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Can cheating be stopped in online bridge?

I am not much of a bridge player which is one of the reasons you have probably never heard of me. I do, however, know some things about computers, so I thought I would give some input to the bridge community about the possibilities of cheating in online bridge.

There are a two major categories of cheating: done individually and done collusively by a pair.

Single player cheating would typically work by a player getting information about the other players' cards without any of them knowing. A simple way of doing this would be to kibitz his own table using another login (self kibitzing). Other ways of individual cheating includes looking at system notes and other resources during bidding and play.

All talk of device IDs, IP addresses etc. is not really that useful when countering self kibitzing: use a computer on one network and a phone on another network, problem solved. Or take it a step further and use VPN to get an IP address in another country. Sometimes it may be possible to see that particular users always kibitz the same person and other such suspicious behavior, but that is only a matter of the cheater doing his "job" better.

Fortunately, I think the card viewing aspect of individual cheating can be solved quite efficiently by using delayed kibitzing (as recently described here on Bridge Winners) or completely disallowing kibitzing. In this situation, the server only sends undelayed information about a players' card to one client and barring actual computer hacking, this should be enough to ensure that peeking cards is not really possible.

Collusive cheating is much harder to stop since each player must be able to see his own cards at any given time and if information flows between partners, cheating can occur. Collusive cheating in online bridge can not be stopped unless the whole network from computer to computer is under control of a trusted party (i.e. not the players). Also, the computers used by the players must be completely under control of a trusted party. No installation of extra surveillance software, cameras etc. will work if the players can use their own computers. Notice that I specifically said that the collusive cheating cannot be stopped if these conditions are not met. I did not say that collusive cheating can be stopped if the conditions are met since completely different communication lines may be used.

To illustrate my point, I made a few adjustments to my own and my wife's computer the other day that meant that I could send her information over the local network in a way that I am sure would not be detected even with two live people standing next to each of us, much less with cameras, screenshots, etc. Remember, if you can send two bits of information about your hand, you can for example tell your partner which suit to lead.

Well how difficult was it to set up this method of information transfer? It took all of 35 minutes. It was on our local network, but given another 15 minutes, it would have worked on any two internet connected computers anywhere on the planet. Given a day of work it would have been totally bullet proof.

Those are some facts about the possibilities of online cheating, but where does that leave us? I will give you my opinion on this.

I think that making cheating a little difficult is useful since it will stop some/most of the "casual" cheating. If it is really easy to kibitz your own table, some will do it. This is like locking your house even though your windows are made of glass.

I think that limiting individual cheating in important matches is useful since collusively cheating with your partner is a big step to take. It increases the stakes tremendously that you have to talk to other people about how to cheat.

As you can see above, I think it is impossible to stop collusive cheating, but making it more difficult may still be helpful.

Lastly, I think it is very important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater: thousands of people enjoy kibitzing bridge online every day. Disallowing kibitzing greatly reduces the overall joy of bridge. This applies mostly to important matches, but many also enjoy kibitzing their friends from the local club, so any limitations on kibitzing should not be taken lightly. Even delayed kibitzing probably reduces the enjoyment somewhat, especially when away from the BBO platform (YouTube, Twitch, Zoom, etc.), so the interactive functions are missing.

My suggestion is to keep up the good work with video conferencing while playing, checking for people kibitzing their own game, looking for odd leads, etc. But don't live in the illusion that you can stop online cheating. For high profile tournaments, I would make them invitational and only invite people I trust, just like many are doing these days. I do not think it is a good idea to make online tournaments for money or national titles, since the stakes are too high in an environment where cheating cannot be stopped. Whether the much sought after ACBL masterpoints are also too high stakes is a good question.

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