SI Vault
Walter Bingham
February 10, 1975
Shock waves went out after an Italian pair was caught playing footsie at the world bridge championships. When only a reprimand followed, the American team seethed, but the old Blues won again
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February 10, 1975

Bidding With A Kick

Shock waves went out after an Italian pair was caught playing footsie at the world bridge championships. When only a reprimand followed, the American team seethed, but the old Blues won again

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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.

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.

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