Outrageous Kibitzing

The virtual bridge world – online is practically the only bridge being played these days as most clubs have closed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – has just been rocked by a new cheating scandal.

Meyer Kotkin, the president of District 4 (Delaware, Eastern Pennsylvania and a big slice of Upstate New York) revealed in the most recent issue of the District’s newsletter, the 4 Spot, that people have found a new way to cheat so brazen it ought to make every ethical bridge player’s blood boil. My partner Christine and I still get that all-electronic newsletter from the days we lived up there seven years ago.

Las Vegas-based bridge pro Sylvia Chi has openly admitted on the bridgewinners.com website that while playing online, she had logged in under an alternate name to kibitz at her own table where she was playing, allowing her to see all four hands in a team game, and she may not have been the only pro to have done so. She confessed after BBO contacted her and any punishment is pending. Her post drew thousands of comments, more than any other recent post on the popular site.

“I may not be a very good player,” Kotkin wrote with his typical self-deprecating humor (he’s actually a very good player), “but even I believe I would be able to play better if I could see all four hands.”

This is so outrageous that it casts doubt on all online results. I, for one, do hope the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) forces BBO, its partner for the online games, to eliminate the kibitz option altogether for games in which ACBL MasterPoints can be won. What BBO does for its own casual or robot games in which no MasterPoints are at stake is their business, but points won online are already under a bit of a cloud; let’s not make it worse. Some clubs still allow kibitzing in their virtual club games.

Could people still cheat? Of course. Directors can still look in on any table and see all four hands, and theoretically, a rotten apple among the clubs’ game directors could still pass on information about the hands to players they favor. To be sure, in the past, some club directors have been caught cheating and were expelled for life from the ACBL (the case of Tom Urso from Philadelphia and Naples, FL, comes to mind), but at least we can all agree that directors are generally less likely to cheat.

Just to see how easy it would be to cheat via this method, my partner Christine and I got online with BBO for some casual bridge and wound up playing against a couple of Middle Easterners, who either hadn’t heard about the new way to cheat yet, or were supremely ethical, because they committed some defensive errors they would never have made if they’d been able to see all four hands.

We got a top board against them when we were the only pair to bid Game in 4 Hearts and make it. Not only that, we even made an overtrick, for a plus-650 score. All the other pairs playing the hand were in 2 or 3 Hearts, making either 3 or 4 for plus-140 or -170.

The East hand that was responsible for the defensive error will be played by Flustered Flo, my column’s regular anti-hero, while I’ll be her nemesis, Smug Sam, with the South Declarer hand. Christine is North and becomes my dummy, while Flo is playing with her usual West partner, Loyal Larry.

The defensive mistake gave me an overtrick, but we would have had a top score anyway because no one else bid Game. We had a 24 count between us, but I bid Game anyway because I saw possibilities in the hand beyond mere high-card points. Perhaps it helped that I had just read the article on “Escape from Point Count Prison” in the latest issue of the ACBL’s monthly magazine, the Bulletin. The gist of the article was that you may still want to be a slave to point count limits for No-Trump contracts, but not for suit contracts with distributional hands.

North Dealer; both sides vulnerable

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

The Bidding

North East South West
(Shy Shem) (Flustered Flo) (Flustered Flo) (Loyal Larry)
Pass Pass 1 NT Pass
2 * Pass 2 Pass
2 Pass 4 All Pass

*transfer to Hearts

Opening Lead: Queen of Clubs

Do you bid Game with 24 high-card points? A Game in 3 No-Trump will likely be a stretch, and whether you can make 4 of a major depends on distribution. Unless you have a clear indication of singletons or voids that can help your cause, most players will be content to play for a part-score.

Flustered Flo learned once again that her nemesis, Smug Sam, isn’t like most players. Sam saw possibilities that others didn’t when he brought home a risky 4 Hearts contract as the South Declarer on the diagrammed hand played recently online at BBO – and with an overtrick no less.

Even though Sam always seemed to best her in in-person bridge, Flo came to realize that she actually missed playing against him – and getting his gratuitous lessons afterward – so she invited him and his partner Shy Shem to play a few hands of casual online BBO bridge with her and her partner, Loyal Larry.

The outcome wasn’t much different from what it usually was in-person.

After Sam had reached 4 Hearts during the auction, Loyal Larry was on lead for the opening trick and offered his Queen of Clubs, high-low from his doubleton Club holding, a not unreasonable lead. Without giving it much thought, Flo dropped the 3 under the Queen, which fell to Sam’s Ace.

Sam cashed Ace-King of Spades and continued a Club to Flo’s 10. Flo was now worried Sam would set up his hand’s long Clubs to get rid of dummy’s Diamonds. So before any such disaster, she cashed the Ace of Diamonds before continuing with another high Club, which was ruffed in dummy.

Sam next led a Spade off dummy and when Flo ruffed with the 7, Sam over-ruffed with the 8, went to the dummy with the King of Diamonds and led another Spade, over-ruffing with the Queen when Flo ruffed with her 10. Sam next led another Club, and when Larry ruffed with the Jack, Sam over-ruffed with the Ace and took the rest of the tricks by drawing trump – dummy’s 9 was then the high trump.

Sam had captured 11 tricks, losing only a Club and the Ace of Diamonds, to make his contract with an overtrick, which turned out to be a top board. Most other North-South pairs had played the hand in 2 or 3 Hearts, making 3 or 4 for 140 or 170 scores. The 650 for Sam and Shem was an absolute top by far.

“On the one hand, I have to congratulate you,” Sam told Flo afterward in the chat room, “but I do have to offer condolences as well for your frankly pathetic defense.”

“I know we got a bad score,” said Flo, “so why on earth would we deserve any kudos?”

“For being honest,” said Sam, smug as always. “You guys obviously haven’t heard about the latest cheating method, to log in under another name as a kibitzer and then follow the play at your own table so you can see all four hands. Then your partner would have known to lead a Diamond to finesse dummy’s King. That would have held me to 10 tricks.”

“That’s outrageous,” said Flo. “We’d never stoop so low to improve our results, as bad as we are. But yes, I was disappointed that my partner didn’t lead a Diamond. After I got in with a high Club, I knew he’d never get on lead again, so I thought I might as well cash my Ace of Diamonds.”

“Shame on you, Flo, for throwing Larry under the bus,” said Sam. “You’ve got to help him on the lead. If you play upside-down in defensive carding, a high card is discouraging and tells your partner to switch to another suit. If you’d thrown the 10 of Clubs, your partner would switch to a Diamond at Trick 2.”

“I normally don’t say much,” Shy Shem chimed in, “but there’s an even simpler way to guarantee a Diamond lead. Double my artificial 2 Diamonds response for the transfer.”

“Point taken,” said Flo. “But I’d still like to know how you became the only one to go to Game on that hand? Weren’t you a little short with just 24 points?”

“Obviously, you haven’t read the latest Bulletin article about Escaping from Point Count Prison,” said Sam. “When my partner’s bidding told me he was 5-4 in the majors with a minimum hand, I knew he was short in the minors, which is where I needed help. That’s what I had to hear to go to Game.”

“Most people would he happy just to escape from this prison imposed by the pandemic,” said Flo, “but you want to escape from point-count prison, too.”

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