The Buenos Aires affair: Card Tricksters

When Britain's top international bridge players were accused of cheating 40 years ago, there was outrage. The pair protested their innocence and were cleared of any wrongdoing. But as Cahal Milmo reports, new allegations shed a different light on their story
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was the year the Beatles were appointed MBEs, the mini-skirt made its debut and David Bailey married Catherine Deneuve with Mick Jagger as his best man. Some 94 per cent of Britons still belonged to a church, homosexuality remained an imprisonable offence and an Essex housewife called Mary Whitehouse launched her crusade against broadcasting "bad taste and irresponsibility".

It was the year the Beatles were appointed MBEs, the mini-skirt made its debut and David Bailey married Catherine Deneuve with Mick Jagger as his best man. Some 94 per cent of Britons still belonged to a church, homosexuality remained an imprisonable offence and an Essex housewife called Mary Whitehouse launched her crusade against broadcasting "bad taste and irresponsibility".

The year was 1965 and for a nation in flux, the genteel world of bridge was one of the few bastions of British life that remained untouched by the Sixties contagion of social upheaval.

At least that is how it must have seemed in the closing days of the Bermuda Bowl Bridge World Championship, as Britain prepared for its games against Italy and America.

The matches were always going to be tense affairs. The favourites were Italy, but the British had the two best players in the world - Terence Reese and Boris Schapiro. The Americans, eventual runners-up, were expected to contest every rubber fiercely in the games crowded with observers to ensure correct conduct.

But few can have been prepared for the shock that convulsed this most civilised of sports on 22 May 1965: Britain, the nation that invented fair play and bridge itself, had been accused, and found guilty, of cheating.

The news that Britain's two leading players, Mr Reese and Mr Schapiro, had been convicted of the most heinous crime in cards, by using hand signals to indicate their hands, was instantly propelled on to front pages around the world.

The World Bridge Federation (WBF) soberly announced that "certain irregularities" had been discovered.

Mr Reese and Mr Schapiro were banned after a 10-0 vote by the WBF executive and the British team left the tournament in Buenos Aires in disgrace.

Such was the gravity of the affront to the British reputation for sportsmanlike conduct that a quasi-judicial inquiry, headed by a barrister and judge, was set up in London to investigate.

After 19 months of scrutiny, Mr Reese and Mr Schapiro were declared not guilty. Both men continued to protest their innocence until their deaths.

And so the matter may have rested if another playing partner of Mr Reese had not chosen to intervene by claiming that the famously ice-cool player had indeed confessed to cheating in Buenos Aires.

David Rex-Taylor, a publishing executive from Birmingham, claimed yesterday that the episode which ended Mr Reese's international bridge playing career was part of a disastrous experiment to prove that cheating was possible in the card game invented by British civil servants in the Raj.

Mr Rex-Taylor said: "He confided that ... he had been planning to write a highly-researched, in-depth book on cheating at cards and other indoor games and activities, commenting that cheats should be pilloried and their methods exposed."

The alleged confession was greeted with scepticism by senior figures in the bridge world, a game which is estimated to have four million regular players in Britain, making it the most popular participation sport after coarse fishing.

The demonisation of Mr Reese and Mr Schapiro became a cause célèbre in the bridge establishment. Britain withdrew from the game's equivalent of the Olympics in 1968 and, despite qualms about the circumstantial evidence surrounding the pair, they have long been held to have been exonerated according to the only suitable criteria for such a grave offence - the criminal burden of proof that requires a case to be proven "beyond reasonable doubt".

One player with intimate knowledge of the Buenos Aires affair told The Independent: "The two people who really know the truth about what happened in the match are dead and they took their secrets to the grave.

"The main thing was that it was not something Terence Reese would get involved with - he was a very cerebral, technical player who stood to gain nothing from cheating in such a high-profile match.

"This sort of claim reactivates something that the bridge world assumes is dead and buried. I know there are many who would rather it stayed that way."

The scandal nonetheless continues to reverberate into the present day. It has been the subject of two books and at least one film screenplay.

Accusations started flying at the Bermuda Bowl World Championships in 1965 when the two British players were seen to hold their cards in a way that was interpreted as indicating the distribution of the hearts suit.

The alleged pattern was first noticed by their US opponents, who saw that Mr Reese was holding his cards with his fingers in an unusual "V" formation.

When Mr Schapiro was seen to be doing something similar and then the number of fingers they held up changed between hands, the Americans called in their captain and tournament officials.

The same trend was spotted during the crunch match with the Italians, this time observed by two senior members of the British team: the number of hearts in the hand always matched the number of fingers each man held out.

Despite expressing disbelief that the two men could be "so stupid as to employ such a simple ploy", the British agreed to void all previous matches.

Retribution from the WBF was swift.

After a brief inquiry, Mr Reese, an Oxford graduate and failed Harrod's trainee who dedicated himself to bridge, and Mr Schapiro, a Latvian-born horse trader who won his last bridge world title at the age of 89, were declared guilty of cheating.

Unusually, the federation left the punishment to the British Bridge League, which appointed a judge, Sir John Foster, QC, to chair an independent inquiry, complete with solicitors and counsel to represent the accused.

After more than 60 evidence sessions the tribunal ruled that an examination of the hands in which the two Britons were accused of cheating showed their results had been so poor that they could not have been exchanging signals.

