Three Israeli experts, an investigator and two professional bridge players, believe they have finally cracked the system allegedly used by Israeli bridge stars Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz, who were suspended for cheating last year by the European Bridge League.
The Israeli par was suspended for five years, received a hefty fine and were prohibited from playing together in the future.
Fisher and Schwartz have been the rising stars of international bridge for the past six years, winning the world championship, the European championship and the North American championship. But all that came to an end last year, when Norwegian player Boye Brogeland accused the two of cheating and appealed to the global bridge community around the world to help him discover their system.
In the world of bridge, it was a real earthquake.
The Israeli pair strenuously deny the allegations. But they have lived under a heavy pall since their suspension, with the bridge world, Israel included, speculating feverishly about the method they used to cheat.
A bridge player is allowed to transmit information to his partner, but under severe restrictions. At first this is done with specific declaration cards and after that with the playing cards themselves. That way the signals are seen by everyone.
Any other way of passing information is considered cheating, which is neither new nor rare in bridge. To prevent it, the opposing pairs are separated by a wooden partition above and below the table. There is an opening in it through which a bidding tray is passed, to prevent passing information between players. The cards are held in four separate pockets of a board, which is placed on the tray.
In September 2015, the Swedish player Per-Ola Cullin suggested that the Israeli pair communicates by positioning the board in a specific way immediately after the bidding process. When defending a hand, the player making the lead bid would place the board at a certain spot on the table to signal to his partner which suit was his strongest – diamonds in the middle, hearts up and to the right, clubs close to his own hand and spades on the far side of the screen.
But this theory only explains 95 percent of cases, and since there is only a small sample of relevant hands the theory has been disputed.
Lotan and Schwartz deny the cheating charges and are fighting to prove their innocence in lectures and on a Facebook page they opened for the purpose. They have recruited bridge players and scientists, including some from the Weizmann Institute and the European Organization for Nuclear Research, who testified on their behalf, both in terms of the game and on its statistical aspects.
The three Israeli experts who now believe they have cracked the system are Dr. Netzer Zeidenberg, a lecturer in computer sciences at the College of Management Academic Studies, Israel’s 2003 bridge champion Amir Levin and another professional bridge player who has not divulged his name. The three, who have spent many hours watching Fisher and Schwartz play, are convinced they’ve figured how the system works.
“We looked at dozens, maybe hundreds, of hours of video recordings,” said Zeidenberg, adding that it wasn’t much fun. “We watched four fat men playing, without being able to see the cards in the recording. We were only trying to uncover the alleged cheating.”
“There was no unambiguous scientific proof beyond reasonable doubt,” Zeidenberg said of Cullin’s theory regarding the positioning of the board. “There were certain hands in which the theory was quite problematic. It was contrary to their cards.”
“The people who developed the theory were aware of this and they tried to explain it by saying that the player made a mistake in his signaling, after which he immediately corrected himself.”
Zeidenberg and his colleagues agree with Cullin that the positioning of the board is the method used by Lotan and Schwartz to pass signals. But what they realized, he says, is that the position of the board does not relate to the player himself but to compass absolutes.
“You have the four directions – north, south, east, west – and if you want a certain color you push the board to the north,” he says. “If you’re sitting in one position that might be away from you, and if you’re sitting in another position it might be closer to you. Essentially, the partners’ signs are opposites. Lotan signals clubs when the board is close to him and Ron signals clubs when the board is far from him.”
“When you look at the signs as absolutes, suddenly all the things that were in doubt disappear, and suddenly there are no strange hands,” says Zeidenberg.
Levin says that the theory is 100 percent accurate. “We saw that this theory also held true in other competitions,” he says. You see the theory holding water in a whole number of places, and in a number of different leagues. We examined 15 video recording and we ascertained that the signs are repeated. The Europeans only complained about four.”
Support for their theory was also supplied by two other leading players who were not in the investigative team but examined the findings.
Asked about Zeidenberg and Levin’s research, the Israel Bridge Association said it could not comment due to ongoing proceedings on the matter.
Fisher and Schwartz provided this response: “We are innocent of any crime and we will fight for our innocence. We already successfully passed a polygraph that proved that we are innocent.
“The result of the proceeding in Switzerland is surprising and very disappointing. From the hearing, it was apparent that there is no agreement whatsoever about the bridge moves for which we were being investigated; that there are more cases that contradicted the theories raised against us than cases that support them.
“In the opinion of an independent international expert, Prof. Eilam Gross, the database is so small that it cannot be used to prove anything. Moreover, the decision that was issued did not include any explanations. Once we do receive the detailed explanations, we will of course appeal the decision.
“We wish to point out that we are being tried by three different panels (in Israel, Europe and the United States) and being accused of four supposed signaling methods, each of which contradicts the other. The fact that our rivals and their ‘experts’ keep coming up with more and more ‘cheating theories’ from the same data and competitions, while we have been presenting proof that the original theory is false, just goes to prove our claim – that there is no code. That there is no cheating.
“There was never any cheating on our part. Interested parties made a premature judgment that sealed our fate and are now trying to prove it in any way possible. The accusations against us are not just false, and often contradictory, but also motivated by certain interests and written with the clear aim of getting rid of us as competitors. We will not give up. The truth will win out in the end.”