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Book Review


By Paul Brayshaw

Benito Garozzo, Giorgio Belladonna, Pietro Forquet: undoubtedly considered by many as the finest bridge players of their era, and possibly ever. They were an integral part of the Italian 'Blue' team that completely dominated world bridge from 1957 to 1975. The number of world championships that eluded the Blue Team in that period could be counted on one hand. Their incredible prowess was largely attributed to a combination of many things: their impressive card-play technique, bidding systems that allowed flexibility of approach, their uncanny acuity in competitive auctions, and their deadly-accurate defence. Perhaps too uncanny and deadly?

This question is posed by Australia's own Avon Wilsmore (ex-WA) in his new book "Under the Table: The Case Against the Blue Team", which will shortly go to press. This book emerges in the wake of the recent top-level cheating scandals that have rocked the bridge world and seen the WBF stripping titles and issuing lifetime bans to several prominent pairs, including Fantoni-Nunes of Monaco (ex-Italy) and Zmudzinski/Balicki of Poland. The exposure of these players by Norwegian expert Boye Brogeland (et al.), subsequently covered extensively on the "Bridge Winners" website, is comprehensive, insightful and a must-read for any serious student of the game. Those still reeling from the shock of these revelations and wishing to revert to the good ol' honest bridge of yesteryear should not read Wilsmore's book for comfort. Instead, you will find hundreds of pages of such scathing analysis by the author, it makes one's eyes water. Wilsmore's personal interest in bridge propriety has led to extensive research into all available historical literature on the Blue Team, including journalism, match reviews and official World Championship books. Questions have been raised in the past about possible cheating by the Blue Team, with half-hearted allegations made at various points, but never has all the evidence been compiled in such a comprehensive and potentially damaging collage.

A pervading theme of the book is the statistical unlikelihood that the multitude of 'unusual' decisions and anti-percentage actions taken by the Team on the many hands analysed could produce such consistently good returns. The methods used by Brogeland and others to expose cheating partnerships have been applied by Wilsmore, although no video coverage existed for the championships contested by the Blue Team. Unusual actions and non-standard calls and plays made by Blue Team members in all relevant Bermuda Bowls and Olympiads have been compiled, categorised and compared. Common themes have been identified as prime indications of suspicious activity. Here is an example to whet your appetite:

Bermuda Bowl 1962, Final. Board 112. E-W vul

♠ —


♣ —
♠ 10 9 8 7 6 2
J 5 4 2
K 6
♣ Q
N
WE
S
♠ 5
A K 10 6
10
♣ J 9 8 7 6 3 2
♠ —


♣ —
WestNorthEastSouth
ForquetMatheGarozzoNail
1 1 1 ♠
Pass

Bermuda Bowl 1962, Final. Board 66. N-S vul

♠ —


♣ —
♠ Q 10 9
J 7 6
K 7
♣ Q 10 6 4 3
N
WE
S
♠ A J 8 6 5
A Q 3
10 6 4 3
♣ 8
♠ —


♣ —
WestNorthEastSouth
ForquetMurrayGarozzoCoon
Pass1 1 ♠Pass
2 ♠

Same partnership, same event. How is it that Forquet knew to pass with four-card support in the first example but was keen to raise with only three in the second? There is no evidence from the auction that suggests one action over another. This in itself does not constitute proof that illicit information was being passed across the table. However, hundreds of examples in Wilsmore's book contain similar eyebrow-raising changes of approach for no apparent reason, all magically consistent with partner's actual holding. Such fortuitous actions are considered examples of "exceeding tolerance".

It is not just the Blue Team players that come under Wilsmore's scrutiny. The behaviour of officials and official bodies, particularly the WBF and the Italian bridge federation (FIGB), is reflected upon at length. Wilsmore points the finger firmly at these bodies for what he perceives as inaction in dealing with the issues that arose at the time. This includes the covering-up of the potentially-damning tape recording by unimplicated Italian player Leandro Burgay of his telephone call to Blue Team member Benito Bianchi, who allegedly outlined the cheating methods used by some of the big names in the team. What came of this? Wilsmore reveals all.

It is easy to suggest that Wilsmore does not present a balanced picture, through failure to showcase the myriad deals where Blue Team members actually demonstrated superior technique compared with their opponents, and through bias in selecting hands that reinforce his case. It is just as easy to point out, however, that literature revering the Blue Team abounds elsewhere, and that Wilsmore had so much material that he would struggle to include other perspectives and keep the book to an accessible size whilst making his case. At no point does the author question the card play technique of the Team's greats, their skills in general (other than those of the weaker players), or their table manner. He simply alleges that many of their actions at the table over the decades, and the success thereof, cannot have been guided merely by the information available from the auction and play.

All in all, "Under the Table" is a most interesting, thought-provoking and eye-opening read. It is pitched at intermediate-plus through to expert players and I would thoroughly recommend it. And now for the part you've all been waiting for - the verdict. Did they cheat? I couldn't possibly spoil the ending.



EDITING OF MATERIAL

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