The announcement in The Contract Bridge Bulletin was certainly mysterious. Leading by a substantial margin with only 32 boards of a 128-deal match remaining, Dr. Richard Katz and Lawrence Cohen, the outstanding pair on a five-man team hoping to represent the U.S. in October's World Championship, had withdrawn from the Trials in Houston because of "personal reasons," thus forfeiting the match to their opponents. In addition, said the Bulletin, Katz and Cohen also had resigned from the American Contract Bridge League. Period. It was as if Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan had quit the Cincinnati Reds after winning three games of the World Series, handing the championship to the New York Yankees.
News of the forfeit appeared in the newspapers of Jan. 10, a Monday. For exactly one week nothing more was reported. "We could have sat on it," says an ACBL official. "The whole thing might have died. Then that goddam Mathe had to open his mouth...."
Lew Mathe, a fiery Los Angeles bridge expert and former president of the ACBL, had been one of the tournament committee's five members in Houston. On Jan. 17 The New York Times carried a front-page story announcing that allegations of improprieties had been leveled against Katz and Cohen. Mathe was quoted as saying that they involved the conveying of "unauthorized information." In effect, the ACBL had accused Katz and Cohen of cheating. Those who follow the game had sensed scandal even in the earliest announcement. At a tournament in Toronto 10 years ago, the late Johnny Crawford, one of the top players of the '50s, had cautioned his teammates that they were up against a young pair who were "wired"—communicating with each other illegally. It was generally understood that the pair was Katz and Cohen. Three years ago Crawford made a speech before the ACBL's Board of Governors deploring cheating. He made several ill-disguised references to Katz and Cohen, and because he did it in an open forum, he was handed a 90-day suspension. "Sure, there have been rumors," says one prominent bridge expert. "But that's what the game is all about. One day at a tournament consists of three sessions and four rumors."
After the Times article there were two months of silence. Then at the spring national championships in Pasadena two weeks ago, Mathe, ACBL president Louis Gurvich and Don Oakie (another past president who had been a committee member in Houston) were handed a summons and complaint which stated that Katz and Cohen were suing the three officials, together with the ACBL itself, for defamation, interference with prospective business interests and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Reinstatement of the pair in the League was demanded. The amount of the lawsuit was in the neighborhood of $44 million.
"What we are fighting," says Ralph Jonas, attorney for both Katz and Cohen, "are the forces of a politically oriented, rich, powerful organization which seeks to control the business of bridge. They are out to hang these two kids. We have evidence that in 1974 Lew Mathe made a statement before members of a local ACBL committee in which he said that they would never play for the United States as long as he was a member of the board."
So what did happen in Houston?
Richard Katz, 35, and Lawrence Cohen, 34, have been playing bridge together since they were students at the University of Wisconsin. In 1966 they teamed to win the intercollegiate championships. They were a successful pair in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles, which provides the toughest competition in the country.
Katz, a general practitioner, has an office in Beverly Hills. Cohen has a degree in pharmacy, but he is in fact a bridge professional. For the last couple of years the two have often been members of the George Rosenkranz team; that is, players paid by Rosenkranz, a wealthy businessman from Mexico City, to help form winning teams. The Rosenkranz team, with Katz and Cohen an integral part, won the Vanderbilt and Spingold cups in 1976, thus twice qualifying for this year's Houston Trials. Opposing them, ironically, was the same squad of six players that in 1975 had narrowly lost to Italy in Bermuda, the championship that was disrupted by the revelation that two Italian players had been observed tapping each other's feet under the table.
The Trials were held at Houston's Shamrock Hilton and right from the beginning there was tension. The non-playing captain of the Rosenkranz team, John Gerber, felt that there were too many people unfriendly to him on the tournament committee and that rulings would likely go against his team.
No one has admitted that the committee went into the Trials mounting a specific guard against cheating, but it seems probable. Oakie says he didn't, but as an official timer—bridge has its own form of the 24-second clock—he was in excellent position to observe irregularities. Mathe told the Times that the committee was indeed on the lookout for cheating. Because the U.S. has accused Italy of cheating in the past, "The Italians would like nothing better than to catch us with our pants down," Mathe said.
At championship level there are often twice as many observers in a room as players. Bidding screens are now used in major league competition—curtains that run diagonally across the tables, preventing partners from seeing each other during the bidding. Furthermore, players no longer speak their bids themselves. Monitors call them off to the players on the other sides of the screens. Other officials in each room include the timer, a referee to make rulings and someone transmitting the bidding and play by microphone to an audience in a Viewgraph room in another part of the hotel. In short, the presence in a room of several experts other than the players is perfectly normal.
Even today none of the players who opposed Katz and Cohen in Houston will say he detected anything he would call irregular, though one does recall that Katz seemed to be hunched forward in his chair more than usual, a posture that would place his head close to the screen. "I just figured Richard was tense, really into the match," he says.
But downstairs in the Viewgraph room, where spectators could follow the play on a screen that reproduced the hands, Mathe was sitting in the front row jotting down notes on a pad. This was not normal. And Peter Pender, one of the commentators who explain the bidding and play to the audience, was becoming increasingly incensed at the number of curious plays made by Katz and Cohen. Finally a hand came up on which Katz and Cohen bid spades three times but the opponents wound up in three no trump. Cohen, who held four spades to the king and four clubs to the queen, was on lead. "I'll bet he leads a club," said Pender, who could see all four hands on the Viewgraph. Sure enough, Cohen did lead a club, though clubs had never been bid, and found Katz with the ace-king-jack-10 and another club. The defense rattled off the first five tricks.
