So how are they supposed to catch cheaters in online bridge?

Cheating in online bridge is an obvious problem. People located in the same household could easily tell each other useful things about each other’s hands, thereby passing along unauthorized information. Even partners playing from different locations could be texting each other all the time or keep an open phone line to illegally communicate information.

The algorithms installed by BBO, the private company running MasterPoint-awarding games for clubs as well as for the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL), haven’t been spelled out in detail for the general public, for perhaps obvious reasons. However, they are supposed to work in two general ways.

First, if you and your partner are average players and rarely broke 50% during in-person games before the coronavirus pandemic shut down most brick-and-mortar bridge, then suddenly rock in the online games, posting scores of over 60% and perhaps even 70%, a red flag will be raised and someone will take a closer look at how you might have achieved those incredible results.

That sounds easy enough. It’s similar to the “suspicious contract” feature added to the ACBL Score software program a couple of years ago that identified nigh-impossible results for club directors during the course of a game. When a director investigated at the table, usually someone had entered a wrong score on the hand-held computers, for example giving a 4 Spades contract to North instead of to East.

A second way you’re supposed to get caught if you cheat involves specific hands. Let’s say that every normal bridge player would make a certain bid on a hand, but it was one of those “gotcha hands” with a hidden trap in it, and only your partner could have warned you about it and told you not to make that bid. That hand – and your failure to make that logical but fatal bid since everything is recorded by BBO – might also get flagged for further investigation.

That had always seemed a little nebulous to me until this week, when my partner Christine and I played some casual online bridge with BBO for only the second time and ran into one of those hands that would be perfect to catch cheaters.

I’m glad to report that we got a good result on the hand, but not by cheating. The ACBL recommends that partners playing online from the same domicile not only use different devices, but physically place themselves in different rooms of the house, ideally with at least one door closed between them. Christine and I may not always have had a door closed, but we certainly were in different rooms in our spacious condo, and we did not tell each other what to do.

The temptation came on a hand when one of our opponents, an intermediate European player from Denmark playing the ACOL bidding system with four-card majors and partnering with a Turk, opened a Heart. I was next to bid and I had a seven-card Spade suit, so I would naturally have pre-empted in Spades, but my partner had six Hearts. She would have wanted me to pass to see if we could trap the opponents in a very problematic Hearts contract. However, if I had passed and failed to bid my Spades, that might have been a dead giveaway that I had unauthorized information about my partner’s hand.

In the end, Flo’s honesty got rewarded. She should have gone Down One in 3 Spades, but thanks to incredibly bad defense by the Dane, she actually made an overtrick for plus-170.

I’ll be my column’s anti-hero, Flustered Flo, with the South hand, while Christine is my partner, Loyal Larry, with the North hand that became dummy. The Dane sits East and the Turk is West.

East Dealer; neither side vulnerable

J 9 8 4 3 2
A Q 5 4 3
West East
10 2 A 9 8
10 6 A K 7 5
K Q 7 2 J 8 5 4
  J 10 9 7 6 K 8
K Q J 7 6 5 3
10 9 6 3

The Bidding

East South West North
(Dane) (Flustered Flo) (Turk) (Loyal Larry)
1 * 3 All Pass

*promised only 4 hearts

Opening Lead:  10 of Heart

It’s a strange feeling when an opponent opens with a One bid in a major suit and you happen to have six of them. You’re tempted to kick your partner under the table and tell him to shut up. “Don’t bid,” you’re dying to say. “Let’s see if we can trap them in a horrible contract where they’re sure to go down.”

But if you’re an ethical bridge player, you do none of those things. You keep a straight face and won’t react one way or the other, whether your partner bids or not. In online bridge, it may be even more of a challenge not to say anything to your partner, but fortunately for Flustered Flo, her partner Loyal Larry, who had joined her at her house for a casual online game, passed the challenge – otherwise she and Larry might have been reported for cheating.

Flustered Flo felt ready to face her nemesis Smug Sam again, even online, but apparently he wasn’t available, so she and Larry had to settle for playing against a European pickup pair, a Dane and a Turk.

Flo sat South on the diagrammed online deal and when her East opponent opened the bidding with a Heart – his convention card showed they played the ACOL system with four-card majors – she knew she had to get into the auction with her seven-card Spade suit, so she pre-empted, bidding 3 Spades, which got passed around.

West dutifully led the 10 of Hearts on the opening trick, high-low from his doubleton in the suit his partner had bid, and East took the trick with the Ace, dropping Flo’s Queen.

East had a big problem coming up with his next lead. He knew that because the Queen of Hearts had dropped, he couldn’t lead another Heart. On general principle, he didn’t want to lead a trump, and leading a Diamond to the singleton Ace on the board, setting Declarer up for a ruff, didn’t seem like a good idea, either.

So in desperation, he led the 8 of Clubs, possibly the worst lead in the history of bridge.

“Thank you very much for giving me a free finesse,” thought Flo, as she gobbled up the trick with her Queen and followed up with the Ace of Clubs, dropping East’s King and pitching a Diamond from her hand. She collected the Ace of Diamonds before crossing to her hand ruffing a Club – she didn’t mind that East ruffed, because she easily over-ruffed with her Jack. She next ruffed a Diamond with dummy’s only trump, and came back to her hand ruffing another Club – this time East didn’t bother ruffing in and wasting another trump.

Flo drew one round of trumps with her King, which was allowed to hold when East held up his Ace, but on the next round of trump, East’s Ace and West’s 10 crashed. All East could do was take one Diamond trick before Flo claimed the rest. She had made her 3 Spades contract with an overtrick for a very good plus-170 score. All she had lost were the Aces of Spades and Hearts and just one Diamond trick.

“Congratulations, partner,” Loyal Larry told Flo afterward, “but you got a little lucky there.”

“I know,” said Flo. “I should have been Down One. “After they take the Ace of Hearts, they should have led a trump to take the only trump off the board. Then I can’t ruff any Diamonds or slough any of my Diamond losers. With correct defense, I’m bound to lose 5 tricks, 3 Diamonds and the major-suit Aces.”

“I didn’t want you to bid when they opened a Heart,” said Larry. “I had six Hearts. It would have been easy to cheat online. I could have told you to shut up and let them get in trouble with their Hearts.”

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t,” said Flo, “because I still have to bid my hand. I can’t be quiet with seven Spades in my hand. That would have raised suspicions for sure. In a one-Heart contract, they can probably take only 4 tricks, going Down Three and giving us 150 points. The computer would flag that as an unlikely score. The normal scores on this hand should be 110 for us if they open a No-Trump and we can get the contract in 2 Spades, or 50 for them if we go to the 3 level and go Down One. Anything else would be suspicious.”

“But won’t the computer flag this result because you made two more tricks that you should have?” asked Larry. “Can’t they suspect that our opponents were in cahoots with us, giving us extra tricks we didn’t deserve?”

“I don’t think so,” said Flo. “Computers seem to have learned that incredibly bad defense does happen, online as well as with in-person bridge.”


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