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I wanted to comment on some issues the contextual understanding of which is relevant regarding everyone’s not so favorite topic of the day. As it is material to every post on the topic, I decided to post my views separately. Essentially, I thought we needed “Cheating Scandals For Dummies”.  Since is I know something about at least parts of the title, who better to pen it than moi?

There have been a fair number of comments that seem, to me anyway, not to have a firm understanding of how cheating would (and does sometimes) occur at high levels. And by the way, this lack of understanding is a wonderful thing. It supports Jeff Meckstroth’s important observation that we should keep in mind that “I think it needs to be said that there are very few pairs cheating at the top level.” Jeff should know. If some pair needs to cheat to win, they will definitely have to try their cheating skills against him.

Tony Forrester once told me that most cheating methods in high-level play focus primarily on getting the lead right. This is because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton: “That is where the IMPs are.” Not that other information could not be useful to a cheat, or that a cheater would limit his opportunities. But it is with the leads that one can most significantly impact a match.

I never thought about this before Tony’s observations. But if an entire expert team had Deep Finesse picking all their leads, they can probably defeat any world class team. And when the players are even closer in ability, an unfair lead advantage for one of the pairs will make the cheaters as near bulletproof as one can be in this game.

Tony also pointed out that methods to assist in the lead are also difficult to establish or identify. As opposed to declarer play, for example.

Cheating During Declarer Play

This is nearly not possible in high-level play. Declarer play is well understood and mastered by high-level players. Consider (and I don’t want to speculate on whether there were other possible issues) that the entire relevant official case against L&B considered of exactly ONE declarer play hand.

At the club, I need to constantly tell people to hold their hands back. Many thank me, but the reality is this is more to protect me than them. I do not wear my glasses when playing, so I cannot actually see their cards anyway. But people would not know that. Plus, I need the pigeons to be more aware when they are playing against those with better eyesight. Most club players imagine cheating = peeking. And at the club, you can take whatever declarer line wins. Club players can be very random. But world class players are not random declarers.

The facts demonstrate that if one world-class player takes one anti-% first round finesse when his partner as dummy has seen a defender’s hand, it can be fini for them.

Also, good luck actually seeing a world class player’s hand if they don’t volunteer showing it to you. Meckstroth always has a slew of kibbers. I have no idea why. You can sit in Jeff’s lap and not see his cards. (No, I have not tried. But I am sure Sally could confirm this.) Hamman does not even bother to sort his hand. Try seeing those cards. All I can say is thank goodness for BBO.

“A Wire”

This is always useful to the miscreant. Today’s electronic technology poses separate challenge if someone is committed to illegal gain. However, I think a huge factor in UI (AKA “a wire”) comes from players talking and others overhearing. Serious tournaments would be better served if the players just said nothing and saved the commentary for later.

I can understand commentary in club play . Many people are just practicing and some have even hired partners specifically for lessons and teaching. If you have - as I often do - a fairly immobile, hard of hearing client, that poses its own set of often comical and confounding conundrums.

But at higher levels, most such discussion is pointless.  It is really just filler, because that is what we humans do. So while we might now have to consider whether a player might have overheard the statement nearby of: “six clubs is the only making contract”, the fact remains that had that statement not been made, there would be no need to worry about UI.

Having always wanted to be able to tutor and mentor one of the world’s greatest pairs, I now will impart my wisdom: Italian is not a secret code. Heck, we broke the German Enigma and the Japanese Purple. A language with just 21 letters and vowels at the end of every word is not really that much of a challenge.  So be careful with comments.

Underhanded Opportunities @ High Levels

. . .are primarily limited to defensive help, bidding ranges and opening leads. And with defense, the issue will be that area - like declarer play - is subject to a more rigorous logical standard. However, in defense we sometimes do have a guess. The same as sometimes in bidding. We might be on a guess of the range of partner. Or where partner’s values lie.

