Cam French

Collateral Damage III


Richard Goldberg gets a letter from Gary Hann in the fall of 1979. He knows that there is a legal, ethical and moral case for team Hann’s grievance. He also sees Pandora’s Box, where a myriad of litigants, aggrieved customers, professionals, players of all ranks clamouring for retroactive justice should he reassess this case. No this one is best left interred, given the deep-six.

Of course Gary Hann (specifically Hann) and to a lesser extent his team mates (Cappelletti, Hoffner, Sacks, Jabbour, R. Feldman) did not enjoy a lofty profile of the game’s elite (in 1979) as they were peripheral experts, and this would be the first National title for any of them. Hann was as one person put it “not beloved” inside and outside of bridge for his gay lifestyle and “pompous, abrasive” personality. In Hann’s defense I can safely say that had I been cheated out of a National title, and found the League so confrontational that my charming personality might quickly morph to abrasive.

Society at large, certainly within the hierarchy of the ACBL was the proverbial old-school. So gay people, appreciating the prejudices they would encounter, for the most part preferred  to stay in the closet. That was not Hann’s style and some found that offensive. So with Hann carrying the torch for his team, they were far easier to write off than would a team captain of Root’s or Kaplan’s stature. Even some of Hann’s team mates believe that their case was unduly prejudiced with Hann’s involvement, feeling that the same scenario would never have happened to a team with a captain of superior reputation. That is a fair and accurate observation with regards to Hann. But for this job you needed a heavy-weight like Lee Hazen, Amalya Kearse or Bobby Wolff. Undoubtedly when things started to heat up and they needed an advocate they might have thought to enlist the services of a player of standing and/or at least someone without Hann’s unfortunate baggage. With Hann playing point, there would be no empathy from League officials or anyone else. Truth be told, Hann’s lifestyle made it easier, and the lack of a more reputable advocate from within their own team (Cappelletti, Jabbour) hurt too. How did Hann get to be captain? Last to arrive, as is the wont of many.

It would take a magician to pull Norfolk out of the hat and onto the stage, and the ACBL was dedicated to precluding that endgame. Where is Karnac when you need him?

Richard Goldberg on November 7, 1979 did reply to Gary Hann.

“Messrs. Cokin and Sion were found by the properly constituted committee to have exchanged improper information during the Zonal Grand National competitions in June in Atlanta. As I understand the situation, the ruling was made by the committee after this pair had been monitored during the play of numerous boards. 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.) Therefore, it would be impractical to “adjust” results based on a situation that might – or might not – have occurred. I do hope you understand.” [1]

Well I understand. That was a bald faced lie, designed to block, frustrate and thwart Hann’s efforts on behalf of his team. No more, no less. Obsessed with the dismal prospect of litigation, the ACBL concocted an alibi for cheaters. How did we get to this sad state?

Without the evidence gathered at Norfolk, there would be no case to explore at Atlanta, Vegas or anywhere else. The seed of decoding was germinated at Norfolk. Woolsey and company (and by extension, the directors who asked them to stand down) knew that cheating happened at Norfolk. They did the ACBL a favour by waiting for the ACBL to line up the evidence to produce a bullet-proof case. The fruits of their labour were merely harvested in Atlanta, and only because Woolsey forced the issue. The League was not ready at Norfolk, and it was no further prepared at Atlanta. That says it all. Remember, a full calendar year prior (i.e. June 1978) Cokin and Sion with different team mates finished second in the GNTs to Caravelli, Peres, Rosen, Rosenberg, Rotman. Cheating, (in 1978) and still second. No one saw the writing on the wall, or if they did, they weren’t sharing their insight.

There was plenty of evidence that “improper information was exchanged in prior events.” Just ask Kit Woolsey, Marc Jacobus, Chip Martel, and Brenda Blumenthal. But no, we won’t ask questions when we know the answers are not what we want to hear. It may have been an inquiry, but it was narrow in scope. It deliberately avoided the patently obvious, Norfolk. And if someone in Memphis had decided to investigate Cokin and Sion subsequent to Norfolk, like in March, April, May and June; when they knew  – certainly they would have accumulated lots of evidence of "prior misconduct". Certainly if you are not looking for it, you will not find it. Due to the state of the match in June, it is safe to say ACBL headquarters was in turtle mode, seeing no evil, hearing no evil and oblivious to how to investigate and cope with cheating.

Mr. Goldberg, in spite of the woeful disclaimer “as I understand it”, understood only too well the repercussions of his decision. After all, when directors Hamilton and Linah bought time in March, by securing the Woolsey group’s silence until the ACBL could create a plan to nab the perpetrators; they kicked the ball upstairs hoping for some leadership and guidance. That window of opportunity was squandered. Woolsey calls Hamilton in June, worried about facing cheaters for the zonal GNTs and what does he get?

