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Degrees of Cheating

I wrote this article to clarify a few issues that have come up recently in various threads, e-mails, and flags. Even though I feel I have already addressed most of them, it seems people are still confused about our anti-cheating policy. I hope the following will help put some of these questions to rest.

The thread on the Reisinger final featured a comment by Peter Fredin that was flagged by many of our users as an accusation of cheating. I chose to leave it up, which prompted some questions.

In particular, Nick Krnjevic wrote:

“... I have some difficulty understanding how PF's post could be construed as anything other than an unequivocal allegation of cheating ...”

I think the problem is that the word “cheating” is overloaded. In his comment, Nick gives the dictionary definition of cheating. But not all actions deemed illegal by the Laws are of the same magnitude. To make things clearer, let’s define “first-degree cheating” as breaking the rules of the game with clear and deliberate intent (includes collusive cheating, which is specifically called out by the Laws as the worst form of cheating), and “second-degree cheating” as breaking the rules of the game where intent isn’t clear.

Now, take the following hand that a director gave to me today for my opinion. You hold a 14-count with 1345 shape and the auction goes 1NT (15-17) P P to you. Your agreement is that 2 would be for the majors in direct seat and natural in balancing seat. You bid 2, partner alerts it as majors, and bids 2. At this point, your hand now bids on over 2, rationalizing that pulling 2 is AI because partner didn’t show a 1-suiter in spades directly, so 2 can’t be a good spot. But you have UI that the alert is majors, so that any action that pulls from 2 would be to your side’s advantage. And pass is actually a logical alternative: why can’t partner have 7 bad spades and a poor hand? But in the heat of battle, your brain might not come up with that hand -- you might make the mistake of only thinking about the normal 10-counts with 6 good spades that didn’t overcall, and talk yourself into pulling. It’s easy to do the right thing when you’re away from the table; it’s far harder to do it at the table. Many people with good intentions will often fail to act against their self-interest, not because they are intrinsically unethical, but because they are human.

Assuming you pull, at this point, the director will get called, and he’ll probably roll the contract back to 2, because there was UI, the UI indicated that pulling 2 would be beneficial, and Pass was a logical alternative to pulling. I feel strongly that there should be an additional procedural penalty, varying with the degree of experience of the offending party. That’s the way the Laws work. Technically, you “cheated”. But guess what? Every bridge player in the world, at some time or another, has “cheated” when it comes to violating the laws of the game. I don’t care how ethical you think you are -- it’s practically impossible for everyone to be 100% ethical all the time. Whether it’s passing a little too quickly over a skip bid, accidentally taking too long to follow suit with a singleton, misclaiming out of carelessness, or persuading yourself that you would have always taken the action indicated by UI, ethical violations (and I mean that in the general sense of the term, not the ACBL CDR sense of the term) happen. People are human. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone committing ethical violations, and it’s technically “cheating.” But it’s a mistake that someone with good intentions can make, so it’s “second-degree cheating.”

What I define as “first-degree cheating” is a mistake that someone with good intentions could never make. For example, agreeing with a partner on a coughing system to indicate suit preference, or deliberately rigging the deck during the deal so that partner is always dealt the ace of spades. Nobody who aspires to be ethical would do that, and these premeditated, deliberate attempts to cheat, the “first-degree cheating” cases, are the types of cheating accusations we don’t want to see our users post in public on Bridge Winners. Even if you have evidence, a public forum is not the proper place to air allegations of first-degree cheating because they say something about a person’s character and integrity.

Now let’s look at Peter Fredin’s post. Peter states his opinion that West was guilty of taking advantage of UI, an opinion I share, since the switch occurred at trick 2, not trick 3, and it’s hard to come up with a layout where that switch is necessary at trick 2. The video makes it clear there was UI indicating East didn’t have a singleton diamond, the UI indicated that it wasn’t mandatory to continue a diamond at trick 2, and another top diamond, playing partner for a singleton diamond and a trump, was a logical alternative. In short, the heart shift was, at worst, a case of “second-degree cheating”. Peter then makes the over-the-top assertion that this action is “as discusting(sic) to see as anything else the last couple of months”. Assuming that he is referring to the cheating scandals, he’s comparing a case of second-degree cheating to cases of first-degree cheating. In no way, shape, or form did he ever say that this pair is guilty of first-degree cheating -- just that they did something he personally considers as disgusting.

Now, imagine if, when the director polled me for my opinion on the hand I gave above, I had said, “Pulling 2 was an act as horrible as murder.” I’m not accusing that player of being a murderer, but of taking an action that was as horrible as murder. Most people would disagree with my comparison, but I would also not be making a murder accusation. On the other hand, what if I had said, “Pulling 2 is a criminal action; I’m not surprised because he hired me as a partner in the past and then didn’t pay up.” Even though the crime of breaking one’s word is less heinous than murder, the second statement is worse and more liable to be seen as slanderous because I am making a direct accusation. Similarly, saying something is as disgusting as first-degree cheating, is nowhere near saying that people ARE first-degree cheaters.

It boils down to this. We don’t want to remove content. We think that in general, people should be able to speak their opinions unless they greatly harm others in the process. So people can talk about cheating without reference to a specific player/pair, or a pair that’s already publicly and officially been accused of cheating. What we don’t want to see are any new public accusations of first-degree cheating. We also don’t want to see new accusations of second-degree cheating without evidence. You may still disagree, but now at least you can see that we do have our reasons that allow for some forms of cheating (second-degree with evidence) to be mentioned, and not others (first-degree, or second-degree without evidence).

In reply to Nick, Ray Yuenger pointed out:

“Unfortunately for the admins, this policy will have to be interpreted and applied on a case-by-case, or comment-by-comment, basis.“

He’s absolutely right. Not only is it hard work, I understand this can lead to appearances of bias and favoritism. For what it’s worth, I have a relationship with virtually every top player in the game. Some of those relationships are bad, some are good, most are somewhere near the middle. Whether friend, foe, or my own mother, if you cheat at bridge I want you gone from the game. If you don’t cheat and I know it, I will defend you from what I believe to be erroneous accusations. It’s a pretty simple world I am living in. I always try to do what I think is right and just.

We are in a critical period in the process of cleaning up our shared game. We need to do our best to eliminate first-degree cheating and minimize second-degree cheating. We (the moderators of BW) are willing to invest the time and effort to try to get things right, so keep the flags coming. We can’t promise we’ll act on every flag you send, but we do read all the flags when a comment gets heavily flagged. We make no claim we’ll be able to do this forever, and if it proves to be impossible, we’ll probably implement some completely objective system. But for now, this is the way we choose it to be.

I hope this makes everything clearer, and as I said before, I appreciate your feedback.

After this article was published, comments showed that I gave the wrong impression about my stance towards rules violations that are not first-degree cheating. I don't think they are worthy of being labelled "cheating", but that they should be labelled with another name, such as "infraction". To skip down to the full explanation, see:

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