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“Detecting Cheating in Bridge” by Nic Hammond. Preliminary thoughts

Nic Hammond was gracious enough to sell me one of the early copies of Detecting Cheating in Bridge. The following is not intended as a comprehensive review or evaluation of his book; rather, I am going to provide a few observations regarding portions of the work that I found particularly interesting.

TLDR: Provocative read. Glad I purchased / read this. It will be very interesting to see what comes from this.

High Level Summary: Nic makes a number of claims including

  1. Techniques that rely on “breaking the code” to infer that cheating is taking place are insufficient in the face of an adaptive adversary who does not cheat in a consistent / reproducible manner.
  2. However, it is possible to use statistical methods to infer that cheating is taking place and that specific pairs are cheating.
  3. These methods focus on whether players are too successful at making what should be “random” guesses.
  4. He has an expert system that is instantiates a number of detection routines. This expert system successfully flags well known pairs that people believe to have been cheating in the recent past.
  5. The expert system strongly suggests that not all of the pairs who were cheating prior to 2015 have been identified.
  6. The expert system strongly suggests that the amount of cheating decreased post 2015, however, it has not been eliminated.

 

What is / is not included in the book:

  1. Most of the data is anonymized. Nic provides data regarding the performance of pairs such as F/S and F/N and uses these as reference points. However, for the most part the presentation focuses on the shape of various distributions rather than the identity of specific individuals.
  2. Specific details of the algorithms that the expert system uses to infer that cheating is taking place are not provided

My (strongly biased) thoughts:

Anyone reading this book will need decide whether or not they are willing to make at least two major leaps of faith:

  1. Do they believe that the statistical tests of the sort that Hammond proposes are sufficient to infer cheating?
  2. Are people confident in Hammond implementation of these tests

 

For me, the answers to these two questions are both yes (however, I’m going to caveat this almost immediately). With respect to the question about statistical validity, I’d like to focus on a couple different aspects of Nic’s analysis.

First: I very much like the fact that Nic was able to create a specific hypothesis that he could examine. To wit; the fact that we can divide the data set into observations from before 2015 and observations after 2015. (2015 being the year in which Boye went public with his cheating accusations and the start of much wider video surveillance) Given that the risk / reward ratio for cheating has changed significantly, it seems reasonable to test whether the frequency of cheating has decreased.

Next: If I understand things correctly, it should now be possible to inspect the hands that WILL be used for individual tournaments, identify boards that the expert system will use, and then generate a hypothesis in advance regarding pairs that are unusually likely to make the right decision.

I have no doubt that other people will question Hammond's claims. (I admit to having some questions myself, but want to wait until I am able to able to think about stuff more thoroughly) However, my preliminary assessment is as follows:

1. I do not believe that the methods that Hammond proposes are sufficient to prosecute individuals or pairs for cheating, strip titles, or make public accusations. I don’t see this as an indictment of the methods themselves, but rather, if folks are smart about their choice of the set of hands on which they chose to cheat it will be almost impossible to prove these sorts of claims definitively. (Hammond himself notes that smart cheaters will be cognizant of these sorts of trade offs)  In the end, Hammond’s system may be more useful as a deterrent than as a detection system

2. I am not particularly interested in demonstrating with absolute certainty that pair foo cheats. To me, the real value of this study is to try to establish a rough consensus regarding whether or not the game as a whole is “clean” or “dirty”. Hammond’s work suggests that cheating in top level events was pervasive and, even today, the amount is problematic.  (Note that Hammond's methods can be applied to entire populations in addition to exemplars)  

3. To me, it seems clear that we can not trust participants not to cheat. We can not rely on “code breaking” to ensure convictions or even act as a sufficient deterrent. Its unclear whether Hammond’s methods will stand the test of time.

4. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: If folks are serious about rooting this out, it requires switching to an electronic playing environment.

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