But the biggest single guess is the opening lead.

And since the lead is not, for the non-psychic and non-Deep types, rigorously scientific, unusual variation is much harder to establish compared to declarer play or defense. Lets consider the events (see Ish’s post) from Nabil’s standpoint. Nabil is in a tough KO match. The ops get the lead right and defeat his contract. What does Nabil do?

He writes the score down, puts the board away and gets on to the next hand. Because top players are always doing their best Bob Hamman impersonation. And players of Nabil’s talent are very good at this necessary action. One simply cannot afford to dwell on an unfortunate result. You have the next hand to play and there is a match to win.

But afterwards, looking over ALL the data, you see that you could not win the match because the opponents were always lights out on opening lead. It could happen. Over a short run. But you also realize that you would not have selected most or certainly not all of these leads. Time for a second opinion. Pick up the phone. Call a world class friend and player. How many of these lead problems does he get ‘right’?

Hmm. . . And this is where the “whispers” start.

“Whispers”

What happens - at least at the top levels - is not the (often) spurious accusations that go on at our more familiar level of club and minor tournament play. So I think “whispers” have a bad connotation in relation to high-level bridge. Whispering starts because these players are attempting to gather a large enough data set in an effort to determine whether their experiences and observations were a result of “bad luck” or whether luck had nothing to do with it. Whispers start off merely as looking for second opinions and additional information.

Considering Opening Lead Choices

You are on lead holding: xx / xxxx / QJ109 / AQx after an auction of 1-4. If you chose, as did either Versace or Lauria (I don’t remember which player held this hand) the Q-, you also selected the same lead I did. (Congratulations) It is a “100% lead”. And because of it, 10 tricks come home for declarer. Declarer wins the diamond, takes a quick club pitch. Partner held a stiff A of trumps and the K-.

The point being that even “100% leads” might be fatal. If a “100% lead” can go wrong, obviously a 40% or a 30% choice has an even higher probability of backfiring compared to a more attractive alternative. (And sometimes the lead wont matter.) This is why no legitimate player gets a significantly higher percentage of leads “right” compared to others of his skill level over a large sample of data. You may be educated, you my be more experienced or even smarter than the rest. But you will usually lack (or are supposed to lack, anyway) enough solid information to gain significantly versus others. Leads are still very much an educated guess. And guesses mean guessing wrong sometimes.

The problem of a detailed, step by step analysis of each “non-standard” lead situation - as some authorities like Kit, Carl and others have done - is that while interesting, it ultimately proves nothing to deny impropriety, nor does it confirm it. But the analyses are important, in that, it shows that no one can demonstrate that any of these problems has a completely logical solution guaranteeing that it must be the winning action. In fact, the analyses are far from that standard.  Meaning that failure is a real option. That is important and I shall return to that idea.

Next, a demonstration that any lead can find “justification”. Lets start with an example from actual play. You are on lead against a club contract with something like: AQJ / J109 / xxxxxx / Kx. What is your lead?

The “Answer”

Did you find the winning lead of the Q-?

My partner made the NYT column for winning the match by finding that lead(?!). Dummy hit with Kxx. Declarer with xxx in hand naturally ducked. The J was continued and of course ducked and then the ace cashed.

What my partner never told Truscott was that when he saw the K- in dummy, he looked back at his hand, and saw that his “king of spades” should be in with his other club. The queen originally asked for count, so he realized he could continue smoothly with the jack. Partner fortunately had four and so signaled high for even with standard carding.

The point is any one lead is “explainable”. And if I were playing against a player of Nabil’s abilities, perhaps the explanation could be that I might have decided to make a somewhat lower % chance opening lead or leads, looking to pick up a swing. This is because I don’t like my chances against him playing head on. He is really, really good. And interestingly, the converse is that when one is about the “best pair in the world” evidenced supposedly because you have been winning nearly everything, the normal expectation is that pair would be less likely to consider non-mainstream actions that create variance but with an expected overall negative expectation. But I get ahead of myself. (Plus, if “the best pair in the world” plays like me, who am I to argue?)

