Cam French

How Long Has This Been Goin’ On?

How Long Has This Been Going On?

The ACBL amended the Disciplinary Code of Conduct so that when cheaters are discovered to have won an event, the title may be stripped from them. If so those below them in the standings do not advance in rank.

Now think about that for a second.

You have a vacant title, and no one is deemed worthy to have won the event?  I saw Tommy Lee Jones tell Clint Eastwood in Space Cowboys “every race has a winner and I’m winning this one.” Granted, Hollywood cliché, but pertinent to the theme.

Isn’t it strange that no one at the ACBL would say when this amendment was passed?

The justification for this decision is that the cheaters have tarnished the whole field – so who is to say what the outcome might have been had the cheaters not played? I think we all get that. This resolution strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bath water. What the powers to be in bridge don’t get – is that they are a party of one, adrift on an ice floe. This “solution” merely compounds the problem and satiates no one, save the cheaters. No wonder they don’t want to say when.

My good friend David Turner put his endorsement of the rationale this way:

Hi Cam,

I’ve been reading this saga with interest, and offer herewith my requested comments:

I don’t think vacating the title is a cop out, and consider it the proper move in this case. {Sadly, in this case, the title was never vacated. CF} A bridge team of 4 event is not auto racing or horse racing (where a disqualified winner is automatically replaced by the 2nd place finisher).

To illustrate my argument, suppose that the *direct* effect of Sion/Cokin’s cheating was zero against Hann’s team, but their “inspired play” cost the 3rd place finisher two full boards in the final (and maybe 2 more in the qualifying, to take it to ludicrous extremes). Who should be declared the event winner in that case? I can see no reason to conclude that Sion/Cokin’s cheating caused the 2nd place team to come second instead of first; it may have even caused their rank to be *inflated*!

Nope, to me the right solution is to vacate the title, cancel any trophy engraving and Masterpoint rewards for the winners, and close the case. In my example above, that would be manifestly unfair to the 3rd place team, but at least it avoids rewarding the admitted cheaters with the championship title. Events only have winners if they were conducted fairly and according to the rules. (emphasis added)

David – I have known you for 30 years and still love you. The fallacy of your conclusion is easily proven. You said:

Events only have winners if they were conducted fairly and according to the rules.

Horse-shit. Every non-bridge event (yes even many a bridge event) have winners, regardless of the ethics, actions, cheating, doping or whatever the transgressions of the participants. I think what you might have meant to say was non-offending bridge players cannot win in a tainted event. Would Joseph Heller laugh or cry?

I think what the jurists sought to achieve was bridge nirvana – perfection. A lofty if aunattainable goal. And if cheaters have competed, the event has been tainted, no doubt. So no winner – they didn’t win fair and square, so no other contestant can claim victory. We get that principle; the trouble is its collateral effect leaves the title bereft of a champion and despoils the event for all. Is that really what we want?

Now let’s look back at Norfolk for a moment. Team Sternberg still retains the title of BAM Norfolk 1979, despite having two (subsequently convicted) cheaters on their team. They later confessed and evidence was accrued (by Woolsey, Martel, and friends.) to document the cheating at this event. So in this case, there was indeed a “winner”; albeit a tainted one, but one nonetheless. Sontag, Cokin, Sternberg and Weichsel cling to that like Fred Biletnikoff to a Kenny Stabler pass. So our rules (or more accurately, the political whim of enforcing them) allow for an admitted cheating pair to retain the title – but no one else? The paradox therein is mind-numbing.

Bobby Wolff said this about Norfolk:

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, nor should there be in anyone’s mind, that Steve Sion and Alan Cokin as a partnership, cheated in Norfolk during the 1979 Fall Nationals and especially during the Board-a-Match Teams which they won, playing on a team with Jim Sternberg, Alan Sontag and Peter Weichsel. What else is new? Since the pair had been cheating for years before that and whatever their finish, whether it be in Nationals, Regionals, or Sectionals, (maybe even in club games), it totally distorted the final results.

Kit Woolsey writes:

“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. It is simply a political issue…. You don’t need to build more evidence. The facts aren’t in question”.

The code was broken at Norfolk, but that was a Pandora’s Box, best left untouched. Or so the League posited itself. Obviously events have winners whether or not they were conducted fairly. How many titles did the Italians, Reese-Shapiro, the Manoppo brothers, Ken Gee win unlawfully?  The list go on, how many have we stripped? Again, the sound of silence are deafening if you want an answer to that? I’ll give you one – precious few.

