It is a game where a studied silence and a poker face can mean one holds all the aces, or none them. But after a month of fevered speculation about cheating in the world of top-level international bridge, two senior players have finally laid their cards on the table to admit their guilt.
Three weeks after a fellow bridge professional threatened to name and shame those he believed were cheating, German bridge partners Josef Piekarek & Alex Smirnov have publicly confessed to “ethical violations”.
In apparent attempt to jump before they were pushed, the pair even suggested their own punishments for their behaviour, saying in a statement: “We are aware of the “whispers” circulating about our ethical conduct, and we are sorry to say there is some truth to them. We have voluntarily agreed never again to play competitive bridge together and to take two years off from playing competitive bridge.”
Quite how the pair bent the rules is not yet known. But it follows a series of extraordinary allegations of foul play that have rocked the upper echelons of the normally genteel sport just ahead of this Sunday’s World Bridge Championships in Chennai, India, where 400 hundred bridge players from 40 different countries, including England, will meet for two weeks of play.
The allegations were made first made late last month by Boye Brogeland, a Norwegian who is one of the world’s highest-rated bridge players. In comments that caused huge controversy, he said other players whom he had won tournaments in tandem with were no longer playing “clean bridge”. He claimed it hurt him to go public with allegations against people that he had personally played alongside, but said that he was doing it “For the future of our beautiful game.”
Mr Piekarek and Mr Smirnov are the first players to publicly admit to misconduct. But they are not the first to be named in connection with the scandal, in which the first suspects to emerge last month were two Israeli men, Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz. The two Israelis have responded by issuing a $1 million dollar claim for damages, although Israel withdrew from this week’s World Championships in Chennai, India and were replaced by Sweden.
A second pair who were also named, Fulvio Fantoni & Claudio Nunes of Monaco, have not yet responded to the allegations against them.
However, a dossier compiled by Mr Brogeland and published on the website bridgewinners.com has alleged that Fantoni and Nunes communicated illegally by placing their opening cards either vertically or horizontally, according to whether they held good hands or not.
The theory came to light after a Dutch bridge fan brought to Mr Brogeland’s attention video footage of the Fantoni and Nunes playing ten different matches in international contests. It allegedly showed that in almost every case, the opening card was only placed vertically by either of the pair if they had a distinctive hand.
Knowing the strength of a partner’s hand gives a powerful advantage, according to bridge’s official international rules, which describe using “prearranged methods of communication” as “the gravest possible offence”.
The German Bridge Federation and the World Bridge Federation have yet to respond to the admission by Smirnov & Piekarek, although it is thought that their offer to set their own punishment is unlikely to be accepted. Their team-mates have said they no longer wish to partake in the forthcoming championships.