isLotan Fisher of srael was once considered the world’s greatest bridge player, Michael Jordan’s own card game. Yet in 2015 it was the subject of a cheating scandal which resulted in bans imposed by many bridge bodies. The story is the subject of a new documentary, Dirty Tricks, which gives a rare take on the exclusive world of elite-level competitive bridge.
“To me, it seemed so weird and weird to make a film about a bridge scandal,” documentary director Daniel Sivan told The Guardian on Zoom. “It’s not a cool sport, not a spectator sport.”
The Asian Games recognize bridge as a sport, although in 2017 the European Court of Justice ruled that it was not “because it lacked a significant physical element”. One thing is certain: whatever the bridge, it is high intensity. This holds true not only for its upper echelons – where wealthy individuals sponsor the best teams competing for championships across the world – but also among the tens of thousands of people who play in local venues, which Sivan found in his experience. surprise while making the film.
“I went to all the little bridge clubs, counting on the super nice, relaxed people,” he says. “Everywhere I went they were ruthless. The people were there to win. I was talking to old people who wanted blood.
The film also seeks to capture the game beyond the scandal involving Fisher and his playing partner, Ron Schwartz, exploring the “cool” side of bridge, which was once favored in its heyday by James Bond and Omar Sharif.
However, the main focus of Dirty Tricks is Fisher. The film incorporates images of Fisher as a child star, where, much like Beth Harmon’s character on the Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, he showed an incredible talent for visualization and memory. In a video, Fisher recites a long sequence of numbers from memory. Then, pushed by his mother, Ketty, he recites the same sequence backwards. Fisher harnessed these skills growing up to be one of the best players in the world, alongside Schwartz. Prizes and money – top players can win seven figures a year – were quickly added.
“Some people are just natural,” says Sivan, who interviewed Fisher and his mother for the film. “It comes to them very easily… He’s really good at math and can think and analyze things very quickly.”
And, says Sivan, “everyone says he’s the best. To cheat or not to cheat is the best. For the director, the film is “a kind of Greek tragedy that goes deeper and deeper. Can you be the best player if no one else believes you? “
Bridge is played in competing pairs, with each person using a 13-card hand. Each player is generally prohibited from communicating with the other member of his pair during the game. The Fisher scandal arose after Norway’s Boye Brogeland, a member of a competing pair in the prestigious Spingold tournament, accused Fisher and Schwartz of illegal communication in the quarter-finals.
Brogeland expanded on the accusations in an interview with The New Yorker in 2016. “Bridge is such a logical game,” he told the magazine. “When you do a lot of weird things in a very short period of time and those weird things succeed, it just doesn’t happen.”
Sivan says Brogeland returned and watched the game. “It all started, really, when Boye won a game against Lotan and [then] lost it with a call, ”Sivan says. “He was so frustrated, asking, ‘How come we lost? As he walked through the boards, he saw all these illogical movements that did not settle with him. This [got] the ball rolls. He has just barged in, accusing the Israeli team of cheating.
Sivan interviewed the accusers and the accused, from Fisher and Schwartz to Brogeland, as well as other leading players and experts. Fisher and Schwartz, for their part, have always denied cheating. “I didn’t cheat, but I did it myself,” Fisher says in the movie.
“Everyone who was in the film was really excited to say their side,” says the filmmaker. “I think the film is very, quite balanced. Both sides get their story to let the audience have their own opinion and come to their own conclusion.
The film also shows the exclusive side of the bridge, including footage of billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates at the table. He mentions former Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne, who sponsored the Fisher and Schwartz team. As the movie explains, when Fisher and Schwartz joined the team, they left their previous team, which included Brogeland, causing bad blood.
“The world of sports is amazing,” says Sivan. “You have all these sponsors who get caught up in these cheating scandals sometimes because they want to win too. You also have to ask yourself how much did the sponsors know about cheating and how many were just oblivious, looked the other way? “
The documentary made Sivan reflect on the issue of cheating in sports in general.
“It’s all about sport,” he says. “Who makes the rules? If you are not caught, is it cheating? “And, he adds,” the big question is where does something stop being a bluff and [become] something totally illegal?
For Fisher and Schwartz, an unusual process led to their downfall. Brogeland invited people around the world to share advice about the scandal on a website. Eventually, a Swedish player named Per-Ola Cullin alleged that he cracked the code used by Fisher and Schwartz, which he claimed involved players placing the board in a certain way to illegally communicate with each other. .
“This was essentially the first time, to my knowledge, in history that a cheating scandal had been outsourced,” Sivan says. “You’ve never heard the local players say, ‘I suspect Lance Armstrong is making juice. Please, Internet community, seek the proof. It was the first time they had used crowdfunding, the brain of the hive, people all over the world breaking down codes, chasing cheaters… It was totally self-controlled.
The news broke over months of meetings between an Israeli bridge committee and Fisher and Schwartz, and the film recounts the outcome that followed. Yet, Sivan says, this is not the end of the bridge cheating story.
« [It’s] just the tip of the iceberg about what’s going on behind the scenes with the biggest teams, ”says Sivan. “Now – sorry for the word – it was a pandemic in the sense that … every week you had more and more players caught cheating.” Indeed, some of the world’s best players were quickly accused of cheating, and some compared the effect on bridge integrity to that of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal on professional cycling.
In terms of the world championships, Sivan says: “What I find really interesting is the fact [there were] all these cheating pairs [of players], best pairs of the last 30 years. Basically, no score from the last 30 years in bridge means anything.
“How do you know if these were really the top 10 teams? ” he asks. “The sad part is that a lot of people lost a few laps and stopped playing. They may have been the next wonder.
The director is looking for his film to bring more people to the bridge table.
” I really hope [the film] gonna take that awful, awful reputation deck and show how cool it is, ”Sivan says. “It will make people take this cheating scandal and instead of having a negative effect on the sport, [it will] make it a sport where people will say, “cool, how do you play? It could be fantastic. Yes, we are really hopeful that it will make bridge cool again. “