Dirty Tricks: documenting an elite-level cheating scandal

by Carlos Alberto Colodro
5/14/2021 – Chess and bridge are the only ‘mind sports’ recognized by the International Olympic Committee. The two highly popularized games also share that cheating has become a growing preoccupation for fans and organizers alike. In a recently released documentary, Israeli filmmaker Daniel Sivan tells the story of a cheating scandal which involved Lotan Fisher, the strongest bridge player in the world. | Pictured: Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz

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An elite-level scandal

Although chess might have more in common in terms of gameplay with draughts or go, there is a salient similarity it shares with the game of bridge: they are the only ‘mind sports’ recognized by the International Olympic Committee — albeit neither of them has been found eligible for the main Olympic program.

Chess and bridge also share that cheating has become a growing preoccupation for fans and organizers of the sport. In the case of bridge, a game in which partners need to convey information in a restricted manner, notable incidents date back to as early as the 1930s, when a scandal led to Willard S. Karn bringing a one million dollar defamation suit against Ely Culbertson, six others and Crockford Inc., accusing them of spreading rumours and conspiring to remove him from the bridge world.

And the problem persists in the 21st century. In 2015, a scandal involving who was then considered the best player in the world ended with two Israeli players being banned from participating in events organized by the European Bridge League and the American Contract Bridge League, among others.

Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz had been found guilty both of collusive cheating and of giving false information. 

Lotan Fisher

Lotan Fisher

Daniel Sivan, a documentary filmmaker who co-directed “The Olso Diaries” and directed five episodes of the mini-series “The Devil Next Door”, picked up the story and decided to write, direct and produce “Dirty Tricks”, a 100-minute film which not only focuses on the cheating scandal but also on the world of elite-level competitive bridge.

Talking about the process which led to Fisher and Schwartz’s collapse, Sivan told The Guardian:

This was basically the first time, to my knowledge, in history that a cheating scandal was outsourced. You never heard local players saying, ‘I suspect Lance Armstrong is juicing. Please, internet community, look for the proof.’ Here was the first time they used crowdfunding, beehive brain, people from all over the world breaking down codes, chasing cheaters. It was totally self-policed.

Referring to Fisher, who was (or is?) considered the best bridge player in the world, Sivan reflected:

[The film] is kind of a Greek tragedy that goes deeper and deeper. Can you be the best player if nobody else believes you?

Watch the trailer of “Dirty Tricks”:

In his piece for The Guardian, Rich Tenorio uses the example of fictional character Beth Harmon to explain how talented Fisher was as a kid:

The film incorporates footage of Fisher as a child star, where much like the character Beth Harmon on the Netflix hit “The Queen’s Gambit”, he displayed an incredible knack for visualization and memory.

Igors RausisWhile we have yet to see a similar scandal in the chess world — i.e., a player of Magnus Carlsen’s calibre getting caught cheating in a top-level tournament — a major incident was seen a couple of years ago, when a photo of Igors Rausis using a mobile phone in a toilet during a tournament game made international headlines.

Perhaps the one comparable scandal, albeit of a different nature, would be Bobby Fischer’s claim that Soviet players had colluded against him during the 1962 Candidates Tournament.

The popularization of online chess has opened a whole other can of worms — coincidentally, a few instances of online cheating in bridge have already been penalized by sport authorities. Perhaps the chess community might find a way to learn from a similar sport that has been dealing with this problem for a longer period of time.


Carlos Colodro is a Hispanic Philologist from Bolivia. He works as a freelance translator and writer since 2012. A lot of his work is done in chess-related texts, as the game is one of his biggest interests, along with literature and music.
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PhishMaster PhishMaster 5/17/2021 06:00
@Adbennet, I am glad you realize now, so I am not trying to hammer anything home, but just to share my amazement at computer chess strength.

First, when I started playing in 1977, Fidelity Chess Challengers (a brand name for youngsters) were just hitting the market (1977 was the very first one), and they were rated maybe 1000 at best. In 1982, I bought my first chess computer, the "Great Game Machine", which had three modules for each phase of the game, and it was rated maybe 1600 (I think that was the claim, at least).

What makes me shake my head in amazement sometimes is when I manually enter a difficult chess problem (I mean a lengthy composed problem, although this happens with hard-to-see human combinations too) into ChessBase and set Stockfish on it, it often finds the answer to the virtually impossible, in under a second. If it can do that, just imagine what even 22 seconds is to it.
adbennet adbennet 5/16/2021 10:20
Agree, I was wrong. I just looked at the CCRL, I wasn't aware of what machines can do at about 22 seconds/move with ponder off.

About the power bank: A power bank is one of those things that is not useful if you don't actually have it with you at the moment the phone is running out of battery. I own two of the things but never carry them because if my phone battery is dying then I just let it. But some people can't live without their cat videos(*), so if they are smart it makes sense for them to carry a power bank _everywhere_ they go. Otherwise they won't have it that _one_ time they do need it. It doesn't show any other kind of intent.