“Nothing we can do.” In essence, those in the know were frozen like deer in the headlights. Coping with the prospect of cheating was so far down the priority list that three months later no plan was launched to cope with the situation. Did Goldberg, Remey and Spivak know of the fallout at Norfolk? You bet they did.

According to Ron Feldman and a couple of former ACBL insiders, Vince Remey was apoplectic at the prospect of so much as investigating one “prior act of misconduct”. The floodgates might open, the hordes cheated at Regionals, Nationals, Spingolds, GNTs, Sectionals, where would it end? And those cheated might demand some sort of compensation and/or allege the League should have known or at least ought to have known about cheating, and enforced protocols to catch and prevent it. Remey and ACBL heavy-weights were deservingly fearful. They feared a tsunami of liability. Jabbour and his team mates were collateral damage, an acceptable loss to attain the desired goal, no litigation.

Their fear motivated them to slam shut Pandora’s Box, but failed to induce them to develop a protocol to deal with cheating. Their own inability to deal with cheating placed them in the crosshairs, there was no way out. But at Atlanta, and the GNT trials (see above, Woolsey) all hell breaks loose. The cat is out of the bag, no video evidence is accrued. Once Woolsey briefed the director, a couple of experts, eye-witnesses and “monitors”, they were able to corroborate his allegations. It was a secret that could no longer be kept. The word was out.

The sad part is the League was derelict. Unprepared. Foreseeing the fallout, they closed ranks and team Hann (and others who lost tainted tournaments) would be collateral damage. Perhaps Dr. Sternberg would demand his money back if another team were subsequently declared winners, stripping the title off his mantelpiece. Or worse at least from an ACBL perspective, would he accuse the ACBL of conspiracy, fraud, and anti-trust, make a few headlines and rattle some sabres? Who knows what would follow? Would other paying customers follow suit? Where would it end? Would the ACBL be liable for failing to detect these earlier and therefore bringing scores of accomplishments into dispute? Better to slam shut Pandora’s Box.

Mr. Goldberg’s claims are dismissed with ease. As Woolsey noted:

“There is no dispute that Sion and Cokin were cheating. And there is no question that they were doing so in the BAM event, since that was the event where we gathered the data from which we were able to break a piece of their code.[2]

In short, the entire foundation of the case against Cokin/Sion was accrued at Norfolk.

So for the President of the ACBL to state we cannot assume that improper information was exchanged in prior events” is a cover-up. This was nothing more than a blatant attempt to stop the bleeding. There is little doubt that everyone at Memphis was wondering, if this case succeeds, what will ensue? It was not about restoring “justice”, it was about crisis management and team Hann was the poster child for collateral damage.

Recognizing this apparent flood of potential litigants, the league changed the Disciplinary Code of Conduct. (DOC) The change stated that if you lost an event to cheaters, unless you could prove the same before the end of “the applicable correction period” then the title will be “vacated” and the second/third/forth place contestants do not (unlike the Olympics for example) advance in rank. Exactly when this was changed remains a mystery as no one (at the ACBL) was willing to state that for the record beyond this from Gary Blaiss, ACBL archivist.

“In the 1977 Code of Disciplinary Regulations the wording is very similar {to 1979} except that it states after the termination of the tournament rather than termination of the applicable correction period. So this section has existed pretty much unchanged from at least 1977 and probably longer.” [3]

The bottom lines is, if you lose to cheaters and fail to establish the same “within the applicable correction period”, you are out of luck. Cheaters win, you lose, the second place team loses, in short – everyone loses.

Due to the intricacies of bridge the fact that it is (certainly in BAM and Matchpoints) it is not just two teams in head to head completion. More likely, as in this case, the whole field has been tainted. Some contend it is not a simple as, for example – the Olympics. Still, the solution to vacate the title strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Why allow cheaters to prevail, to in effect – hijack an entire event?

Everyone enters a tournament, championship or competition to win. Sure, it is nice to see old friends but at the end of the day, especially at the upper echelon of any game or sport, it is about winning. To stage an event and have the winner stripped of their title, and leave the title “vacant”…well that is an affront to the entire field. It may be politically correct (and/or solve some legal issues) but as a pragmatic solution; it stinks.

