The bridge world is in turmoil. Several top players are accused of cheating or have confessed to unethical behaviour. Three teams have withdrawn from this year’s Bermuda Bowl, the world championship in bridge, due to this. And again, a pair playing for Germany, Josef Piekarek and Alex Smirnov, is among them. With this, I think, German bridge has finally discredited itself for years to come. But I feel sorry for their teammates Auken/Welland, who are now out of the Bowl as well.
I have already shared my thoughts on cheating in golf. But with bridge, it is a different story all together. Whereas in golf, in most competition formats it is just you and your ballgame against the rest, bridge is a social game, requiring one partner, at least, and more pairs to team up with in team events.
Playing as little as I get to play, mainly at old ladies‘ club events, there is no way to not notice, that very often the impetus on how a card or bidding is placed on the table reveals an (un)fair amount of subtext information to be deemed unethical. The rigor with which a card is played, the speed of it advancing from the deck held in a hand, the lenght of time it takes a partner (or opponent) to make their move, sometimes even the look on their face gives many suggestions toward what their intention is. Which is not always in accordance with what their actual card action tells.
I always felt, that folks, who are very good at interpreting those tiny psychological „remarks“ are the ones to profit most in results. And it is a big part of the game itself.
Ideally, you have a playing partner, you know well. And have a system of bidding established between you, that is logical, covers a big spectrum of deals and resulting eventualities and is also clarified and understandable to your opponents. In order to reach a level of understanding of any system adopted by you and your partner in order to compete at top level bridge, you therefore usually know your partner rather well. The ethical problems arising with the way, bridge is played, are inherent to its set-up in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, preconceived methods of communication not allowed by the rules (like the code of coughs used by Wladow/Elinesu at last year’s Bermuda Bowl), are a different story alltogether. But how do you eliminate the psychological component and the resulting, vast field of gray areas, when it comes to game ethics, out of a game, that is explicitly designed to give this much room?
Bridge downright provokes all that fluid information, that is not supposed to be given. Most of the time, it is given completely unintentional. Whilst the thought process in players takes place, it reveals itself in their faces, gestures and actions. How they sit, shuffle in their chairs, the expression on their faces as they open their deal of cards, the speed with which they come to their decision to place a bid or play a card. All of this informs partner and opponents alike. All the time. But all, one is supposed to take at face value, is the card placed on the table. Impossible? Yes. Bridge? Also yes. Where to draw the line between cheats and „honest“ players? How to define guilt? Intention to cheat?
Modern technology would allow to solve this problem. Have partners completely separated, have their bidding and play displayed on a screen to their partners and opponents (same as in BBO) and make sure, an operator or the program itself displays everything not in real time but at even speed, visible to all four players within set times at the same time. Thus, you forego any „unethical“ information swopped, as far as I can tell. But would it still be bridge?