Cam French

Collateral Damage II


Sex, Lies, no Videotape



Sorry (well not really) for the tantalizing headline. There was no sex, certainly no videotape but the lies climb out of their coffins like zombies in a horror flick. Herein the story gets even more incredible. Apparently there were no minutes kept of said Conducts and Ethics committee hearing pursuant to the events of Atlanta, GNTs 1979. I found that difficult not only to believe but to accept. One thing is for sure – there would be no dusting off of the minutes (if they indeed existed) for a prying journalist to view. So all we have is witnesses and inferences.

Imagine you are Richard Goldberg, head honcho of the ACBL in 1979 (note: his title was General Manager and Executive Secretary), which the ACBL has now changed to CEO, and here you face this nightmare in Atlanta from the Zonal playoffs of the Grand National teams. If the truth comes out, that the cheating of Sion and Cokin at Norfolk has been documented by high level players, and that the ACBL itself has short-circuited the process by suppressing damming information generated by Woolsey and friends, who knows where that path leads? Not satisfied to obstruct Hann’s pursuit of justice, Richard Goldberg in a letter to Hann’s team denied any knowledge that Sion and Cokin were cheating prior to Atlanta. Not only were Cokin and Sion cheating in Norfolk, but as Bobby Wolff notes in an email correspondence; Cokin admits to cheating in "basically every event they ever played in".

The sanctioning body for the tournament, the ACBL, participated in a cover-up of the situation, by lying about what they did and did not know.

Now finally the ACBL has been forced to face the facts that Cokin/Sion were cheating in the GNTs (June. Atlanta) and the Spring Nationals in Norfolk, and for who knows how long previously.

As for this committee, how do you prosecute the offenders? Lee Hazen was charged with that duty and I will wager that Mr. Hazen and Mr. Goldberg and a few other ACBL heavyweights discussed how to address this issue. What would Mr. Hazen ask the code-breakers?

1) When was this code broken?

2) Where was this code broken?

3) Did you verify it prior to Atlanta? 

4) Who knew and how and when did they know?

If Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Hazen were capable, and their management of this tender issue suggests they stick- handled through this like Wayne Gretzky, then they had to ensure that Norfolk was a non-issue. Prior history, be it Norfolk, New York or Timbuktu was to be walked around like minefield. After all if the testimony disclosed that the code was broken at Norfolk, then Goldberg’s[5] claims to Gary Hann of

“The decision, of course, applied only during the matches observed in Atlanta. For the foregoing reasons, Mr. Hann, we cannot assume that improper information was exchanged in prior events". (Emphasis added.)

would be patently false. It was false of course. He had to know. He also knew that those questions could never be raised by Mr. Hazen as they opened up the gateway to litigation, liability and a legal nightmare. Or, if indeed they were asked (which seems to me to be a logical line of questioning) no minutes would be available to the Members as they were too incriminating. Would the defense ask those questions? Sure, right after the question every defense attorney inevitably asks his client: “When did you stop beating your wife?”

No one wanted to know (at least for the record) of any prior misconduct of Cokin and Sion. One full calendar year earlier, (1978) Sion and Cokin with team mates Levin, Reinhold and Seamon had been runners-up in the GNTs. In 1977, both were in the top 10 of McKenny Race. How long had this been going on? What if the word got out? How many people would come forth with claims of being cheated? The floodgates could open. Mr. Goldberg was far too clever to allow that to happen on his watch. No way. Atlanta was in play, everything prior, was out-of bounds and untouchable. And let’s be honest, given his predicament, the pending proceedings, the possible bankruptcy of the League, his actions served his employer. And maybe he was right. Hindsight is far easier than foresight.

Therein is the justification for burying Norfolk. The ACBL could never look back to events prior to Atlanta. How could they justify allowing this debacle to perpetuate? Where were the cheating police? Where were the protocols? Why, months after Norfolk was nothing being done? Can you imagine the feeling in Memphis whereby cheaters were winning tournaments, some people knew this and yet they remained free to compete? It was an unfathomable failing of leadership. They allowed the game to be corrupted. So the word could never get out. If someone needed a reason to batten down the hatches, this was it. This was a public relations disaster waiting to happen. Precluding that would be best served by political hardball including denial, denial, denial, avoidance and deceit.