Properly Analyzing Lead Data

The proper way to analyze the lead data is not by whether any or even every lead is explainable on its own. The question is whether the whole of the data is explainable. Just because any or every data item is plausible does not prove whether the entire data set is possible.

Boye pointed this out, but I think that very important idea has been lost in the dialogue. Boye kept asking for where are the odd or second choice leads that failed? This issue is not about evidence, but lack thereof of expected failures. In the case of my sometimes black-suit sorting challenged partner, I would estimate that he would missort spades and clubs three or four times a year. Never the reds and not unsurprisingly, not every missort produced a good result for us.

Go back to what Larry Cohen wrote. “It is not possible for such a player to make 10-15 of those inexplicable plays in a week. Really. Beyond a reasonable doubt. And if you think there is a 0.0001% chance it could happen, and then the same thing happens at the next tournament, then it is 0.0001% x 0.0001% – which multiplies out to “impossible.”

Some Simple Math

The proper way to analyze the lead data is to first pool as much of the second choice lead data as one can find, assigning a % choice to various options based on a pool of peer players. With respect to this, I laughed hysterically at Boye’s lead case against 3 float with A10xx / xxx / Axx / Axx. Because when I saw that question and I knew F-S found the heart lead - just like perhaps 4 of 5 club players who would have tracked a heart immediately. What’s the problem? (Other than they lead like the patsies at the club and apparently it works great in high-level events.) But that is hardly the measure. We need to identify the not so explicable choices based on peer group.

The data of second, third or no choice leads should contain plenty evidence of failure. Note that “non-success” is not a failure. One needs to go back to what Boye was saying. One needs to find the failures. Where are the contracts that went though because the less popular lead option was not a success and the more likely lead was the winner?

Sure, maybe you are an expert and would have considered this or perhaps led that. Or maybe you decided to “go passive” here. It could be that they cannot sort their hand like my partner or possibly they are simply trying to push the board with the club players at the other table with a heart lead. But each of these actions are way less than the “100% lead” - which we already know can sometimes fail.

So if this lead is 40% and those two leads are 25% and that lead is 30% and the last is 10%, then the actual math is already working out to .4 x .25 x .25 .3 x .1 = 0.00075 on just five hands. The odds that one player would even choose all five of those leads is 1 in 1333. And the odds that all five worked and that none of them failed compared to the other choices? It could happen. But 3/4 of one tenth of 1% equaling 100% cannot be true over long periods of time.

BTW, I have also played a lot of blackjack and poker. I do believe in “coincidence” when it is a mathematical possibility. One can win or lose a lot of hands randomly in streaks. I have experienced way worse than one in a thousand. But streaks change. So when the coin keeps coming up heads, it is time to examine both sides. Only a fool would not.

Long streaks are anomalies but are not repeatable. Enough monkeys and typewriters might produce Shakespeare. But that lone simian author is not typing another sonnet. (OK, his name could be Caesar and the human race might be in really big trouble. But even Caesar cannot hit his partner on lead all the time. Caesar still does not legitimately have enough information regardless of how advanced his oversized monkey brain grew.)

As Cohen wrote, it quickly multiplies out to “impossible”.

Call In The Lawyers! (Or maybe not)

There are ways to combat cheating allegations. One could hire attorneys and file law suits. Hey, it worked for Lance Armstrong for more than a decade. One can use these hired mouthpieces to make spurious claims about the motives of others and try to shift the focus. Ask Greg LeMond what can happen to the accuser. Even when right.

Or alternatively, one can deflate the charges by simply providing what has to be present for legitimate players: statistical evidence of the failure of non-mainstream actions. Boye played with these guys for an entire week last year and states he never saw it. If they want to prove Boye, Thomas and others wrong, just provide the evidence.

