Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Great British Bridge Scandal

Introduction by the Blog Author

The Great British Bridge Scandal took place at the Bermuda Bowl in Buenos Aires in 1965.  World famous contract bridge experts John Reese and Boris Schapiro were accused to using hand signals in the game, and therefore the entire British team forfeited the matches that had been played.  Reese and Schapiro were not allowed to play in any further tournament matches.
The BBC has broadcast coverage of this bridge scandal as recently as April, 2016,

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John Terence Reese (28 August 1913 – 29 January 1996) was a British bridge player and writer, regarded as one of the finest of all time in both fields. He was born in Epsom, Surrey, England to middle-class parents, and was educated at Bradfield College and New College, Oxford, where he studied classics and attained a double first, graduating in 1935.

As a bridge player, Reese won every honour in the game, including the European Championship four times (1948, 1949, 1954, 1963) and the Bermuda Bowl (effectively, the World Team Championship) in 1955—all as a member of the Great Britain open team. He was World Par champion in 1961 and placed second in both the inaugural World Team Olympiad 1960, and the inaugural World Open Pairs, 1962. He also represented Britain in the 1965 Bermuda Bowl and in five other European Championships. He won the Gold Cup, the premier British domestic competition, on eight occasions.

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Boris Schapiro (22 August 1909 – 1 December 2002) was a British international bridge player. He was a Grandmaster of the World Bridge Federation, and the only player to have won both the Bermuda Bowl (the world championship for national teams) and the World Senior Pairs championship. He won the European teams championship on four occasions as part of the British team.

Buenos Aires Affair

In the 1965 Buenos Aires Bermuda Bowl, B. Jay Becker noticed Schapiro and his partner, Terence Reese, holding their cards in unusual ways during bidding, the number of fingers showing indicating length of the heart suit. A number of players and observers, including Dorothy Hayden, New York Times columnists Alan Truscott, John Gerber, British nonplaying captain Ralph Swimer, British Bridge League Chairman Geoffrey Butler, ACBL president emeritus Waldemar von Zedtwitz, and ACBL President Robin McNabb, all watched Reese and Schapiro and were convinced that they were signalling illegally. It was also confirmed that Reese was not using such signals while playing with his other partner, Jeremy Flint. At a hearing held at the tournament site in Buenos Aires, the World Bridge Federation (WBF) judged Reese and Schapiro guilty of cheating, and announced that due to "certain irregularities", the British team was forfeiting the matches they had already won against North America and Argentina, and that Reese and Shapiro would not be playing in the remaining matches.

The British Bridge League (BBL) subsequently convened their own enquiry, chaired by Sir John Foster, barrister and Member of Parliament, and General Lord Bourne. After a hearing lasting many months, including a surprise revelation by Swimer that Schapiro had confessed his guilt to him, the "Foster Enquiry" found insufficient evidence to find Reese and Schapiro guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Without rebutting the "direct" evidence that grips were correlated with heart count, the report emphasized that there was inconclusive evidence that the players had benefitted from the signals in their bidding or play.

In 1967, the BBL asked the WBF to reverse their guilty finding; the WBF responded by unanimously reaffirming their guilty verdict, and later reiterating that they would not accept a British team including Reese and Schapiro for the 1968 Olympiad, which the BBL boycotted in protest. In 1968, a compromise was reached, the WBF maintaining their guilty verdict, but allowing Reese and Schapiro (who had announced his retirement from international bridge after the Buenos Aires Olympiad) to play in future world championships.

Subsequently, both Reese and Alan Truscott published books on the scandal. Reese's book stated: "The basis of the charge, as everybody knows, is that Schapiro and I communicated length in hearts to one another by means of illegal signals. If you want to support that charge by reference to the hands played, what you have to show is that a number of illogical, uncharacteristic, and implausible bids or plays were made that can be explained only on the basis that the players had improper knowledge of one another's hands." It then goes on to argue for the logic of the pair's bidding and play on the various hands from the Olympiad. Truscott's book emphasizes the unlikelihood of the observed variations in finger signals being coincidental, or of such a large number of witnesses colluding to fabricate the evidence.

In May 2005, the English journalist David Rex-Taylor, a bridge player and publisher, claimed that Reese had made a confession to him forty years earlier, one that was not to be revealed until 2005 and after he and Schapiro were dead. The purported confession claimed that Reese and Schapiro were indeed signalling, but only to show that such signaling was possible (and so were not actually paying attention to each other's signals), purportedly as part of a book on cheating (which was abandoned after the scandal broke). Although this explanation could conceivably reconcile the use of finger signals with the absence of evidence from bidding or play, there is no corroborating evidence to support this account. In contrast, Schapiro's widow claims he continued to deny the accusations to his death.

After 1965

Schapiro was bridge correspondent of The Sunday Times from 1968 until his death in 2002. Despite his facility with language, he was never really interested in writing; his output was two small books, and it is likely that his newspaper column was often ghosted. He made his mark as a player and a personality.

The Buenos Aires affair removed at a stroke the central activity of his life. It took years for Schapiro to be rehabilitated in world bridge, although he was always held in high esteem in Europe. He did eventually return to international bridge competition, unlike Reese, and did so with considerable success (above).

Schapiro's 90th birthday party in London was attended by Jaime Ortiz-Patino, the WBF President Emeritus and the owner of Valderrama Golf Club, who had been a witness for Reese and Schapiro in the BBL enquiry; Omar Sharif, the Egyptian film star and bridge player; Prince Khalid Abudullah of Saudi Arabia, a family friend; and many personalities from the bridge and casino worlds.


Schapiro's conversation at the bridge table was either a delight or a nuisance, depending on taste and point of view.

His standard greeting to females – "What about a spot of adultery?" (or "Fancy a spot of adultery?") – is mentioned in every biographical note and obituary, and reveals his sense of humour. When his team played an exhibition match at Leicester, the wife of the Chief Constable organised a cocktail party for them to meet the locals. The traveling players were invited to sign and comment in the Visitors book, and Schapiro wrote the catchphrase after his signature. Dimmie Fleming – another international player and the only woman to play on the British open team – defused the situation by signing next, drawing an upwards arrow and writing, "But will he ever be adult?"

Another story shows his partner Terence Reese picking up a collection of silver cup trophies from Schapiro's flat in Eaton Place (the Upstairs, Downstairs setting) and carrying them in a pillow-case. Stopped in the street by a policeman and asked to explain his unusual sack of possessions, Reese led the officer back to the flat so that Schapiro could validate his explanation. When Schapiro answered the door, he sized up the situation, and when asked "Can you identify this man?", said "Never seen him before in my life."

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