The legal (or is it something else, like political will) preclude the possibility of revisiting history. Like Satchel Paige said – “don’t look back.” Maybe that is the black hole in the rules. Don’t look back, we won’t like what we see so we cannot and will not go there. How is that for justice?

Bobby Wolff proposed to the WBF that all titles and masterpoints accrued by convicted cheaters be stricken from their record retroactively for as long as they played as a partnership. This applies to team mates as well. The WBF adopted this motion – which begs the question – why hasn’t the ACBL?

The ACBL can amend its rules and carp from the podium, but at the end of the day – cheaters have (and continue to) retain their unlawfully won championships. Why? The answer is – the bark doesn’t correspond to the bite. The ACBL talks the talk, but the walk is cut off at the knees. Here is the talk – and it goes back a while, but the song remains the same.

In The Bulletin of August, 1979 ACBL President Leo Spivak writing about Sion and Cokin said:  “Prearranged Improper Communication. 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….… gets an important message to the members of the American Contract Bridge League, namely, that we shall vigorously pursue any breaches of the proprieties or instances of cheating that are brought to our attention.”

What does it say to the membership, when “the gravest possible offence against propriety” goes unpunished, unrecognized and the perpetrators retain the fruits of their crimes? Sadder still, the League enabled the same. It should be an affront not just to the everyday rank and file, and the elected Board members and the executives we hire to manage our game. Is it? Or, because it was a long time ago, and we don’t want to go back there, let’s just let it slide. There are only two options, do something or do nothing. As Red said in Shawshank, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Of course every event in every sport deserves a winner. 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. The solution to elevate the second place (and others) up in rank isn’t perfect. Perfection was out of reach thanks to cheaters who contaminated the results. But it is logical, has precedent and prevents the cheaters from stealing the whole event from everyone. It is the best of a bad lot.

Imagine another event or sport where there is no winner or a title vacant exists. If Dale Earnhardt rams the race-leader Jeff Gordon, knocking him out of the race, causing a ten car crash and is deemed to have violated the rules, someone (maybe not Earnhardt or Gordon) still wins the race. Is the whole field compromised? I will wager more drivers that just race-leader Jeff Gordon thinks so. Yet, there is a winner.

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. There is a winner, it may not be the gold or silver medalist, but someone (hopefully with clean urine) will inherit the podium.

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. Let’s advertise that. That will surely draw the paying customers.

I invite anyone to cite a case in any sport, from luge to weightlifting, from 100m dash to poker, where a winner was not declared. Some bridge hot-shots imagined that their game was unique, and therefore “new rules” (apologies to Bill Maher) apply. Someone somewhere imagines that bridge is the only game in the universe where cheating corrupts the event to the extent there can be no winner.

All that said, we all share a common goal, setting the record straight and ridding the game of those who would breach its moral, legal and ethical standards. What I don’t get is why the laws provide those cheaters with a second artificial victory? Let’s look at some other sports and see how this compares.

Gaylord Perry uses his emery board (or more famously Vaseline) to doctor the baseball. His team is ahead when he is nabbed in the seventh inning. Do we replay those seven innings? Not a chance. Can his team still win? You bet. Were the results up until that point adversely impacted? Of course. The consequence, right or wrong, just or otherwise is that he is tossed and his team continues with one fewer player who has already made his contribution to the cause. Is this a perfect solution? Hardly, but it allows for a winner.

Horse racing has been known to have a cheat or two. That might happen through bumping, illegally impeding another’s progress, adjusting the weight or through doping. In any case, winners are disqualified and others advance in rank. Yes, even if the one horse bumps the two horse and the seven horse wins – there is still a winner even though other participants in the field were adversely impacted. The same holds true every format of racing, yachting, motorcycling, and virtually every vehicle you might imagine. Oh, I forgot, bridge is in a class all its own; a party of one.

News flash.

If all other sports can declare a winner, even in a tainted event – why can’t bridge?

Personally, I would rather see an imperfect winner than allow cheaters to deny all competitors the opportunity to win.

What if I enter a bridge event, cheat – but don’t win. After the Spingold final, I approach the director and confess that I won my first four matches, dispatching the number 1/2/3/4 seeds to the sidelines (before being KO’d in the fifth) through cheating.

Do the winners still win? Haven’t I through cheating artificially altered the results? Therefore (given today’s consensus) have I tarnished the event to the extent that no winner can be ascertained? If my friend’s David Turner’s utopia – events only have winners if they were conducted fairly and according to the rules.  In this scenario I have corrupted the process, and therefore no winner? Come on. I didn’t win, but I corrupted the process, and every event deserves a winner.