And you don’t need lawyers for that. I do not know any good player who - while they set it aside at the table at the time - does not recall nearly every disaster he or she ever perpetrated. And if that player finally forgot, just ask his partner or teammates. For sure they remember.

My take is that if against 1NT float, one is in the habit of leading a club from Axx, there has to be plenty of failure data. For example, I recall that in the Blue Ribbons, against 1NT float, Alfredo Versace elected not to lead a heart from something like AJ9xx. I don’t recall his exact hand. Probably Versace had reasons for his lead selection. But his non-standard lead choice failed. His shift was actually ace from Axx- (probably hope for a specific layout because otherwise he was already losing the board) and that did not work either. If Versace fails sometimes, then no one is bulletproof. I would expect others to have a higher failure rate than Alfredo’s.

Word Association

I do not recall playing against F-S. When I hear “odd leads” I respond: “Harmon”.

Harmon makes odd-ball leads all time. Watch him sometime on BBO. You might see one or two in a session. (But way less than Ish’s 48 board match presentation). Harmon is sometimes a hero and sometimes the goat. The only consistent result being entertainment. Harmon is willing to take chances and accept failure. And that failure has to happen often enough when one is a legit player like Harmon.

Now if anyone were ever crazy enough to lead a king from Kx holding KQJ109 of spades against Boye’s NT, it just might be him. Or me, because for sure now if I ever hold that hand against Boye it would be worth the board just to see the look on his face. (“I had to do it!!”) Maybe my partner who had his Q misplaced would find that lead too.

But if Boye (or Nabil) didn’t know and got a dosage of Harmon leads and Boye said “WT??”, all he would have to do is talk to anyone who knew. We would say: “Harmon does that a lot. Bad luck for you it worked six in a row”. Boye or Nabil could dump hand history from online and go: “oh, yeah”.

What troubles me is that other people do know F-S and while many have “vouched” or complained about the manner these accusations have come about, I still do not hear about misfires. No one has come forward to say “those crazy leads cost us all these swings or near cost these matches”.

If Harmon were the accused, I’d have to take a ticket to stand in line to defend him and his integrity. There would have plenty of contracts that went through to go with the ones he killed.

Because that is what happens in the real bridge world when you take a kill or be killed view of the lead.  Remember that these players are good enough to know when making a choice when theirs is unlikely to be the lead at the other table.  There are times you win and there will be times when you will be the victim. Now you can argue that other players are smarter than Harmon. I will spot you that even if Edgar might not. But no matter how smart you are it is still an educated guess. There will still be failure at an approximable rate. That is the real conclusion from Kit’s analysis. Of course when one has plenty of information we do much better.

Structural Defects With Our Recording System

What this episode shows is that our current recording structure is not sufficient by itself to identify and address potential problems in high-level bridge play.

Suzi Subeck now has our ACBL looking into these issues. The system is broken and it is not Suzi’s fault. It does look like she really wants to get it working. (Though I am a little concerned about statements like: “Public accusations of cheating may result in a violation of the ACBL Code of Disciplinary Regulations” - I will get to that last).

It must be considered that this type of possible high-level cheating is rarely going to have a smoking gun. There have been a couple of documented cases where that smoking gun was dropped at the scene of the crime. That this ever happened is possibly along the lines of what Larry Robbins wrote about the psychology. When people get away with something over time, they tend to think themselves as bulletproof . They become more brazen.

That the game works now is due to the high ethical standards of the vast majority of high-level players. The official policing structure as it exists is not capable of identifying and addressing many possible problems. And it took extraordinary efforts of interested citizens to scream for change and just to get the ball rolling.

Almost no lead hand, bid or defensive win presented so far - by itself - is much of a smoking gun. Heck, many have looked at a whole series and said, in effect, “so what?” Indeed, I would be almost embarrassed to report just a couple of examples by themselves. And in reality, what would even happen (sans this pile of brouhaha born of whispers) if a player did have a half a dozen examples for the ACBL and that non-world-class recorder sought out a world class player, who - looking at the small sample size - makes the obvious conclusion of “plausible”?