For those too young to recall the League eventually expelled Steve Sion and Allan Cokin for “ prearranged unlawful communication". According to a former ACBL President (Spivak) this constitutes "The gravest possible offence against propriety is for a partnership to exchange information through prearranged methods of communication other than those sanctioned by these Laws". One might ask how could "the gravest possible offence against propriety" go unrecognized and perforce, unpunished?

In Norfolk and the GNTs Cokin and Sion were part of team Sternberg, a wealthy Florida sponsor and two international superstars – Peter Weichsel and Alan Sontag. All four were hired and in return received a generous stipend from the sponsor, Dr. Jim Sternberg. As Edgar predicted, money would be an “inducement to the unscrupulous”.

Eventually after a Conducts and Ethics Committee in Memphis, Cokin and Sion were convicted of prearranged unlawful communication and expelled. This activated the radar for team Hann (Jabbour, Sacks, Feldman, Hoffner, Cappelletti) who had lost the Norfolk BAM event to team Sternberg three months earlier at the Norfolk Spring NABCs. They suspected something was amiss. It turns out that they had indeed been cheated on Board 13 during the event, and eventually came to learn that Cokin and Sion had cheated throughout the event, affirmed when Woolsey and friends could and did call off every short suit being unlawfully communicated.

There is neither evidence nor insinuation that Sontag and Weichsel knew of their team mates’ cheating. Sadly though, they did benefit from said cheating, as they earned or more accurately, scored a financial bonus (from the sponsor) and to this day retain as they retain that title (Norfolk BAM 1979) at least according to The Official Encyclopedia of Bridge, 6th edition. In an email to Sontag and Weichsel they were asked by me: “how can this title possible resonate with the same level of satisfaction as all your other fabulous achievements?” I asked several experts a similar question: “if you had won an event and later discovered to your horror that your team mates had cheated, would you relinquish that title?”

Without exception they said yes, and some offered that they would turn in cheaters, even partners or team mates. No one wanted anything to do with a title that was won unlawfully. All of which begs the obvious question – what is to be served by clinging to this title? Sontag and Weichsel knew (certainly after Atlanta) that their team mates cheated, that their code was broken at Norfolk and that they never would have won (at Norfolk) except for the unlawful and egregious acts of Cokin and Sion. They were invited on more than one occasion to comment, to clarify, to say whatever they wanted to say. They chose not to reply. Sometimes you say a lot by saying nothing.

An expert player volunteered to ask Sontag at the spring NABCs in Detroit (3/2008)  if he would like to distance himself from his team mates and forfeit the Norfolk title. This much became clear. “Crystal” as Tom Cruise noted in A Few Good Men. NEVER would they voluntarily give it up. I had imagined they might want to do so. In hindsight that seems foolish or at least naïve. Somehow, I believed forfeiting this title would serve them by distancing themselves from their cheating team mates. They see it differently. It might have made it easier for the ACBL to strip the title from team Sternberg if two world renown players stood up and said "we did not earn this title, we want nothing to do with it" and thus acknowledged this blemish on the game. But that is not their agenda. Sontag and Weichsel prefer avoidance to confronting their (albeit unwitting) role in this episode. And that speaks volumes.

In September (1979) team captain Gary Hann fired off letters to ACBL President Leo Spivak. ACBL Board member Vincent Remey and ACBL Executive Secretary & General Manager Richard Goldberg asking for their case to be reviewed. Hann noted the board Sacks brought to the attention of director Mike Linah. This was the hand Sacks sought to tell Soloway about. Alan Truscott wrote in up in The New York Times on December 29, 1979.

All Vulnerable. Board 13.

Board a Match scoring. (Rotated for convenience, Sacks/Hoffner were E/W)


                                          ♠ A10863



                                           ♣ 754

    Sion                                                            Cokin

♠ J4                                                             ♠ Q7652

1063                                                          AKJ8

A10                                                             874

♣ AJ10962                                                    ♣  3


                                          ♠ K



                                          ♣ KQ8

The bidding:

East   South  West   North

Cokin  Sacks  Sion  Hoffner

Pass     1       P        1♠*

Pass     1NT    All Pass

  • N/S played Flannery so 1♠ was alerted as “tending to show 5 spades”.