The report submitted by Sir John stated: "The circumstantial evidence gives rise to doubt. However, there is no indication of cheating evident in the auction or the play ... Consequently, we do not considers Messrs Reese and Schapiro guilty of foul play during the tournament in question."

Despite the finding, the WBF remained unmoved and banned both men for three years. As a result Britain withdrew from the 1968 Bridge Olympiad.

Mr Reese, a classics scholar whose absorption in his games was such that Mr Schapiro was once reputed to have won a bet that his partner would not notice if a naked woman sat at the table during a game, did not play for 10 years and never returned to the international bridge scene.

When asked if he would have pursued a different course in life if he had his time again, Mr Reese said: "There are some interesting occupations. For example, I possess the mental capacity to have done well in the law. On the other hand, I am basically indolent and I dare say I would have done the same thing again."

But the affair did little to impede Mr Schapiro's progress.

The player became one of the most successful in bridge history, winning the British team championship 11 times. In 1998 he became the oldest world champion in any sport by taking the senior pairs title at the age of 89. He died in 2002, some six years after Mr Reese.

Nick Doe, of the English Bridge Union, said: "The Buenos Aires matter is something that rears its head every now and again but it didn't do any long term damage to British bridge.

"The perception was that although there were grave suspicions about the hand signals there was also reasonable doubt about what they might have achieved. At the level they were playing they could not have constituted a decisive advantage."

Both Mr Reese and Mr Schapiro insisted throughout their lives that there had been no message in the way they had been holding their cards.

Mr Schapiro's widow, Helen, said: "At no point did Boris admit to cheating in Buenos Aires. To the contrary, he said there was never any impropriety."

The incident nonetheless persuaded the governing bodies of bridge to tighten their rules. Players in world championships are now sat behind floor-to-ceiling screens and contracts are communicated via written cards to avoid all claims of impropriety.

The British and gamesmanship

Jenson Button and Bar Honda Formula One motor-racing

When Jenson Button came third in the San Marino race on the Imola circuit last month, Britain's hopes of Formula One success were revived. But the glory was to be shortlived.

During an inspection of Button's car in the paddock at Imola, it was found that it was running below the minimum weight limit. As a result, Button was forced to sit out of the Spanish Grand Prix as well as the pending Monaco Grand Prix. Button and his colleagues denied cheating, but Max Mosley, president of FIA, accused them of a "crude" bid to break the rules. The ban still stands and Button is fuming.

Geoff Hurst Football

He may have been a World Cup hero, scorer of a hat-trick to vanquish West Germany at Wembley in 1966, but Geoff Hurst was only human after all, apparently. His second "goal" in the '66 final might have been dubious, but that was only because it hit the bar and bounced out. When he scored West Ham's first against Sunderland in a league match two years later, there was a hullabaloo. Everyone in the red and white of the North-east club was convinced it wasn't exactly a legitimate header. Indeed, admitted Hurst later, it was a handball. For a nation outraged 18 years afterwards as Maradona's hand of God dumped England out of the World Cup, this perhaps is a salutary reminder it's not just Johnny Foreigner who tries it on when he can. Still, Hurst went on to score another five in an 8-0 win against Sunderland.

Donald Crowhurst Sailing

Things were looking bleak for 36-year-old Donald Crowhurst midway through the 1968 round-the-world Golden Globe yacht race. He was in a leaking trimaran with a broken bilge pump and a treacherous journey through the Southern Ocean lay ahead.

When he realised he was not going to make it, the sailor started to keep two log books - one recording the actual journey and another detailing a fictional route. Bogus radio reports also detailed his progress. Unfortunately, the fabricated log not only put Crowhurst in second place, but at one point he even appeared to have broken a world record when he claimed to have sailed 391km in a day. Aware that such progress would inviteintense scrutiny from the judges, Crowhurst suffered a breakdown on his solitary vessel.

After 111 days of radio silence, he wrote 25,000 frantic and confused words before abandoning ship and drowning in the Atlantic.

Major Charles Ingram Game show

When Major Charles Ingram appeared on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, few paid attention to the coughing of two members of the audience as he made his way towards his £1m fortune.

But it later emerged that the Major was being guided to the correct answers by the coughs of his wife, Diana, and a friend, Tecwen Whittock, a college lecturer.

Major Ingram changed his mind several times when coughs from Mr Whittock persuaded him he was wrong. On another occasion, Mrs Ingram could be heard coughing when her husband was asked who had a hit UK album Born To Do It. He gave the correct answer - Craig David - despite never having heard of the artist previously.

The producers suspected something was amiss and examined the tape. The disgraced major, his wife and friend were convicted of conspiracy to cheat the programme out of £1m in 2003.

'Mr Martin' Horse-racing

Wearing a top hat and calling himself Mr Martin, a mystery gentleman confidently strolled into the offices of The Sportsman newspaper on 1 August 1898. He asked the editor to publish the card of the Trodmore Hunt Steeplechase, to be held in Cornwall on August Bank Holiday Monday.

Impressed by the eloquent visitor, the editor agreed to print the card and publish the results, which Mr Martin promised to telegraph through.

A number of successful betters - presumably Mr Martin and his accomplices - made significant winnings at the bookies after backing the horse Reaper, at odds of 5-1. There was only one problem: the Trodmore Hunt Steeplechase did not exist and Mr Martin, the inventor of the phantom race, was never seen again.

Comments