The Buratti - Lanzarotti affair

If I did not remark on the circumstances in which bridge recently made the news I suspect it would be seen as somewhat cowardly. For those of you who are not aware, two prominent Italian players, Massimo Lanzarotti and Andrea Buratti were disqualified from the European Open Championships for cheating. This action was taken by a disciplinary hearing on 27th June and resulted in their sponsored team withdrawing from the event.

The whole episode has had, and may continue to have, repercussions at all levels of bridge. For the club and social player, there will be a tiresome round of jokes and ribbing at the nature of bridge itself. Successes by national teams receive scant attention in the press but a cheating scandal? Instant column inches. I note that many reports mentioned the allegations, still ambiguous, of foul play by the British players Reese and Schapiro, forty years ago in Buenos Aires.

There were echoes of that very affair, that the players communicated by finger signals, in the recent case. Following the furore of 1965, the administrative authorities switched the emphasis on catching deceit to preventing it. The next years of top-level play saw the introduction of screens. It may sound surreal to the ordinary player, but in international events you cannot see your partner: a wooden screen separates South and West from North and East. Bidding is conveyed by placing cards that represent the calls in a tray which is shuttled under a small gap close to the table. At the auction's conclusion a trap is opened eight or ten inches for dummy to be visible: it is extremely hard to see any more of your partner than their wrists as they play a card. Which makes the allegations harder to fathom:

87 Q6542
A765 9843
7 Q106
Q97543 8

After opening with a conventional call that showed a strong balanced hand, South became declarer in six diamonds. West led the heart ace and then switched to a club. South won the king and led the trump knave, six from East. After thought, South let this run. The odds favour trumps from the top, so was this an inspired view?

Not so in East's mind. North had taken a look at East's cards – not uncommon behind screens. Where inferences between partners are thought impossible there is often camaraderie between 'screenmates'. However, East claimed to have seen North subsequently place his left forearm in view and over it, arrange three fingers from his right hand to point at East. The implications were clear in East's mind; his holding of three trumps, critical to the success of the slam, had been tipped off.

Many things strike me about this: for this action to be visible, North would have to have been, well, very obvious – often dummy is hard to see, let alone the player behind it. When faced with the allegations, North-South appeared stunned and did not defend themselves in any rational manner. Asked why he took such an unusual line, declarer could only evidence his superstition that - "Diamonds are always badly divided in this Tournament". That doesn't seem like the defensive preparation of practiced cheats.

I note that Patrick Jourdain reporting from the event for the Daily Telegraph, records that the decision "was greeted with applause by the 80 team captains". Though the committee did well to act quickly and unequivocally, that reception smacks of the pair having a 'reputation'. However, prior to this affair, the Internet, that great rumour mill, had no intimations of such. Lastly, I note that in these litigious times, there has been no word of law suits but somehow, I suspect we haven't heard the last of it.

Published Saturday 9.Jul.2005