Ray Lee

Shades of Gray

I’ve stolen the title for this blog from a forthcoming MPP book, which just happens to be a novel revolving around cheating at bridge, the difficulty of proving it, and the conundrum of what to do with the culprit(s) when it is finally proven.  I wanted to comment on an incident in the New Orleans Spingold, which has already been the subject of much discussion and controversy on various bridge forums.

First, the deal in question:

You are playing the round of 64 in the Spingold against a much higher seed.  You start the second quarter about 40 behind, and this board comes up early on:

—  A x x  A Q x x   A K Q 7 x x

You are red against white, and RHO opens 3.  Your call.

No, this isn’t a quiz; that was just to give you a moment or two to think about how you might proceed.  What happened at the table was the holder of this hand, Howard Piltch (a professional player but not a top-ranked expert), bid 6 .  This was a dramatic winner when dummy hit with essentially king fourth of diamonds and out and both minors behaved well.

There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on the forums, but let me try to distil it at least into what is undisputed in terms of further facts.

1) At no stage did Mr. Piltch claim that his bid had been a mechanical error or some other kind of accident.  His partner claims it was a ‘state of the match’ attempt to generate a swing.

2) The boards were dealt at the table, apparently with all four players present.  Mr. Piltch made only one board of the eight, which he remembers as being Board 8 (not the one in question).

3) The director was consulted at some stage by the opposing team, but did not change the table result.  The opposing team did not lodge an appeal (they won the match by more than 100 IMPs) but did express an intent to pursue the matter in a Conduct and Ethics hearing.

This, you will I’m sure recognize, leaves many questions unasked and a great deal of information ungathered, which makes the whole ‘Was he or wasn’t he?’ discussion somewhat academic.  So I’m not going to go into that at all.  However, there are some possibly new points that are perhaps worth making here.

First, since this was a dealt board, and had not yet been played at the other table, presumably the only direct cheating method available would be introducing a stacked deck.  Lest you feel this is unlikely, let me mention that there have been at least two well-proven cases of deck-substitution in the Toronto area alone.  One of the perpetrators, after being banned, later showed up playing on OkBridge – using two different user accounts and playing in partnership with himself, incognito, to improve his rating. Once a cheater…

Second, how much evidence is required to convict a player of cheating?  This is where bridge courts separate from real life.  Alan Truscott (in The Great Bridge Scandal) remarks that it’s very difficult to prove cheating from hand records, but that it is possible to prove the reverse.  Terence Reese, in his apologia Story of an Accusation, understandably argues that the hands tell the tale in either event.  Reese was of course famously acquitted after a judicial hearing presided over by a non-bridge-player, who applied the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard to the case.  Allan Falk, an expert bridge player and also a prominent Michigan attorney, wrote a fascinating essay for the MPP edition of TGBS, in which he points out that nowhere except in criminal courts is this standard applied.  Elsewhere, in both sports tribunals and real life (and O.J. Simpson’s first two trials are a well-known example), the test is ‘preponderance of the evidence’.  So too it is (or should be) with bridge.

Third, and perhaps most interestingly, is the issue of whether Mr. Pitch’s past record should have any bearing upon people’s willingness to believe him guilty of some kind of wrongdoing in this instance.  The question of prior record is another where we needs must part company with criminal procedure.  The previous convictions of the accused are not revealed in court until a conviction has been recorded, and are taken into consideration only for the purposes of sentencing.  However, in bridge, one instance alone is rarely enough to convict.

Arthur Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  So when the disparity in ability between players is great enough, the lesser mortals will find it difficult to understand how the experts get to the right spot, and make brilliant leads and plays, apparently ‘seeing through the backs of the cards’.  Eventually the experts may even be suspected of cheating.  ‘Strange’ bids too can attract accusations, yet bidding is far from an exact science (look at any magazine bidding panel, and you’ll see 30-odd experts all arguing vehemently that five different bids are each the only correct action).  So much is ‘style’, or even table feel.  It is when actions deemed ‘unusual’ work out a high percentage of the time, or when a player finds the brilliant lead on just too many occasions, that antennae start to quiver – and when probably something is indeed going on. Any single occurrence may mean nothing – a lucky guess, an opponent flashing his hand, a flight of fancy that happened to work, or some such.  It is the multiple, as these incidents repeat themselves, which begins to make the case – and since we so often play against different opponents, it takes a while for anyone to notice.