Of course, in a perfect world, the ACBL would pass Wolff’s motion, and cheaters would be stripped of their unlawfully accrued gains. But this predator has no teeth, it barks but the bite is like what Lou Pinella called “being bitten by a stuffed panda.” (Lou was talking about a slow, nasty Geoff Zhan changeup.)

Certainly it would be “sportsmanlike”, probably conform to the mantra of “active ethics” for those who unlawfully won titles to renounce them. But hey – what the heck; you didn’t win them but you may as well keep them. I hope they give you as much pleasure as you denied their rightful owners.

Cheats desecrate the game. What did Kenny Gee forfeit after claiming mental instability for his flagrant cheating? See this link for one perspective.

This incident was not 30 years ago. This was yesterday in bridge chronology. So why, in spite of all the blarney, do the suits in Memphis treat cheating with kid gloves? Granted the BOD extended the puny penalty recommended by the Conducts and Ethics committee. Good for them, but why does the wheel go round and round? Remember the tune… (I thought it was 10cc but it was in fact Ace): How Long has This Been Going On?

Until our experts, (like those in the C&E Committee), the BOD and most importantly, the bridge public reacts in outrage to this sacrilege upon our game – the song remains the same.

It really isn’t that tough. Adopt Wolff’s motion. [1]

Appoint a District Attorney for the Cheating Task Force

Give them some bite, prosecute cheaters, and strip them (and their team mates) of all unlawfully won titles and Masterpoints, publish the hearings, the sentence, and the evidence.

And if you want to amend our by-laws, do that. Banish cheaters or least impose some meaningful penalties that send an unmistakable message.

If we look back on this from whence we started, it was about cheaters destroying an event for every contestant. Whether or not we will ever agree on advancing non-offending teams, we can all agree that cheating is cancer upon the game needs some radical chemotherapy. A little slap on the wrist, and “don’t do it again” is insufficient sentence for this crime.

OK, Mr. President, I bring this to your attention.

I ask you to adopt Mr. Wolff’s motion.

I ask you to refer to the appropriate ACBL committee the issue of consideration of stripping the title from Team Sternberg of 3/79 at Norfolk. All you have is expert testimony, a timely appeal, signed confessions – will that suffice?

I await your vigorous pursuit of this breach of propriety.

I invite any reader to comment therein.


[1] Bobby Wolff proposed to the WBF that all titles and masterpoints accrued by convicted cheaters be stricken from their record for as long as they played as a partnership. This applies to team mates as well.


BOBBY WOLFFFebruary 12th, 2010 at 11:07 pm

After many years this motion which was positively implemented by the WBF has been brought, or at least has been attempted to be brought, to the attention of the ACBL — courtesy of Cameron French.

During my tenure with the WBF (approximately 20+ years of official service), I held certain administrative offices which made it possible for me to adopt certain protective measures which, at least I hope, helped prevent both abuse of our laws as well as to directly prevent stealthy despicable cheating.

While it is difficult, to say the least, to now predict what effect (positive, neutral or negative)these protective measures have caused, it is safe for me to announce what I think is an accurate account of what has happened in the WBF since the enactment of this law:

1. Before the enactment of the law in question, I think, in the late 1980’s, there were many indictments of cheating, with all of them having the defendants found guilty as charged. (Note: in all cases where I was involved, the evidence, together with the follow up at the trial, were basically overwhelming against the appellants, some in which the guilty parties had already confessed. Although the official trials of these culprits were held mostly in the defendants’ home country, there were others wherein the WBF took control and presided.

2. Since the enactment of the law in question, keeping in mind that the key phrase, at least to me, of the teammates of the cheaters would also be retroactively stripped of their titles, puts an important set of teeth in the laws, namely being perhaps our best chance of isolating possible cheaters, by the simple fact of their teammates being in the position of whistleblowers and better yet on the lookout. In any event, at least to my knowledge, there has been no team which has been prosecuted for cheating since then, although there have been individuals and pairs which have been caught in the nets.

3. Obviously, and also keep in mind, that I am thinking primarily of world class players or almost, who by playing honestly would have a decent chance to finish very high, and when one adds the cheating potential, their chances go up exponentially.

4. The above declarations could be a result of coincidence, but I choose to think that the human element being what it is, the specific tacks in the road which that law creates, probably is one of the reasons for the lesser activity in the unmentionable aberrations.

