on August 22, 2015, Boye Brogeland posted a provocative comment to the website Bridgewinners.com. “Very soon there will come out mind-boggling stuff,” wrote the Norwegian bridge player, then age,43 and ranked 64th in the world. “It will give us a tremendous momentum to clean the game up.”
A few days later, Brogeland launched his own website, Bridgecheaters.com. The home page featured a huge photo of Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz, a young Israeli duo who, since breaking into the international ranks in 20ll, had snapped up the game’s top trophies. They appeared under the tagline “The greatest scam in the history of bridge!”
Brogeland posted examples of what he claimed to be suspiciously illogical hands played by the pair. He also laid out a pattern of alleged cheating and bad sportsmanship going as far back as 2003, when Fisher and Schwartz were in their mid-teens.
For the game of contract bridge, it was an earthquake equal to the jolt that shook international cycling when Lance Armstrong was banned from competition for doping. Fisher and Schwartz denied all wrongdoing and hired lawyers who dispatched a letter to Brogeland threatening a lawsuit and offering to settle if he paid them $1 million. In a message he denies was intended for Brogeland, Ron Fisher posted to his Facebook page: “Jealousy made you sick. Get ready for a meeting with the devil.”
Brogeland lives in Flekkefjord, Norway, with his wife, Tonje, and their two young children. Having learned bridge at the age of eight from his grandparents, he fell in love with the game and turned pro at 28. In 2013, he was recruited by his current sponsor, Richie Schwartz (no relation to Ron), a Bronx-born bridge addict who made a fortune at the racetrack in the 1970s. Brogeland says Richie Schwartz pays him travel expenses and a base yearly salary of $50,000-with -big bonuses for strong showings in tournaments.
Not long after Brogeland joined Richie Schwartz’s team, he learned that his employer was also hiring Fisher and Ron Schwartz, about whom he had heard misgivings from other players. Over the next two years, Brogeland and his five teammates won a string of championships.
Nevertheless, Brogeland says he was relieved when, in the summer of 2015, Fisher and Ron Schwartz were lured away by Jimmy Cayne, former CEO of the defunct investment house Bear Stearns. “When they changed teams,” Brogeland says, “I didn’t have to be faced with this kind of environment where you feel something is strange but you can’t really tell.”
Fisher, meanwhile, was enjoying his position at the top of the game, where the lives of many successful young pros resemble those of globe-hopping rock musicians. Convening nightly at a hotel bar in whatever city is holding the competition- Biarritz, Chennai, Chicago-they drink until the small hours. Charismatic and darkly handsome, Fisher posted Instagram photos of himself in well-cut suits, behind the wheel of luxury cars or partying with an array of people.
There was only one problem: the persistent rumors that he was a cheater. “But it’s an unwritten rule that you do not publicly accuse anyone – even if you’re sure.” says Steve Weinstein, a top American player. It was a catch–22 that Fisher seemed to delight in flaunting, shrugging off questions about his suspicious play. “He had the Nietzschean superman personality.” says Fred Gitelman, a professional player who has won championships worldwide.
“He just though he was in a different league.”
Less than a month after Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz had left Richie Schwartz’s team, Brogeland met the pair as opponents, in the quarter-final of the 2015 Spingold at the Hilton hotel in Chicago. Brogeland’s team was the Clear underdog, but it by by the slimmest margin possible: a single point.
Or it seemed to. Fisher immediately contested the result on a technicality. After an arbitration that stretched until 1:30 a.m., the win was overturned: Brogeland’s team had now lost by one point and been knocked out of the tournament.
That night, a crushed Brogeland could not sleep. He rose at 7 a.m. and opened Bridge Base Online (BBO), a website that archives tournament hands, to see exactly how he had lost. He immediately noticed something odd. Ron Schwartz had opened a hand by playing a club lead. Yet, Schwartz’s hand indicated that a heart lead was the obvious play.
Then, he says, he saw something even stranger. In one of the hands, Fisher had claimed 11 tricks. Except Fisher, as BBO showed, held the cards for just 10 tricks. Brogeland thought’ it was a mistake and immediately contacted his sponsor. In any event, challenges must be raised within a half-hour of a match. The loss would stand.
Maaijke Mevius, a 45-year-old living in the Netherlands, is a physicist and an avid recreational bridge player. Galvanized by the evidence against Fisher and Schwartz, she wondered if she could spot any illegal signaling in YouTube videos. While watching Fantoni and Nunes, she grew convinced she had decoded how they were using card placement to signal to their partner whether they held any high honor cards (ace’, king or queen). Mevius e-mailed the information to Brogeland.
On September 13, 2015, Bridge Winners published “The Videos Speak: Fantoni-Nunes,” a damning analysis by Woolsey. In a statement from that month, the pair said, “We will not comment on allegations at this time.”
On Bridge Winners, the· first reader comment in response to this news said it all: “Is this the end? Speechless now …”
It wasn’t quite the end. Brogeland soon received an anonymous e-mail tip from someone identifying himself as “No Matter.” The tipster advised looking at videos of Germany’s Alex Smirnov and Josef Piekarek, as well as the Polish pair Cezary Balicki and Adam Zmudzinski. In subsequent e-mails, No Matter pointed out what to watch for: signaling based on where the pair put the special bidding cards in the bidding tray that is passed between the players during the auction.
Smirnov and Piekarek, told of the discovery, admitted to the violation in a statement. Balicki and Zmudzinski denied the charges.
Still more astonishing, however, is the fact that Brogeland believes the person behind the mask of No Matter is the disgraced Lotan Fisher.
Brogeland cannot explain why Fisher would assist in the quest to root out cheaters-unless, by helping to expose others, he hoped to take the focus off himself. Fisher, in an e-mail to this writer, claims that he only aided No Matter and that his motivation was the same as Brogeland’s-to clean up the game. “I love [bridge] more than Boye or anyone else,” he wrote, adding, “My next step is to prove that me and Ron Schwartz didn’t cheat. NEVER.”
In May, Bridge Winners announced that the EBL had issued Fisher and Schwartz a five-year ban from its event’s and a lifetime ban on playing as partners. The other pairs have also faced repercussions from various leagues and events.
Brogeland’s actions have also had a more permanent effect on the game. In December 2015, the ACBL held one of bridge’s biggest annual tournaments, the American nationals. For the first time, the ACBL had installed small video cameras and microphones at the tables to record all matches from the quarter-finals through to the finals-since no one imagines that every dishonest pair has been rooted out.
Before the end of the tournament, ACBL CEO Hartman convened the first meeting of a new anti-cheating task force including Willenken, Woolsey and Cullin who discussed means for streamlining the process of submitting complaints and investigating them:
Meanwhile, the International Bridge Press Association named Brogeland the Bridge Personality of the Year for 2015. When he arrived for his first match at the Denver nationals last autumn, he had to fight his way through the crowd that had collected outside the tournament room: “Thank you for your service,” said a bearded man who had stopped Brogeland at the door of the game room.
“Well, I had to do it,” Brogeland said, shaking the man’s hand and trying to move off.
“You really put yourself on the line,” the man persisted. Brogeland smiled. “Bridge deserves it,” he said, then headed for his table.
Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz were expelled from the AC13L in 2016. Fulvia Fantoni and Claudio Nunes were suspended from the ACBL and the EBL and banned from playing as partners. Josef Piekarek and Alex Smirnov were suspended from the EBL and ACBL until 2020 and banned from playing together for life.
In 2017, Cezary Balicki and Adam Zmudzinski were prohibited, from playing in the Polish Bridge Union until further notice.
by John Colapinto from Vanity Fair