The joke circulating in the lobby of the Southampton Princess in Bermuda last week was that when the Italians wrapped up another world championship of bridge—which they did with a heroic, come-from-behind finish—the orchestra at the victory banquet would play Cole Porter's I Get a Kick Out of You. Italy, it was noted, is shaped like a boot, and midway through the stormy tournament, Alfred Sheinwold, the captain of the all-U.S. North American team, received a telegram from Eric Murray, the Canadian expert, offering his services. "I play a reasonable game," wired Murray, "and take a size 14 shoe."
Italy had the championship again, its 15th in the last 18 years, but the U.S. contingent felt that Italy had also cheated again, this time employing a little footsie under the table. During the uproar that this accusation caused, tempers on both sides flared, and it seemed for a time as if the tournament might have to be disbanded. Eventually play continued, but to the end there remained an unpleasant coolness between the U.S. and Italian camps.
The final match was as wild and as nerve-racking as the game can get. With their marvelous pair of Benito Garozzo and Giorgio Belladonna, the Italians had played so impeccably early in the week that it seemed impossible they could lose, especially since the Americans had looked lackluster at best. But, surprisingly, the U.S. team moved out in front of them in the first session, increasing its lead to 46 and then to 72 international match points by the time half the 96 boards had been played. A laugher.
Then the Italian machine began to purr and the U.S. faltered, bidding slam where only game was possible and stopping at game when slam was possible. The lead shrank to 46 and then to 24 going into the final 16-board session. Before a packed audience, the Italians went ahead at board 86 and won going away. All over the room happy Italians sobbed hysterically and kissed each other. Italy had done it again.
February 10, 1975
Now back to those feet. For years it had been whispered that, good as they were, some Italian pairs were cheating. Just how, no one was certain, but one thing causing suspicion was the remarkable number of killing leads made by the Italians when no such leads were called for from the bidding. After the 1958 championships, America's volatile Tobias Stone flatly declared the Italians had cheated. He was censured for his remarks and banned from the next national tournament. Since then others have been more cautious, but last summer Freddie Sheinwold wrote an article for a bridge magazine intimating the same thing. The Italians, furious, called for Sheinwold's ouster as captain. When it was finally ruled that the U.S. could choose whomever it wanted, Garozzo said he would wait in the lobby of the Southampton Princess and take a punch at Sheinwold when he arrived. He did not, but neither did he shake hands.
On the first evening of play a Philadelphia newspaperman named Bruce Keidan offered to monitor one of the matches. He and a Bermuda bridge official were assigned to France vs. Italy, represented by Gianfranco Facchini and Sergio Zucchelli. The Italian team was not considered as strong as some in the past, with only the devastating Garozzo and Belladonna remaining from the old Blue Team, but Facchini and Zucchelli had recently scored some uncanny victories in big-money European events.
Keidan took his position at a corner of the table and began to record the bids and play on his side. Suddenly, on board three, he was astonished to see Facchini's right foot move forward and press down firmly—once, twice—on Zucchelli's left shoe. "There was absolutely no doubt in my mind it was intentional," Keidan said later. "Apart from everything else, what do you do if your feet are planted on the floor underneath a table and someone steps on them? You move them. Zucchelli never moved."
In addition to performing his official duties, Keidan began recording the foot movements of the Italian pair, or rather Facchini's movements, since Zucchelli never altered his position. On board seven Facchini did it again, a slight tap this time but a solid hit nonetheless. Four more times in the 16-board session Facchini's foot moved forward, and when play was over, Keidan found Bobby Wolff, one of the U.S. players, and told him that he wanted to meet with Sheinwold and Edgar Kaplan, a longtime U.S. expert and a member of the appeals committee, later that evening. Keidan, meanwhile, had to go back to monitor another session of the elimination round.
At 3 a.m., Keidan went to the American team suite with Kaplan and Wolff and there described to the American captain the Facchini-Zucchelli footplay. "When Bruce told me what he had witnessed I could believe it," recalls Sheinwold. "Earlier that evening, down in the view-graph room, we had watched Facchini open the 10 of spades from a holding of 10, nine, five, three when he also held four clubs to the queen, jack, nine. The club queen is the more natural lead with no bidding to guide you, but Facchini chose the spade 10 and found his partner with the ace, king. The lead was inexplicable. Finally there was an explanation."
There followed 24 hours of secret meetings and whispered conversations as World Bridge Federation officials attempted to slip reliable witnesses into the room where the two Italians were playing, without arousing suspicion. Federation President Julius Rosenblum watched several hands and emerged to say he found nothing conclusive. Other observers noticed more. Jim O'Sullivan of Australia, a member of the federation board, had been a staunch defender of Italian integrity and had publicly called the Americans paranoid for their previous accusations. What he saw upset him so much that he left the room and was sick to his stomach.
The Italian and American teams were scheduled to play on Sunday evening, and some American advisers felt the news should be suppressed until after the match so that European members of the federation could have a chance to watch the Italian pair before the Italians learned of the discovery and began keeping their feet to themselves. But bridge folk are among the world's great gossips, and so on Sunday afternoon the news exploded around the lobby of the hotel and ultimately around the world.
