL has hardly put a dent in online cheating! No wonder so many members are not willing to play online! No wonder membership is declining!

    It is time for the ACBL to involve local club directors, managers, and owners in the process of detecting and eliminating cheating in our online games. To not do so is to risk the future of competitive Bridge.

  7. My attitude to cheats is if it is that important to them well let them, hopefully they will get caught but remember it is only a game and is of no import in the scheme of thingsl

  8. Tony Sowter, the question -- on picking the successful finesses that work and avoiding those that fail -- remains what it has always been, a question of evidence. Which, I do believe, puts the burden on the provider of the internet service. The only practical solution that seems to work is delaying broadcast of hands played at the "other" table or tables, so that fresh information cannot be relayed when the second pair/team/individual plays the hand. Problem is that such a safeguard makes watching a live match appreciably duller.

  9. It is one thing to play with known people Online and that too non-Tournaments. You play, discuss, analyze, learn and enjoy. But Tournament Bridge... I have my reservations. Your Article - an excellent piece - where statistical analysis and not hearsay or wild accusations, has been the basis- validates may reservation.

  10. but they will never get that buzz that comes with pulling off a successful squeeze having identified the possibility

  11. Hesitating on a singleton is prohibited in the ACBL and should be reported. However, that has happened a couple of times online and the director did not act, though it did affect the play on the hand. In face-to-face bridge I have been involved in a couple of committees when there was an issue. Online, the director can more clearly identify the hesitation so it just needed to be acted upon.

  12. The idea that cheats never prosper is nonsense. A winner gains kudos, sine prize money, gets hired mpre often etc etc. Why have there been major cheating scandals in World Bridge Championships? etc etc. I have to say that while I have made more than my fair share of erros playing in the ALT tournaments on BBO I am frequently surprised at how many pairs reach games that make with the aid of 2 successgul finesses and how many dont reach game when the finesses are wrong. I would be very interested to see a large scale analysis of those hands which could easily reveal that I pay more attention when things are wrong for us than when they are right. Personally I think BBO would do well to introduce the use of cameras as an option for serious events. If you can see and hear your opponents or just one of them cheating is made a lot harder.

  13. ..Je suis sure et certaine que certains joueurs sur BBO trichent,. J'ai eu à faire à des etrangers qui jouaient ensemble contre moi et mon partenaire en libre...Ils reclamaient par exemple le contrat de 6sa gagnes que nous avons joue et gagne. J'ai joue contre monsieur et madame X, ils se consultaient entre temps pendant les donnes, ou autres
    Oui il y a de la tricherie sur BBO, on peut avoir 2 ordis dispo et regarder les mains des autres.
    .Moi BBO je joue maintenant de temps à autre mais vraiment ce n'est plus du bridge merci.

  14. Another suggestion to limit the impact of cheating and make it easier to reveal cheaters is to only have Robot-only tournaments. I think I still see cheaters in BBO Robot Daylongs, they must have multiple ACBL logins available to them from multiple IP addresses (AT&T phone, T-Mobile phone, Verizon phone with only one also using wi-fi) to see boards in advance. This goes unnoticed bc it is complicated to search for and single IP address exposure is the low hanging fruit. Yes, I know I just gave cheaters a tip to improve their deception but anyone who goes to that much trouble must be desperate for whatever rewards they gain. Forgive them for they know not what they do. -jcr

  15. I’ve stopped playing online bridge due to the blatant cheating going on. I’ve never understood the benefits of cheating. Is it fr more points?

  16. Bbo as auto singleton play which I use. It should be mandatory . Also banning two people playing from the same IP address as partners I believe would go along way

  17. So exactly why is the subject in the email "why do people cheat at bridge" and the article doesn't address that supposed headline in the slightest? What a complete waste of time reading this gibberish that does nothing to address the question in apparently a clickbait headline, nor does it say anything about how to really resolve the problem. And the issue is hardly reserved to online play as we have seen. Cheating should not be allowed. PERIOD. There is no excuse, no second chance. Anyone caught cheating should be thrown out PERMANENTLY.

  18. I am sure that there is more cheating than is realised.The number of times that players delay playing a card when there is no alternative is outrageous.As an example delay in playing a singleton .

  19. My view is that one of the biggest "tells" of a cheating player is when there is a long pause before a decision that wouldn't really make sense unless they knew the precise holding of their partner. Surely the easiest way to cheat is simply to text your hand (or the crucial part of it) to your partner so they can decide the best course of action? Another form of cheating in pairs tournaments where the play of boards is time-limited is deliberately slow-playing to force your opponents to time out when you are expecting a bad result for your side. Evidence of pauses and slow playing not caused by connection problems are surely one of the first places to look for cheaters?

  20. One of the easiest ways to cheat at Bridge is to use your mobile phone with say WhatsApp and talk between two partners, wherever they may be. Its free and very easy.

  21. I always wonder about couples playing on BBO together. Are they really in separate rooms? Does one not shout out "Lead a spade" or something else? The risk versus reward of cheating is not understandable to me, but others must think otherwise.