Thus we have the ‘Recorder’ system, and the ability to look at a player’s track record of unexplained incidents, a record that taken as a whole may add up to an unappetizing picture.  As one forum poster put it, “If I were a judge in a bridge matter and the facts as presented came before me to make a ruling without revealing the identity of the 6♦ bidder, I would be highly doubtful that there could be any innocent explanation of the events that unfolded.  And, if I was told that the person who bid 6♦ on this hand was the person who is being discussed above, that would end all doubt for me.”

In the words of Ian Fleming, ‘Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action.’


LindaAugust 11th, 2010 at 8:27 pm

I completely agree that the short of being caught on video camera or something like that the only really good way to prove cheating is over a large number of hands. This can come all at once (as when people watched Reese and Shapiro to see if they were using their fingers to indicate the number of hearts held) or over many tournaments when too many strange happenings are associated with a single player. However, in the latter case I think that often a trap is set for the suspected player in one form or another to get clear evidence of a violation.

The auction described seems to me to be strange enough to warrant some sort of action which may just be keeping an eye on the player. I confess if I knew that I had to arrive at 6D in that auction I might have bid 4NT and if partner bid diamonds (presumably his longest minor) I would have raised him. If a player stacked the deck you think they would have planned at least a somewhat sensible sounding auction to get them to the right spot.

Ray LeeAugust 11th, 2010 at 8:54 pm

The suggestions on the forum I read included (a) being a good player doesn’t mean being a good cheater(!) (b) perhaps the 3S bid was unexpected, and in the heat of the moment no better auction occurred to him (c) maybe just bidding 6D is a good method since no-one will suspect you of cheating in such an obvious manner. For what it’s worth, Piltch’s partner said that there was an echo of this deal in a later board in the same set where the opponents got to 6C and went down, while 6D on the undiscovered 4-4 fit would have made.

The posters also discussed the reasonableness of 6D as a state-of-the-match bid, without coming to any consensus. Obviously it’s anti-percentage, but by how much? And maybe 7C would be a more sensible flyer. But just because bidding 6D is not something that would occur to 99% of players (or perhaps even 99.99%) doesn’t mean it’s enemy action. One question that was asked (but not answered) was whether Piltch had done similar things in the match that didn’t work out so well — if he had, maybe that’s why they were down 40!

Ken RexfordAugust 12th, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Sounds like my grandparents had the ultimate solution for the stacked-deck scenario, and we have forgotten this. After the shuffle, the opponent cuts the deck. Maybe they were onto something.

As a side note, I have always felt that the Reese case was an embarassing mess, if there was cheating, for a much different reason. Giving count in hearts seems like such a bridge-theory-poor approach to cheating. Too many signal types, and too little info exchanged. Any good bridge theorist would have had a single signal, either shown or not shown, to indicate parity (three odds and an even, or three evens and an odd). I mean, if you are going to get caught cheating, at least have the dignity to have the message be theoretically interesting.

Bud HinckleyAugust 12th, 2010 at 11:46 pm

I agree that Mr. Lee has the right to post the information that he did on his blog. However, by stating

“…. let me mention that there have been at least two well-proven cases of deck-substitution in the Toronto area alone. One of the perpetrators, after being banned, later showed up playing on OkBridge – using two different user accounts and playing in partnership with himself, incognito, to improve his rating. Once a cheater…”

and by stating that Mr. Piltch shuffled only Board 8 and not Board 5 which is the hand in question, it implies that I, as Mr. Piltch’s partner, may have “rigged the deck” on Board 5 (Board 21 of 64) in the Lall-Mori first round Spingold match.