Try to imagine another event where no winner or a title vacant exists. If Dale Earnhardt rams the race-leader Jeff Gordon, knocking him out of the race and is deemed to have violated the rules, someone (maybe not Earnhardt) still wins the race. If an Olympic medalist pees into the bottle and a positive test result ensues; he or she is stripped of their medal and those below advance in rank. If Gaylord Perry doctors the baseball in game seven of the World Series, he might get tossed and his team may win or lose. The point being, every championship has a winner. You don’t compete to lose. And you certainly don’t compete to lose to cheaters and then discover there is no way to win. Through their acts of cheating and a dubious amendment to the DOC, the entire event is despoiled for all. No way to win. Let’s advertise that. That will surely draw the paying customers. The vacating the title option is a reaction to a preconceived fear of litigation and liability. As far as I can tell, no such provision exists in any other sport. What does that say? The ACBL would have us believe that is a testament to the uniqueness of their game. Maybe they should give some thought to being a delusional party of one.

Certainly the ACBL directors have a fiduciary duty to their members. That includes team Hann, but for now let’s assume they are collateral to the bigger scheme of things. It is reasonable to assume that Mr. Goldberg, Mr. Spivak and Mr. Remey honestly believed they were doing what was best for the league. What they failed to see was that the league’s policies and procedures with regards to cheating were antiquated. That Hamilton told Woolsey “nothing can be done” between March and July says it all. No mechanisms, protocols or plan was available, even months after Norfolk. This should have served as a wake-up – not to slam shut the door of exploration on prior wrong-doings, but to develop a plan, with the cooperation and involvement of the expert community.

So what should be done now? Here are a few suggestions. Let’s start with appointing a panel, with a couple of lawyers, experts and ACBL executive officers and develop a protocol. Invite the membership. Publish the results, invite submissions from members and make it clear; cheating will be prosecuted aggressively as it represents a cancer upon the game. No doubt that is the policy as it presently exists. I would expect the ACBL to say so. It’s a good sound bite. Let’s give it some fangs to go with the bark.

We can all empathize with Mr. Remey’s lament that “every tournament these guys won in the last 10 years will be subject to review”. That scenario left the lawyers salivating at endless litigation, and the league justifiably terrified of the same. What made this case different? Why should it be re-visited? Why not leave it buried, its skeletons safely closeted?

The answer is – this case is unique. The team followed the rules of the time. David Sacks went to the director well within the “applicable correction period”. He was told the result “would be recorded”. His request was brushed aside due to knowledge shared by the directors, not privy to him or his teammates. What Sacks could not know because no one could tell him, was the directors’ hands were tied. Were they supposed to grant his request and possibly jeopardize the biggest cheating scandal in American history? Not bloody likely. Hamilton and Linah were handcuffed and that is why they doffed off the request. The request risked exposing everything. That could not be allowed to happen.

What is lacking here is more than the euphemistic closure; what is missing is the lack of due process. That said Hamilton and Linah served their employer well. I wonder (they are long since deceased) how they felt about how their roles impacted the result of Norfolk? They had cause to be proud of their preemptive actions (deferring the committee hearing and securing the silence of Woolsey and at the same time chagrined by the duplicity of the League.

Laying out the facts in this case is one thing. Determining what should be done about and how we as the bridge community can learn from this to enhance the integrity of the game we love – is another. Next chapter I am going to talk about what might happen. I invite you, bridge players to make your feelings clear.

[1] See the Appendices for the letter in its entirety.

[2] Kit Woolsey in an email letter to the author.

[3] Gary Blaiss, ACBL archivist in an email to the author.


Hank YoungermanApril 21st, 2008 at 9:29 am

The first two installments were interesting. This third seems to only be a rant about the policy of not leaving a position “vacant.” (Trivia question: Who finished second in the 1971 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Answer: “Vacant.”) Nor did I really care much to know about Gary Hann’s lifestyle choice. What has that got to do with bridge? (Never met the man. Is he still alive?) Finally, a lot of this installment seems to be keyed toward saying “The ACBL needs a way to deter and correct present and future cheating.” I started playing in 1982, and was vaguely aware of the Sion-Cokin matter, but it has seemed to me that subsequent cheating issues have been dealt with pretty effectively. So I’m not sure what path we’re going down here.

Cam FrenchApril 25th, 2008 at 9:32 pm


Thanks for your posting.You may not care about Hann’s “life-style” (nor do I) but if his team mates consider it relevant, well perhaps that is telling. Maybe we all need to listen.

As for the “path”, well stay tuned. This is just starting to heat up, and as Karen Carpenter said: “We’ve only just begun”.

Thanks for posting.


Ray LeeApril 27th, 2008 at 9:08 am

Hank, I wish you were right. However, my own experiences, along with conversations I have had with those in a position to know, have convinced me that a great deal of cheating goes on in bridge at all levels, from the very bottom to the very top. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to cheat at bridge, and IMHO, the only remotely effective counter is to ban cheaters for life. No appeal, no parole, no exceptions.

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