  22. How can you cheat in bridge cause every thing you say means something that all players know

  23. Interesting article. When you say "How often does a player make the double-dummy best lead?", what does this mean? Thank you.

  24. Submit a player memo.

    But there are 2 problems with this. First, bridge governing bodies already are investigating thousands more than can be handled. Second, one hand does not even suggest cheating. Even hundreds don't. If you submit a thousand examples, then you might get in the queue.

  25. Dirty Tricks, a Showtime documentary, was very well done. Suggest viewing for those with more interest in this subject...if you can find the movie! Weeding out cheaters is not an easy task and cudos to those that are trying to protect this wonderful game.

  26. Very interesting article and comments thereafter.

    What is the best procedure to follow if one observes suspicious bidding or playing during a BBO tournament?

  27. I think she was using BBO in the plural, as the organizations people. I agree it could be considered wrong but she had the help of many people and she was using BBO in that context.

  28. I only clicked, because the title was "why do people cheat at Bridge". Though the methods to detect cheating are interesting, it is much more interesting why people cheat in a game where they do not profit in any way through cheating. They themselves know that they cheated, so they cannot be proud in their results.

  29. I approach Bridge the same way I approach golf. Both are very challenging. Both have rules about conduct. Nothing says more about lack of character than cheating at something that has, for the most part, no reward other than the idea of challenging yourself and engaging in competition usually with people you know. Without rules, there is no bridge.

  30. I have often wondered if some chronically slow play is because players are cheating and in contact with each other or looking up tips, conventions etc. And partners conversing together in an obscure language after every bid.
    Well done for looking into this.

  31. Compliments to the author for a well written article and sharing some insights into the complexities and sentiments that go with this problem.

  32. The authors verb usage is wrong in the next to last paragraph, and makes it very hard to read. Proper English would be to say that "BBO WAS" helpful, not "WERE" helpful!

  33. Here's a simple example: Online partners communicating by telephone, giving information about each other's hands.

  34. My partner used to say "what are they talking about?" because I had studied 6 languages! When I didn't know the language I would quick put in a search and come up with an answer. I never heard any of them cheat.

  35. Sarah - the same data you cite to support your premise shows sadly that the number of dishonest players is very much larger than a small minority.

  36. Sadly I’ve raised some obvious hands that need investigation - both to bbo and acbl- but never received an answer saying in either direction.

  37. A number of years ago playing at BBO after getting a bad first board my opponents discussed their next hands in Spanish at the table bidding to a laydown slam that almost no one reached. In the play however my pard ducked his ace and declarer got greedy for the overtrick ran into some foul breaks and perfect defense to go down. I informed the director anyway. (note: I did play against the cheating Italian pair at the Spingold in Chicago a number of years ago.

  38. In addition to prior comments, there are pathological cheaters. There are also those who feel others cheating online requires their cheating.

  39. Just as troublesome, to me, are the online opponents who use accusations of cheating, or innuendo, to intimidate.

    Recently during an online match opponents opened 2C, then 2D response, clearly indicating that they would be in a marathon bid sequence to reach a game contract: my 2 Spade overcall response, with a weak hand but an ace of spades, was clearly a signal for lead preference from my partner, who just happened to have a strong spade suit.

    Opponents eventually made game in hearts, but immediately after the hand one opp commented in chat "2Sp ? Wow, now that's interesting" and called the director.

    The online game is slow enough most times, and the last thing we need are posses of Sherlock Holmes' wannabes querying every bid or play that doesn't fit into their universe.

  40. Unfortunately, cheating is cheating. I don't care if you are playing rubber bridge for fun or in a world championship; it is unfair to your opponents at any level because they do not get success they deserve.
    IMHO, anyone caught cheating ore than once should be banned from competitive bridge for life and put on a list of known cheaters so that bridge players can avoid them at any level

  41. Why not eliminate all pairs and make all competitive bridge be played among individuals? This won't eliminate cheating but would dilute its advantage.

  42. Good to know investigations can and are being done. Cheating ruins any game in my opinion. I was curious what the punishments might be, and how to decide how serious is the cheating. Also, how do people cheat, and what do we look for/listen for, and how do we report it if we suspect someone. What are the clues to help tell us is we should be questioning or reporting. Obviously the article raised a lot of questions and curiosity for me, thank you for the article.

  43. I agree with Anonymous that the explanation as to why people cheat was not really addressed, notwithstanding the title. I would say there are basically three reasons.

    When money is at stake, there is always sufficient motive to cheat. Everyone is on guard for this one.

    But even where money is not involved, vanity is a powerful motive for a lot of people. Honest people tend to underestimate this one.

    Finally, some people just can't stand to lose, even where no money is to be gained and there is no one to impress. These people will even cheat at solitaire.

    1. ...I’m convinced many people cheated online because they felt it “didn’t really count” or that online bridge “isn’t really bridge”.

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