Thank you Cameron for presenting your case. I certainly agree with you about cheaters being immediately expunged and their results voided. I, probably again like you, would be in favor of longer, tougher sentences, public knowledge announced, together with community bridge service also required before any thought of parole is even considered. We might differ in only your discussion about the moving up of challenging honest teams or pairs to one place higher as against the alternative possibility of leaving the title vacant. As of this time I will acquiesce in discussing this last point unless someone specifically wants to know my reasons.

Cameron has done bridge a great service by going public with this discussion. Good luck to everyone interested in this very important subject!

Bobby Wolff

Michael LewisFebruary 13th, 2010 at 1:23 am

I have frequently been on the receiving end of Cameron French’s wisdom with respect to bridge and many other things as well, although we have never met face to face. There are few that command respect from me and he is among that few. I like the ideas present thus far, but do wonder, how correction could be made such that all the non cheaters could be fairly treated. Each solution I ponder leaves something to be desired, so it may well be a matter of choosing that which is the best alternative among a series of alternatives where they all fall somewhat short of ideal.

david sacksFebruary 13th, 2010 at 7:54 am

In the event,1979 Norfolk board a match, the second place Hahn team was ahead of the third place team by more than 2 1/2 boards. Even if it is stipulated that all three boards of the cheating team versus that team have the score changed , along with the one board that I turned in to the tournament director being changed, my team would have still won by half a board.

That said, we know we won the event. But what is still galling and painful is that the cheating team is listed in the official records ahead of us. If not the winners, we should at the very least be second in an event with no winner.

JodyFebruary 13th, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Well, whose fault is it? We can be outraged & post a million comments but unless the person/persons are asked to justify their position, and unless we know who they are (the bourgoisoie(sp), I mean, as opposed to the hoi polloi) we can’t hold their feet to the fire. Years ago I was playing against an ACBL prez & volunteered my comment that I hoped these cheaters weren’t going to be let back in to the league (a rash of them then) and he said, “well, you would be surprised at the letters we get in favor of them.” ” Yes I said, I imagine they have their friends.” But, surely, that is not important. The board has a duty to its members.

Blair FedderMarch 1st, 2010 at 7:42 pm

We all have been cheated. I played against Mr. Cokin years later. I played against Mr. Sion years later. Why was I required to play against them at that time? Sion could not help himself. He had a genetic flaw, one that required him ( probably the finest player the game has ever seen ) to cheat. He was klepto like in nature. He could not help himself. This issue can never be settled, the Norfolk BAM or any other event that have caused victory to be snatched from the righteous. David makes a good point. Why not award the event to his team. They were second and the cheats were removed. The answer seems to be because his team was not first. They did not win so they cannot be moved up the ladder.

The butterfly theory applies to this scenario. Go back in time, step on a butterfly and change all of history. Therefore, when one facet of the event is changed then all must changed. Even though I agree with the butterfly theory, which means that David’s team is not the winner, nor should they be, they were in second place and ergo second place should be awarded first in this instance. There should be a winner. It’s only a game and that is why egos must step aside and award them their win. David and his teammates paid their entry and spent money to go and play. Just because the powers to be don’t want to acknowledge their effort should not prevent them from being recognized for what they did.

Furthermore, other sports do advance persons, teams and even animals up the ladder when a party in that event has been disqualified ( my favorite is horse racing ). A great example of a change after the fact occurred in an NBA All-Star game. Scottie Pippin at the buzzer at the end of the game was fouled while attempting to make a three point shot. During the commercial break, unbeknown to the books, Scottie was given three free throws, of which he made all three. This in turn changed the outcome and covered the spread. Many books paid off on tickets that bet against the spread and then later, after a scoring adjustment, had to pay those tickets that were now within the spread.

One must abide by the two following axioms:

Players, cash your winners immediately and collect all bets.

Tournament sponsors, move the pairs and teams up the ladder in events when players have been disqualified…Thank you

ellisApril 5th, 2014 at 6:51 pm

I view this problem as twofold.
1. The league is stating that if the winners cheated then the whole event was tainted then there can be no winner.
2. This viewpoint fails to take into account that league also has a moral obligation to its players to provide a level playing field. If it could not do so, it is then ethically duty bound to return all entry fees to the competitors. The league itself has crossed the ethical divide by continuing to hold monies it has in effect earned from a non event.
The consequences of cheating are manifold and the ethical and moral obligations and those consequences arising from individuals actions should be held to scrutiny.

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