If you think there is going to be smoking gun, you are probably kidding yourself. The one time there was a completely smoking gun (L&B) many people simply did not believe it because WHY would someone do something so ridiculously obvious?

And I still know people who do not believe it.

The flaw in our recording system is based on this mostly misplaced idea that one can record a few or several anomalies and then make a determination. Repeat: it does not matter whether one, any or all of the data points are by themselves plausible. The question is whether the entire data set is even possible. This it is not about finding a smoking gun, it is the lack of misfires that one should look to identify. We are trying to prove a negative. And for that, we would need data that will never be recorded under current ACBL procedures.  

When Alfredo made an oddball lead that failed, I know that I did not ask for a recording slip. Let me correct that now.

Dear Recorder-person,

Alfredo Versace made a strange lead for reasons I do not understand and it failed miserably. But you would actually need to know about it if anyone ever doubted this great master’s skill.

Very Truly Yours,

David Yates

For the events we are discussing - the Spingold and the Vanderbilt - most of the matches are conducted without any hand records. Good thing Boye had access to BBO VG achieves. Notice that Boye posted links to the whole match segment. The segments are all there.

In the end, Larry Cohen is 100% right that this needs to be handled by people in the “top 100” players. That and a pile of data. Boye has done yeoman work. Ish & Thomas have come forward with their data. And the rest of us are all waiting for all those misfires if there is another side to the story. We need those teammates and opponents who owe recording slips on failed operations to come forward like I just did with Versace. So far all we have Lauria stating the obvious: “Alfredo and I played well and Jimmy didn’t touch a wrong card”. The first part is normal and the second part very plausible. Lauria also implied this was necessary given how the other pair performed in the final. But their was no specific criticism of any odd leads. We need that data.  BTW, if authorities confirm allegations, I am perfectly happy to remove the offending pair.  But vacating a title does not settle the question. History will not benefit from vacated titles especially when everyone else on both teams played like champions.

And I am still willing to hear if there is another side to the story. Though I am of the belief that one does not generally employ and pay for trained mouthpieces to bark and snarl when all that is needed is the evidence of failure that Boye has been asking about all along.

That data should be at one’s fingertips. A world-class player may need to go back a way to find a hand they pooched. The rest of us not so far. But leading is a different story. None of us have to go back very far to find leads that failed compared to others. Two rounds? This morning? Last night? The day before? Watch VuGraph and see how often a weird selection fails.

Now that the ball is rolling, we can wait for all the data and see if what should be there actually exists.

Moving Forward

If F-S are exonerated to everyone’s satisfaction, they can thank Boye Brogeland for the opportunity to clear their names. Because apparently a lot of other people also thought it wasn’t legit. And I will certainly sign up for advance copies of their book on opening leads.

If this plays out to the contrary, I think the ACBL should put aside the CDR talk on all the players who stood up for change. Our country was founded by people who stuck their necks out because the system was broken and we needed change. Taking to the streets for justice is something we do when we feel the system does not work and needs to be fixed.  (They may not speak English the American is supposed to be spoken, but they still know how to fight for what they think is right).

These players just want the RAs to recognize the problem, deal it with and change for the better so that these issues can be more effectively addressed in the future if they need to be. I doubt if it were not for the efforts of these players and the ability to call attention to the issue in forums like Bridgewinners that we would have these necessary hearings and chance for improvements.

Where would we be if, after the Treaty of Paris, we said: “Hey, Mister Hancock and Mister Jefferson, you guys were right that we needed radical change. But we think we should hang you anyway because we just did not like how big you signed your name and all those public charges you leveled against his majesty.”

For whatever side is right, what use is an organization if that organization does not let the truth set you free?

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