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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Cohen, the outstanding pair on a five-man team hoping to represent the U.S. in October's World Championship, had withdrawn from the Trials in Houston because of "personal reasons," thus forfeiting the match to their opponents.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.