So I present the following information which was also posted on a forum where Mr. Lee obtained the majority of his information, and I am not aware of anyone disputing any of the information below.

Bud Hinckley

“When I shuffle boards, it is always with a minimum of five shuffles, then I place the cards on the table in clear view of all at the table, make a clear cut of the cards so that I don’t know what the bottom card is, then deal the cards in a normal fashion of four piles of cards in rotation.”

“All of the eight boards shuffled at that table at the start of the second quarter were shuffled with all four players present. (North: Bud Hinckley, South: Howard Piltch, East: Jim Krekorian, West: Judith Bianco)”

“An entire hand was face up in one of the pockets of all eight boards in full view of all four players before the shuffling of the eight boards started. All eight boards were shuffled and dealt in front of the four players with each board starting with a card showing face up before being shuffled and dealt.”

Ray LeeAugust 13th, 2010 at 12:35 am

If my words can be taken as implying that Mr. Hinckley might have switched in a deck, my apologies — I had no intention of so doing. I simply reported the facts regarding the dealing as presented on the other forum, while adding an editorial comment that deck-switching is not unknown, lest readers should doubt even the possibility. I should perhaps add that I personally don’t think that anything untoward happened on this occasion, despite the bizarre nature of the auction. What I really wanted to do was discuss the other issues, regarding evidence and prior convictions, as they are or should be applied to suspected bridge crimes.

kenrexfordAugust 13th, 2010 at 3:17 am

Well, if you are looking for a real solution to deck substitution, it seems that such a solution is relatively easy, depending on the expense. It might even lead to other interesting applications.

Suppose that playing cards (for major events) had some sort of chip in them or something like that; maybe a magnetic strip like credit cards have. I think they make them small enough to not really interference. These could in theory be coded somehow, which would make substitution really difficult. For, the coding could be set in such a way (like indicating the event code number, randomly generated) as to make checking with a “reader” whether the deck was substitute.

If the tech is good enough, this might also enable a “smart table” that records each card played (and each bid made, doing the same thing with the bidding boxes). This would have all sorts of great applications.

For one, you might be able to download a “record” to review later with partner. Not just the hand records, but the bids and play of the cards as they actually occurred. Maybe downloaded onto a pda, or emailed, or whatever. Vugraph would likely be easier and could simulcast multiple players in a major event. Imagine having running play and scores for an entire field available online. Patterns would be recorded very precisely for later analysis, and a computer program might even be able to analyze trends in such a way as to red flag odd coincidences even though no one was looking for them. Director calls and committees would have extra information upon which to rule in disputed situations. For that matter, a timing program might be able to register the exact length of time between bids and plays, to confirm hesitations (if disputed), and for that matter to create patterns for hesitation reading trends.

Smart tables, smart cards, and smart bidding boxes would really advance the game at the top levels.

MichaelAugust 13th, 2010 at 7:32 am

Um, the real solution to deck switching is preduplicated hands! Why they don’t do this for the premier event of that nationals from the beginning is pretty crazy IMO.

As for the suggestion to bid 4nt, most people would have found a 5c call as the response to that as the partner was 4-4 in the minors and held, if memory is correct, xx xxx Kxxx Txxx. Now you might argue that K-4th is better than T-4th, but bidding the lower of two equals is pretty common.

I think the normal action is X. I polled one of my partners and asked him to choose bids and then told him, nope try a different bid, and he gave up after 6 bids none of which were 6D. It truly is a shockingly strange call with a very high percentage chance of going wrong and a small, but not insignificant, chance of going right.

Also, on bboforums (where much of these points came from and were discussed) it was claimed that the person in question did not make any other swingy type actions until very late in the match when they were down by a lot.

Ray LeeAugust 13th, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Re Ken’s suggestion: a scenario very much like that is the setting for Peter Winkler’s new book, Bridge at the Enigma Club.

