This story first appeared in Rolling Stone.
His elbow resting on the table, Lotan Fisher cups his right hand over his mouth. He slides that hand to the side of his face, while looking down at the table. During these little tics, Fisher keeps one action constant: The index and middle fingers of his left hand hold a yellow plastic board steady, squarely underneath the center of a plywood screen. All told, the entire sequence takes about two and a half seconds.
Those two and a half seconds might seem innocuous to the untrained eye. But for the world-class players who make up the exclusive world of high-level contract bridge, they represent something far more sinister: an accused case of cheating, one that's threatened the careers of one of the world's most successful pairs, and reignited ethical debates in a game that relies heavily on an honor system that will occasionally fail rather spectacularly.
Contract bridge is played by four people using a standard 52-card deck. The four players are split into pairs, who bid on hands, then compete to take tricks. At the highest levels, the game is played under duplicate bridge rules, where the same hands are replayed so different pairs can test their skill while playing the same cards. Although there's prize money at the top tournaments, the real draw for the game's biggest pros is the opportunity to play on teams sponsored by multimillionaire aficionados. Players of that caliber can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year playing high-level tournaments year-round.
That money, some players claim, further incentivizes competitors to cheat.
In 2014 and much of 2015, Fisher and fellow Israeli Ron Schwartz exploded, going on one of the most impressive runs in recent bridge history. Playing with Norwegians Boye Brogeland and Espen Lindqvist, as well as Canadian Allan Graves and American team sponsor Richie Schwartz, the six-man team won the prestigious Spingold and Reisinger titles in 2014, then triumphed in the Jacoby Swiss event last March. Those were the glory days.
That summer, the two Israelis left Richie Schwartz's team to go play for former Bear Stearns CEO and passionate bridge aficionado Jimmy Cayne. Although the split ended the sextet's incredibly successful run, the move itself made sense, given the stakes. The best bridge players in the world often seek ways to monetize their talents, above and beyond the prize pools offered at major tournaments. Moneymen like Cayne will in turn court those top players to play on their six-person teams; it's akin to Mark Cuban suiting up alongside Dirk Nowitzki to chase the Warriors around an NBA court, with Cuban also heaving money at free agents to give himself a stronger supporting cast.
When well-heeled sponsors like Cayne are eager to pay top players to play with them, that creates a heightened incentive for winning. A defection like the one engineered by Fisher-Schwartz can thus generate a healthy rivalry between players. And in a delicious twist, the quarterfinals of the Spingold championships in August 2015 would pit Fisher and Ron Schwartz against their ex-teammates Brogeland, Lindqvist, and Graves, as well as their old sponsor, Richie Schwartz, in Chicago.
"We treated it like a normal match," Brogeland insists. "And we played very, very well."
Due to the quirks of six-man team play, none of Brogeland's hands came against the Fisher-Schwartz pair. By excelling against the top-ranked Italian pair of Lorenzo Lauria and Alfredo Versace, Brogeland and Lindqvist did enough to push their team to victory — by one point (or one IMP in bridge parlance).
Thing is, bridge isn't the NBA. The director in charge of matches will make judgment calls on the outcomes of hands, in a way that's far more nebulous than watching a 3-pointer catch nothing but net. Because of the nature of those judgment calls, the outcome of a close match can be appealed.
Immediately after seemingly losing by that one measly point, the Israelis and their four new teammates filed just such an appeal, arguing that Graves had made a bid based on information he'd gleaned from a hesitation made by his partner. It is indeed against the rules to use that kind of cue to gain an advantage in a hand. But there's also no hard-and-fast rule on what constitutes a hesitation. It's also possible that a player's bid could be the same whether or not his partner paused a bit too long before submitting his own bid. Still, Fisher wanted to win badly. If he had to use the murky appeals process to his advantage, so be it.
That appeal dragged on deep into the night. Finally, just after 1:30 a.m. on August 15, the five-person committee evaluating the appeal issued its decision: The final outcome was now reversed, with the Fisher-Schwartz team winning by one point. Exhausted, mystified and frustrated by the decision, Brogeland would get a full dose of salt in the wound. When Fisher found out that his team had won, he didn't hold back.
"He was pumping his fist, shouting, 'YES! YES! YES!'" Brogeland recalls.
Dumbfounded, Brogeland walked toward the committee members. What happened? he asked. Why did the committee side with the claim made by Fisher's team? Joel Wooldridge, one of the best bridge players in the world and one of the five people charged with making the ruling, had a simple reply:
"We tend to believe people."
Published in 1928, The Laws of Duplicate Bridge outlines all the rules and customs of the sport — and it would take far too long for me to explain them here. Suffice it to say, bridge is a game that takes a day to learn, and a lifetime (or more) to master. Law 73 B2, however, sends a crystal-clear message: "The gravest possible offense is for a partnership to exchange information through prearranged methods of communication other than those sanctioned by these Laws."
So when Per-Ola Cullin called Brogeland a couple weeks after the Chicago Spingold event, the implications were grave. A world-class player who is also a judge in Sweden, Cullin had spent hours watching video of old hands played by Fisher and Schwartz. He then paired that information with data gleaned from VuGraph, a system that shows all the cards held by all four players during any given hand, after that hand has been completed. What he found looked like a possible signaling system, one that would be highly illegal by bridge rules if it did in fact happen.
The pattern, Cullin argued, took shape whenever Fisher and Schwartz were defending a hand. The player making the lead bid would place the bidding board at a certain spot on the table to signal to his partner which suit was his strongest. Push it to the middle, and he's strong on diamonds; up and to his right, hearts; leave the board close to his own hand, clubs; clear through the trap door in the screen to the other side of the table, spades — that last move being so obvious, opponents would occasionally shove the bidding board back toward the middle, as a simple force of habit.
A bridge player named Michael Clark compiled an eight-minute video which highlights these unusual board placements. For many in the bridge world, that video became a smoking gun.
"I always felt that there is cheating [in bridge]," says Zia Mahmood, one of the most decorated players in the game and a 2007 inductee into the American Contract Bridge League Hall of Fame. "I just didn't realize the extent, or the level that the players who were caught cheating were at."
The key word is "caught." After Cullin relayed his suspicions to Brogeland, Brogeland published a series of posts at BridgeWinners.com, a popular site for both high-level pros and more casual players. The Israel Bridge Federation quickly suspended Fisher and Schwartz, who haven't played in a major tournament since last summer's controversy in Chicago.
The larger World Bridge Federation has remained curiously subdued about the entire matter. In a statement issued last October, the WBF wrote: "Those who decide that they wish to obtain an unfair advantage by cheating should be aware that they will be pursued without exception; if found to have cheated they will be subject to severe sanctions that will result in them not being a part of bridge for a very long time." But in a telltale sign of the priorities shared by many in the highest levels of the bridge world, the statement added: "However, the WBF does not approve of the current lynch mob mentality and approach that is being utilized by a small number of people."
Meanwhile, Fisher vigorously denies the charges, and is mounting a spirited defense. After Brogeland's writing inspired some high-level pros to lash out publicly at the Israeli pair, Fisher fired back on Facebook. "Jealousy made you sick," he wrote. "Get ready for a meeting with the devil…" (continued here on RollingStone.com)