I have an article in this past week's New Yorker about a major cheating scandal in bridge, a card game that has a number of thought-provoking similarities to golf. The player who is mainly responsible for exposing the scandal hopes that bridge will respond, in part, by becoming more like golf, the only major sport in which players call penalties on themselves, and not at all like football, in which a running back would be considered almost negligent if he didn't try to shove the ball a few inches farther forward after being tackled. (Imagine a lineman tapping a referee on the shoulder, and saying, "Excuse me. I was holding on that play.")
One of people I interviewed was Larry Cohen, a leading player and teacher, and the author of one of my favorite bridge books:
Cohen is also an enthusiastic golfer, with a handicap of 11. I didn't have room to quote what he said to me about ethics, golf, and bridge, but I liked it a lot, and he said I could share it here:
"On the golf course, there are many times you can do the 'wrong' or 'right' thing. Many years ago, I once took what was probably too liberal a ruling for myself (the ball was borderline out of bounds and I played it). After, I felt terrible. Had I cheated my friends? Myself? What good was it to save a good score on the hole when I was haunted after by what I had done. Never again. I find it so much easier to sleep at night when I play ethically. This has always been routine for me at bridge, and now I have learned to do the same at golf. Life is so much better and satisfying that way. I can’t imagine how horrible it must feel (most people have a conscience, no?) when they win by doing something unethical. But not everyone sees the light. To gain (often financially, if not through the 'joy of winning'), there is a temptation to 'bend the rules' in your favor. I am not a psychologist, so I don’t know how the mind works of those who 'do wrong' in golf or bridge. If only they knew how good it felt once you do things the 'right way.'"
Cohen, incidentally, leads several bridge cruises every year -- ocean cruises during which participants spend much of their time at sea learning and playing bridge. How about a bridge-and-golf cruise? Golf by day, on fabulous courses at ports of call all over the world, then bridge till dawn.
And, for those who are interested in bridge already, here's a video, made by a British web designer, that does a good job of explaining what two of the suspected players were doing:
For my New Yorker article, I also spoke with Bob Hamman, who is now in his 70s and is widely considered to have been one of the best bridge players ever. I didn't mention this in the article, but he’s also the C.E.O. of SCA Promotions, a Dallas-based company that, among other things, sells hole-in-one insurance and provides risk protection for corporations that have sponsorship agreements. “A golf-club manufacturer might have a golfer under contract,” he told me, "and the contract might include a significant bonus for a victory in a major tournament. For a fee, our company will assume that risk, and now the manufacturer can root for its sponsored golfer without any mixed emotions.”
SCA’s clients in the past have included the United States Postal Service, which sponsored the American cycling team for a number of years. Lance Armstrong had already won the Tour de France twice when the post office approached SCA, and his contract entitled him to escalating bonuses for additional victories. “My son, Chris, who is in the business with me, strongly recommended against taking the Armstrong deal,” Hamman told me, “but why should I listen to anybody?” When Armstrong continued to win, SCA had to cover millions of dollars in incentive payments. Armstrong finally confessed to (some of his) cheating, after being stripped of his Tour de France titles, in 2013, and last year an arbitrator ruled that he had to pay back most of what the post-office deal had cost SCA.
Golf has never suffered a scandal like that -- and for good reason.