Ray LeeAugust 13th, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Michael, I hadn’t previously seen any of the other three hands described. However, if you are correct about the North hand, it would explain why a hypothetically cheating player could not be sure of getting to 6D via the more obvious route of 4NT followed by raising 5D to 6D. However, as I said in my first post, there are so many things we don’t know about this incident, that it’s very hard to draw any conclusions at all about it in isolation. I have been told privately that the same player bid two other slams in ‘similar fashion’ in the same half of the match, and that neither of those made, which certainly lends credence to the idea that the 6D bid was simply a off-the-walls swing action that happened to get lucky.

LuiseAugust 14th, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Duplicated hands and hand records is not the solution to avoid cheating… People can still exchange notes in the bathroom, or get a copy of the print-outs before the match, etc.

You can’t stop people from trying to cheat. It doesn’t really matter what subject we’re talking about, be it a bridge game, a sporting event, blood/urine test, school exam, etc. If a person has it in their mind to cheat, and they are intelligent and creative enough, they will ALWAYS find a way…

Bobby WolffAugust 14th, 2010 at 3:42 pm

The only valuable information to arise from this recent basically failed pursuit of the phantom (aka the cheater or the bridge cheating mind) is to show in no trump how it, under our present system, stands up to reality and to public scrutiny.

What it amounts to. when thrown open to public opinion, is to classify it along with religion, bridge systems, whether to have wars and what is the more tasty ice cream flavor, one will wind up with as many opinons as there are flavors.

To do it right, one has to have the smarts and industry of Sherlock Holmes, the unconditional support of his buddy Watson, and, above all to be blessed with the drive of someone who wants the game to thrive and at the same time to have justice conquer all. Without any of the above we will continue to live in the dark ages and have juries like OJ Simpsons determine results.

To say that bridge cheats, assorted rascals, and downright worthless scoundrels continue to laugh at us and our methods of dealing with them is understating the whole process.

For anyone trying to give bridge a break, good luck, we all are going to need it.

Cam FrenchAugust 16th, 2010 at 7:56 pm


A fascinating synopsis.

I recall a famous hand where Sidney Lazard (I think) made an identical call (6D) with a like disparity in the minors but could infer from the auction that partner probably had diamonds.

I know Kehela and others recalled the hand, as it developed its own legendary status.

I have met Howard but I don’t know him personally. One thing wasn’t clear to me from your posting. You suggest previous incidents, and if that is the case, IMHO yes, they should be showcased for all to see. As Falk stated, “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a criminal threshold, the League and sanctioning organizations should have their own.

For example a C&E committee, unlike a jury need not be unanimous.

Does Howard or his partner have some prior conviction?

Is that relevant? (Yes) You raised it, I can only ASSume (at my own risk I guess) that you had a damn good reason for doing so.

The state of the match, and as you said, even prior or subsequent actions should be looked at. If he was up by 40 against a “superior” team, we would look askance. Down by 40 to a superior opponent certainly adds fuel to his position.

I don’t think I for one will be drilling Mackwell by playing down the middle. They will do that and let me drill myself. Such is the nature of the beast.

The clear inference was that Howard had been convicted (or accused?) of some cheating in the past and thus this is evidence of more of the same. Is that the case?

I think in this case, the action is certainly swingy, when given the problem I thought I would double and convert (the likely heart bid from partner) to clubs, presumably at the five level. 6D is wild, but hardly evidence of cheating. Given the opening 3S bid partner is marked with some distributional shape. The question is could be be 3-7-1-2 or the like? The answer is of course yes, and why would you convert with that?

He bid wildly, bought well. Coincidence or crime – you tell me. I feel the history here is of utmost importance. If we were talking bigger names (say Zia or Moss renowned for their off-beat bidding) no one would give it a second thought. Their record of standing tells us what we need to know.

I think we all want cheaters and their benefactors outed and sanctioned. Not sure the glove fits here.

Perhaps someone can find the Lazard hand. Perhaps we can hear from experts, or committee members. And I think we all deserve to know any past history, including one of like wildness under analagous circumstances.

Like Rixi, I rarely find myself down at the half to an allegedly “superior” team. On the rare occasion when that should occur, I confess to swinging, some said wildly. Is there any other way?

Great story.


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