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Keith Strudler: Cheating At Bridge

The last time I played bride ended badly. It was probably some 25 or 30 years ago, and I was playing, not surprisingly, with my grandmother. My knowledge of bridge was hazy at best. But in this final bridge game, I ended up teaming with my father, who also didn’t really know how to play, and against my grandmother, who was something of an expert, and my mom. My dad and I basically decided the only way to win was kind of cheat by sending signals to each other. That did go over really well with the rest of the family, and the game ended in one giant argument that seemed to last for most of the rest of the vacation we were on. With that, I decided it was best that I retire from the bridge circuit and focus my efforts on more constructive pursuits, like mahjong.

So when I read last week that the World Bridge Federation suspended top bridge athlete Geir Helgemo for taking banned substance, I was in no way surprised. If I had to play bridge every day like he does, I’d need to take something as well. Helgemo, and I apologize to the entire bridge community for mispronunciations as well as all general mischaracterizations of the sport, is now suspended until November for testing positive for synthetic testosterone and Clomifene, which apparently is an infertility drug. As luck would have it, Helgemo is currently serving an unrelated prison term in Norway for tax fraud. So this suspension may have come at an opportune moment.

Bridge as a sport, and I won’t get into the technical definition of sport, because it’s recognized by the International Olympic Committee is overseen by the World Anti-Doping Agency, just like cycling and track and swimming are. Which means it’s competitors have to steer clear of the same banned substance list that sprinters might use to get faster and stronger. And for the record, chess follows the same rules. Just in case you’re curious.

Helgemo says he didn’t intentionally take the banned substances, but assume it happened through a weight loss substance he was taking. Obviously, as a skilled professional athlete, we’d expect him to know better. I assume all other bridge competitors will take notice. And I think I speak for the majority who will be thrilled to finally see clean bridge played in its pure form. Like everyone, I only hope we can trust in the integrity of bridge records, whatever they may be.

Now, there is an obvious question here. That is, why would I or anyone care if someone playing bridge is taking steroids? Assuming there’s not a new part of the sport that measures physical strength, I can’t imagine it helps.  I’d guess that like 99% of the things on that banned list won’t make anyone a better bridge or chess player. I’d even guess that side effects like wild mood swings might even seem counterproductive in a sport that requires some measure of calm. Now, I would imagine that there are some things that might help a bridge player through days of concentration. Like caffeine, and whatever college kids use to make it through final exams and fraternity rush. Many if not most of those are also banned, at least in quantity. But subjecting bridge players to the same generic testing as an Olympic weight lifter feels wrong.

But perhaps it also gets to the larger question about performance enhancing drugs and elite athletes. It’s not simply whether bridge players should be tested for testosterone and fertility drugs. It’s whether any athlete should, card playing or not. The issue of Geir Helgemo isn’t all that dissimilar to those of many elite competitors, as odd as that might seem. It’s an issue about the role of maintaining a sense of purity to competition in a world where man and technology increasingly operate in a single silo. There are countless things that athletes can do to make themselves better at their sport. Some of them, like practice, are clearly legal. Others, like steroids, not so much. And that’s supposed to have some rationale behind it, whether it be how natural the supplement is or the extent to which the sport maintains its human integrity. It’s a recognition of the sociological place in which sport exists, where it’s not simply a series of tasks, but a constant negotiation in the context of time, place, and technology. That’s how Geir Helgemo ended up banned from bridge. Not because he took something that’s going to make him better at bridge – and certainly not better at legally doing his taxes – but because it violated a negotiated norm. Perhaps that’s simply the reality of sport, something that will become more and more challenging in a world of ones and zeros, where e-sport may eclipse its human counterpart. I’d simply suggest that perhaps it shouldn’t always be that way.

Does that mean I favor the steroid Olympics – a former Saturday Night Live skit, by the way. I don’t know. But I don’t know that keeping bridge and track athletes on the sidelines for taking something that may or may not help is a long term strategy either. I suppose like anything, the answer is, it’s complicated.

Fortunately for me, I don’t really have to worry about it. My bridge career ended long, long ago.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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