Opening lead was……?

The auction tells a story, and if that is not sufficiently telling (and, it may not be) the opening lead says it all. BAM and matchpoint scoring are blood brothers. You don’t win these events by allowing the opposition to play 1NT unmolested. Certainly, when one has a powerful six card suit, and is able to make an easy lead directing overcall at a low level with minimal risk, one tends to do so. In the circumstances of this hand an overcall is arguable; particularly vulnerable opposite a passed hand partner. Sion who held these cards elected not to overcall. OK. David Sacks calls that “reasonable.” Let’s accept that for a moment but I doubt it is winning BAM tactics. What should Sion lead?

Well, you are never going to lead a heart, and a diamond looks unappealing. With five spades on your left, and probably two on your right, that doesn’t seem too attractive. How does your secret six bagger look? The jack (perhaps the 10) of clubs would jump out of most defender’s hands, like toast out of the toaster.

As Truscott observes wryly[6] “if West makes the normal lead of a club J-10….south will emerge with eight tricks.”

(Note if a club is led and Sacks emerges with 8 tricks his team wins the event. Here is the direct damage, reported at the time.)

The sad truth is the kibitzer would lead a club, the fill-in would lead a club, my mother would lead a club, Simon’s  unlucky expert would lead a club, all the MSC panelists would scream “what’s the problem???” and lead a club.

What did Sion lead? He led the jack of spades! Why would he do that? The answer is through his private signaling system, he knew of his partner’s club shortness. No doubt such knowledge makes a club overcall less attractive. And it certainly makes a club lead far less enticing. This is the smoking gun. You don’t need to be Zia to create an illusion in the opponent’s mind when you have wire.

Sion and Cokin, to fuel their sponsor’s dreams and to satiate their own greed, needed an edge. They were competent players, but a couple steps down the ladder from the likes of Sontag, Weichsel, Martel, Stansby, Woolsey, Robinson, Kaplan, Kay and the bridge elite of that day. From everything I have read and learned I submit Sion was a gifted player, above Cokin’s talent level. His nickname was “Stevie Wonder”, as in I wonder how he did that? He enjoyed success apart from Cokin within the expert community. Cokin has now found success as an expert bridge coach working with the likes of Steve Landen and Pratap Rajadhyaksha. Sion’s fate is best explained by this note from Bobby Wolf:

“Steve Sion signed his confession, which is now on file in Jeff Polisner’s office, and has since, due to other sociopathic behavior, been expelled from the league.”[7]

Bobby Wolff was assigned the duty as serving as the “parole officer” for Cokin and Sion and was directly responsible for Allan Cokin’s written confession and appearance before the 1987 ACBL BOD wherein he detailed his cheating. In effect “all they do is admit cheating, inferring they were cheating in every event they played in”.[8}

I guess the one thing that puzzles me (and others who have contacted and liaised with me during the exploration of this story) is why bridge superstars Sontag and Weichsel cling to this tainted title?  It is meaningless in comparison to their other fabulous accomplishments. It soils (collaterally) their otherwise pristine reputations. I confess, I don’t get it. They did not cheat. Their team mates did. Why cling to it as if it were a crown jewel? It is the poisoned fruit; a fact to which they prefer to blissfully ignore. I wish I understood why.



[5] Richard Goldberg in a letter to Gary Hann dated 11/7/79.

[6] July 11, 1979, New York Times.

[7] Bobby Wolff in an email letter to the author.

[8] Ibid.



End of Chapter II.


CharlesJune 3rd, 2008 at 11:50 am

Cam, in answer to your last question, I’m sure I don’t know, but let me suggest a possible reason: they may feel a loyalty to Sternberg. I’m no pro so I have no idea of what a professional may regard as their ethics or obligations in a situation like this, they may feel it’s Sternberg’s call, may have spoken with him privately, asked him what he wanted to do, and may now be honouring his choice by presenting it as their own.

DWBRITTAINMarch 16th, 2010 at 2:46 am

No surprise to see landen and rajadhyaksha were under tutelage of conklin, no good begets no good.

Neaux S'jitNovember 27th, 2018 at 11:49 pm

The hand diagram contains the 6 of spades twice.

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