(*) Just kidding -- most likely they are posting to instagram, youtube, etc., no cat involved.
e-mars e-mars 5/16/2021 08:16
@PhishMaster in addition to that, unfortunately, if one manages to smuggle a phone into a forbidden area, they can also smuggle a portable power bank. Guess what, the day Patrycja Waszczuk was allegedly caught she was carrying in her bag a phone .. AND a power bank.
I am not sure how many of us would think to bring power bank to a chess tournament since the phone is supposed to be ketp switched off most of (if not all) the time...
PhishMaster PhishMaster 5/16/2021 12:44
@adbennet, I disagree with comment about a phone not having enough battery life to defeat a GM in a lengthy classical game. As long as you are not leaving it in analysis mode while you are sitting at the board, computers today, even phones, analyze a better move than humans, often many moves deep, in a matter of seconds. Even with 10 seconds a move, a 60-move game only takes 10 minutes of battery life in analysis mode...easily doable.

As a test, I just entered a complex opening position into my phone, and had it think for 12 minutes total using Stockfish 11. My phone, a Samsung Galaxy S10, went from 97% to only 95%, plenty of juice to give the computer 12 seconds a move for a 60-move game. Even if we extrapolate, my phone only went down 1% for every two moves at three minutes per move, so a 60-move game would only use up about 30%, maybe a little more.
Aighearach Aighearach 5/16/2021 07:40
My cheap motorola phone has plenty of battery life for 6 hours of analysis. I understand many brands have thinner phones and smaller batteries, but it is not universal. That said, you only actually need a few minutes at a time, the engine doesn't have to run the whole game.
My phone also does not overheat, even with a large plastic case protecting it. Surely there are brands that put more CPU into the chassis than it can cool, but again that is not a universal stupidity than all phone engineers commit.
adbennet adbennet 5/15/2021 03:09
@brian8871 - Software on a mobile phone is indeed capable of defeating a grandmaster, but an ordinary phone lacks the battery life to sustain that performance during a lengthy classical game. Another significant issue is the amount of heat generated by the computations, presenting a hazard both to the hardware and the cheater. So for the moment the chess world is mostly safe from any self-contained system. As in the case of this bridge scandal, the main opportunity for "successful" cheating is a strong player using nefarious methods to improve their already good results. The biggest problem with scams at these mind sports is that the victims are very poorly targeted. Going up against smart and motivated competitors is just asking to be investigated.
jws555 jws555 5/15/2021 02:09
@HollyHampstead, not yet released. Maybe keep checking Rotten Tomatoes for more information?
HollyHampstead HollyHampstead 5/15/2021 01:48
Where and how can we see the whole of the "Dirty Tricks" movie?
PhishMaster PhishMaster 5/15/2021 12:28
I do not play Bridge at all, but apparently, there is a board that is used, and they would place it in a particular way to indicate how strong their had was in a particular suit. I can easily imagine, especially at that level, knowing how good of a hand your partner has is a major help when bidding.

Frederic Frederic 5/15/2021 08:51
I wonder if Tonycam45333 is doing a snake oil sale or this is some kind of more or less subtle humour?! Escapes me somehow.
Peter B Peter B 5/15/2021 05:38
The 1962 Candidates collusion is more than "claimed" by Bobby Fischer. It has been confirmed, e.g. by Averbakh and Korchnoi. But that was only a 3-way drawing agreement between Petrosian, Keres and Geller, which easily could have backfired.

A more serious cheating question for chess is whether players actually "threw" games in WC and Candidates tournaments in the 40s and 50s - those allegations are more serious, but I think unproven.
EyeM EyeM 5/15/2021 03:08
Let's not forget that in 2015 bathroom cheater Gaioz Nigalidze was caught using a cell phone to cheat during his chess games.
brian8871 brian8871 5/15/2021 01:44
I'm not a competitive chess player and never will be, but as a thought experiment, I've been trying to think up a way to cheat at tournament chess that would be the most difficult to detect. What I've come up with, I don't think there's any one part of it that's absolutely impossible, but taken all together it's so wildly impractical that I doubt anyone would ever try it. The first criterion is that the system has to be entirely self-contained. It can't rely on anyone or anything outside of oneself, so that the anti-cheating technique of tape-delaying the broadcast of moves would not affect the ability to use the system. Second, it has to be able to "read" any position on the fly, and recommend the next best move, so setting up a tactical position and asking you to find the correct move would not reveal the cheating. So you need a small camera hidden in a pair of glasses, a tie pin or similar article of clothing, that can read a position and feed it into a computer, whose wiring could be concealed in, say, a back brace. Then the computer could use a variety of old chess programs to evaluate the position and recommend a move. Using current best programs or tablebases would obviously give away the cheating. It should randomly select a different old program to use for each move, so they can't say you're getting all your moves from Program X. Then, once it finds a move, it can convey it through a hearing aid concealed in your inner ear. For cover, you'd have to start young and take lessons from a chess expert, to explain your performance. You'd also have to know every opening line forward and backward so you can execute them all quickly without relying on the computer.
Frederic Frederic 5/15/2021 12:07
Here's how it can be done in over-the-table bridge: https://youtu.be/831tJ4EHLBY.
And here's a description of possible methods to mitigate cheating in online bridge: https://bridgewinners.com/article/view/can-cheating-be-stopped-in-online-bridge/. One suggestion: delay online kibitzing (so a player can't look at the other players' hands on a second onlooker computer. I suggested something similar for chess a decade and a half ago: https://en.chessbase.com/post/a-journey-to-elista-4 (towards the end of the article). Cheating in bridge is much harder to prevent than chess cheating.
Green22 Green22 5/14/2021 11:45
Well how were they cheating is what I can't seem to find in these links. It was mentioned some type of signaling. Yea like how? lol if they got banned then there would have to be some concrete proof. Also from any videos.