"We're down even if they lead a spade," said Eddie Kantar, who with his partner Billy Eisenberg suffered the set. "But it was an unusual lead. They never seem to make a bad opening lead, at least not against us. Maybe they're just extraordinarily good opening leaders."
On Saturday night Lee Hazen, chief attorney for the ACBL, was at his Palm Beach, Fla. home when the phone rang. Richard Goldberg, general manager of the ACBL, was on the line. "He said he had something," Hazen recalls, preferring not to be any more specific. Goldberg asked Hazen if he thought the final 16-board session Saturday, due to start shortly, should be postponed. Hazen, though alarmed by the news, advised against it. He did suggest that the first Sunday session, scheduled for 11 a.m., be postponed. He then asked if Gerber had been advised of the development. Goldberg said no, that Gerber was asleep. "Well, wake him up," said Hazen.
Gerber was hardly asleep. He was in the Viewgraph room watching play when Goldberg and Gurvich informed him that the committee was ready to call a halt to the Trials; that it had evidence against two members of his team, Katz and Cohen. They asked Gerber what he thought they should do. "That's your decision," Gerber said.
Gerber was shown boards 56, 57 and 58 as examples of the evidence. "Ridiculous," says Gerber now. "There was nothing in the results, no magnificent bids or leads, no big swings, nothing that indicated anything suspicious."
Meanwhile, Hazen was holding nonstop phone conversations and making reservations to Houston. At dawn he took a cab from Palm Beach, caught a 7:30 flight to Houston and at 10 sharp walked into the lobby of the Shamrock Hilton. Gerber was there to meet him.
"Tell me one thing," said Gerber. "Can the police be the judge and jury?"
"No," said Hazen.
Gerber had already informed the boys, as he calls them. At eight o'clock he had phoned their ninth-floor suite—Katz' wife Pat and their young son were with them—and asked the two players to come up to his room, 1015. There he told them that the Trials had been postponed. Whether or not he told them then that they had been accused of cheating, none of the participants recalls.
A word about cheating in bridge. Any edge is a huge advantage. When two British players, Terence Reese and Boris Shapiro, were accused of cheating in the 1965 World Championships in Buenos Aires, the dispute involved finger signals to denote the number of cards in the heart suit. Just the number of cards in one suit. But give even an average player that information and it is a clear advantage. For an expert it means almost certain victory.
What Katz and Cohen were supposed to have been using is something called a sniff system, a method of transmitting messages through the curtain by non-verbal means—subtle sniffs, inhalations through the nostrils. Perhaps a cough.
"Have you ever heard anything more ludicrous," says Jonas, his voice rising. "Here they were, in a room with six of the best bridge players in the world, and you think they wouldn't notice?"
At one o'clock Gerber conducted a haggard Katz and Cohen into a conference room on the third floor of the hotel. "They looked like they were ready for the slaughterhouse," says one official. "Almost comatose."
There were seven others present in the room: Mathe, Gurvich, Oakie, Hazen, Goldberg, Roger Stern (the non-playing captain of the opposing team) and a man to keep a record. Someone pushed a piece of paper across the table. On it were written five words: The tournament has been canceled.
Gerber protested. "You can't just say that," he argued. "If you do you will stigmatize 13 people—11 players and two captains."
Katz, who was to do all the speaking for the accused pair at the confrontation, said, "Why beat around the bush? We're the only players here."
"The whole thing was like a Kafka sequence," says Jonas. " 'Wake up. You're guilty.' 'What are the charges?' 'Never mind.' "
The threesome, plus Stern, was told to leave the room while the committee discussed what course of action to take. When they were recalled an hour and a half later, the two players were told the committee had decided to charge them with violation of Part 2, Section B of the Proprieties of Bridge Law, which deals with improper communication. Katz would have none of that. "What would this do to my family?" he asked. "It would destroy my medical practice, my in-laws." Then he asked for a hearing, even though it was pointed out to him that his accusers would be on the jury. The motion was denied. Throughout all of these discussions, which lasted most of the afternoon, there was at no time any disclosure by the committee as to what the actual method of cheating was supposed to have been. "Even now they haven't told the boys what they were supposed to be guilty of," says Jonas.
It was Stern, the opposing captain, who finally settled the matter. Earlier, Katz and Cohen had asked to speak with him, because he is a lawyer. After conferring at length with the two accused players, Stern returned to say that Katz and Cohen had agreed to withdraw from the tournament and from the ACBL for personal reasons. In return the League would remain silent and perhaps the whole matter would go unnoticed.
"Let me tell you about that session with Mr. Stern," says Jonas. "Remember, he's a lawyer. He had them in a room for a long time. Their heads were spinning."
Now, two months after Houston, the world of bridge is in a tizzy. "We were not out for blood," Mathe has been quoted as saying. "All we wanted to do was get the thing settled in as clean a way as possible." There is no chance of that now. The ACBL must answer the defamation suit and is considering a countersuit. Katz is practicing medicine in Beverly Hills, and his wife is expecting their second child. But Larry Cohen is finding it difficult to find work at the bridge table. "It's still hard for me to understand all the things that happened so quickly," he recently wrote a friend.
"The whole thing is a shame," says one longtime expert, a man who goes all the way back to the days of Ely Culbertson. "Bridge is such a wonderful game. What a pity that the only time it makes headlines is when something like this happens."