After postponing the Italy-U.S. match until Monday afternoon, members of the federation gathered in a boardroom off the lobby to debate whether or not Facchini and Zucchelli were guilty and, if so, what action to take.
Meanwhile, in its rooms, the U.S. team was deciding that if the Italian pair was not barred from the rest of the tournament and matches already played forfeited, it would pack and go home.
At 3:30 a.m. the federation meeting adjourned and Rosenblum emerged to read a statement saying "...it was resolved after hearing voluminous testimony that Gianfranco Facchini and Sergio Zucchelli be severely reprimanded for improper conduct with respect to actions of Mr. Facchini moving his feet unnaturally and touching his partner's feet during the auction and before the opening lead." Translation: "Yes, they did it but this is a very embarrassing situation and we think the best thing to do is forget it happened and hope it goes away."
The U.S. team was naturally incensed, especially since "severely reprimanded" meant no penalty at all. The Americans issued a statement saying that they endorsed the verdict of guilty but deplored the failure of the federation to bar the Italian pair. This in turn angered the Italians, who pointed out that the official statement had never used the word "guilty."
Ironically, this was to have been one world championship in which cheating would be impossible. Or nearly so. Specially constructed bidding screens spanned the tables diagonally so that a player could not see his partner and only one of his opponents. A red velvet screen was drawn shut during the bidding and until after the opening lead, whereupon it was pulled open, much like the start of a puppet show. As a further precaution, the players were not to utter a word while bidding. Hesitation in bidding is among the more sophisticated forms of cheating. The opponents bid one spade. Silence. Then a pass. How long was that silence? One second? Three? Five? Practiced partnerships are as precise in their timing as Kenny Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff. A two-second pause can mean one thing, three another.
And so little boxes containing every possible bid were attached to the tables in front of each player. North would study his hand, reach into his box and produce a one-heart symbol. He would show it to East, who would consider his hand and then pull out a green card with "pass" written on it. Only then, in carefully expressionless tones, would the monitor at the corner of the table announce both bids, so that if one of the players had deliberated at length, the players on the other side of the screen theoretically would not know which of the two had taken so long.
With these guards against hanky-panky, the American team felt it had a reasonable chance to win. It was, in the opinion of other U.S. experts on the scene, only a fair team. But the bridge world is a catty one and "other" experts almost always feel there are better players available—themselves.
Of the six U.S. players, the two Bobs from Dallas—Hamman and Wolff—were considered the steadiest pair. In Bermuda, Wolff acted as a sort of unofficial captain during the cheating crisis while Hamman was the team wit. When one player justified his not bidding a slam because it depended on a finesse to succeed, Hamman shouted, "My God, life is a finesse." There was also the bearded Bill Eisenberg, who had just won the world championship of backgammon and who was to play the best bridge of the U.S. team. His partner was Eddie Kantar, the bridge teacher and writer. The last pair was John Swanson and Paul Soloway, a partnership of such uneven temperaments and bridge-playing tempos that it threatened to become totally unraveled midway through the tournament.
After the six-day round-robin had eliminated Brazil from the competition, Italy faced Indonesia in one semifinal while the U.S. and France met in the other. In the early going Indonesia was ahead, but eventually Italy moved into such a commanding lead that Garozzo and Belladonna were rested for the last session. The U.S.-French semifinal was a hair-raiser. The U.S. held the lead through three quarters, but in the last 16 boards France closed the gap. In one room, when Kantar misjudged a situation, his partner Eisenberg, in an attempt to show he had not lost his cool, stuck a piece of gum in his mouth and tried to light it with a match. The Americans emerged winners by 12 IMPs.
In the final, along with Garozzo and Belladonna, Italy started Facchini and Zucchelli—the foot soldiers, as the U.S. team now called them. Sheinwold threatened to send his team home—it had been rumored that the "reprimand" statement included a suggestion that the two would not play against the U.S. The Italians accused Sheinwold of waging a war of nerves and even some Americans began to refer to Sheinwold as Woody Hayes.
In any case, Facchini and Zucchelli were ineffective and were replaced by Vito Pittala and Arturo Franco. Once, the peerless Garozzo wandered into a three-no-trump contract and 500 people in the view-graph room could see that Eisenberg held eight clubs headed by the ace-king-queen-jack. When the bidding was over and Eisenberg was about to lead, he slowly showed his hand to Garozzo and smiled. The Italian went down five. But Garozzo had the final smile. On one of the last hands of the match, with Italy now ahead, he bid a grand slam with cards on which the other U.S. team had bid and made six no trump. Belladonna was playing the hand and when he saw the dummy he gagged visibly. It contained the ace-queen of trumps double-ton and he himself was missing five trumps including the king. To make the contract he needed to find the king doubleton of trumps to his left, precisely that. Which is the way it was. Had the king been to his right, or had it been a tripleton, the swing would have been 29 IMPs, enough to give the U.S. the world championship by three. But as Bob Hamman would be the first to say, life is a finesse. It also helps if you are fast on your feet.