In the words of World Bridge Federation, it was “reprehensible conduct” of the highest order. By dint of carefully timed coughs, two German doctors cheated their way to the pinnacle of this most genteel of card games.
After a two-day hearing in a Dallas hotel last week, the game’s governing body declared that Michael Elinescu, 61, and Entscho Wladow, 71, had deployed subterfuge in the shape of a system of coded coughs to win the bridge world finals during a fiercely-contested tournament in Bali last year.
In a judgment which demolishes the image of bridge as a high-minded pursuit unsullied by trickery, the WBF found the Germans, both medical doctors, had broken law 73B of the game. It states: “The gravest possible offence is for a partnership to exchange information through prearranged methods of communication.”
As a result, Dr Elinescu and Dr Wladow (whose conduct is reminiscent of Charles Ingram, the “Coughing Major” who was convicted of using coughs to cheat on the “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” game show) face the ignominy of being stripped of the gold medals they won against American opponents last September. They have also been banned from playing any other WBF fixture together for life and must serve a 10-year ban from playing individually.
But rather than draw a line under an inglorious episode, the disciplinary hearing has sparked further strife after the German Bridge Federation (DBV) said its two star players were considering an appeal against the decision and there was an innocent explanation for their spluttering.
In documents addressed to the WBF, the DBV said that far from cheating, its two team members had fallen foul of the humid Bali weather and an ineffectual air conditioning unit which had left most tournament players with a cough.
Ulrich Wenning, president of the DBV, wrote: “It has to be taken into consideration that - in consequence of the climatic conditions in Bali and the very low regulated air conditioner - almost every participant of the tournament was affected for health reasons which caused that there were permanently sounds of coughing in the tournament hall.”
The DBV added that Dr Wladow in particular suffers from an asthmatic cough and the conditions in Bali had therefore been “extraordinarily irksome”.
In a further letter, the German body said its own internal investigation had found no evidence of cheating. It added: “Dr Wladow and Dr Elinescu [affirmed] unmistakably to us that the allegation they are accused of do not apply and were not committed by them.”
To add to the strained relations between the German bridge fraternity and the WBF, the two doctors had already refused to travel to Dallas to attend the hearing, claiming that they would not receive a fair trial because both the presiding chairman and the WBF prosecutor were Americans.
The extraordinary clash has its roots in the final stages of the D’Orsi World Senior Bowl, the blue riband event of international bridge, when the two German’s American opponents, who now stand to be named world champions, voiced suspicions and the tournament referee arranged for the secret monitoring and video surveillance of the match.
The WBF’s 16-page report on the incident concluded that the two Germans, veterans of the world bridge circuit for 20 years, had perfected a system for indicating to each other whether they had two or fewer cards in a particular suit or a “shortage”, and which suit was affected.
It also found that there was a separate code to decide the “preferred lead” or suit, which is decided before a hand is played and would therefore confer an unfair advantage on the German players.
The ruling, which also underlined there was no suggestion of wrongdoing by the DBV or other players involved in the tournament, said: “We are satisfied so that we are sure that Michael Elinescu and Entscho Wladow systematically communicated with each other by coughing to convey information… These communications were intended to obtain an unfair advantage and were contrary to the spirit and laws of the game of bridge.”