Barnet Shenkin

Scandal in Buenos Aires Conclusion by Barnet Shenkin prev/next

One of the World’s leading monthly bridge publications “The Bridge World” (USA based), published in 1965 articles about the event and invited Rixie Markus to give the opinions of the English bridge community. The editor, Alfonse Moyse Jr., received a number of letter from Mrs Markus, one of the World’s best ever woman players. She was a good friend of both of the accused and, although she had not actually been in Buenos Aires, defended them stoically. The magazine published some of her comments which included the following sentence “How can I ever play for my country where my captain becomes a part of a conspiracy to convict me of a crime.” Ralph Swimer, the captain, did not receive this and other remarks well and when she would not withdraw them or apologise started a libel action. The case came to court in February 1969. At this action Swimer reaffirmed his earlier views. During this trial the famous letter described earlier was opened and read. This is where Swimer tells of Schapiro’s alleged confession in a walk in the park. Swimer had then addressed the letter to himself. The London Times quoted from the case. Mr Swimer said  ”I saw them cheating with my own eyes“. When asked “are you absolutely sure you saw Reese and Schapiro  cheating“ he replied “Absolutely”. The jury had to decide whether the remarks against Mr Swimer were defamatory. While it appeared to observers that the judge leaned towards Swimer, the jury was unable to come to a unanimous verdict, which was required under English law. The costs of the action were some 26000 pounds, a very substantial sum in these days and were shared by Ralph Swimer and Mrs Markus. Swimer decided not to pursue the matter but there is no question that his whole life, of which bridge was a very big part had been changed forever.

In June 2005 David Rex-Taylor wrote an article published in many countries, and referred to in many national newspapers, including the New York Times. For a long period of time, Rex-Taylor was the editor of the International Bridge Press Association. He said, his close friend, Terence Reese had privately told him what had really happened. He said the conversation started after his referring to the comment allegedly made by Schapiro to Swimer. “That evil man made me do it.” Rex - Taylor substitutes the word “wicked “for “evil.”  Reese started by saying “hardly fair comment by Boris, wickedness didn’t come into it.” The story was only to be revealed forty years after the incident, and after the deaths of both Reese and Schapiro. According to his account, Reese was researching a book into cheating that he was going to have published. Rex - Taylor writes about Reese ”He persuaded a reluctant Schapiro that, as world champions, it would be quite unthinkable that they would cheat, that no one would be even paying attention to such an idea, and that in any event, absolutely no signaled information would be used in any way whatsoever during the actual play…."

“A reluctant Boris finally agreed, strictly on the understanding  that the whole exercise be revealed in full detail in the book on cheating, with analysis to prove  that they had both acted honourably throughout the play of the hands, as if they had no prior knowledge of the heart distribution, so confirming their worthy innocent objective  and secondly, that publication be a priority--- Although judged not guilty in the UK at a hearing widely considered flawed by blatant cherry- picking of both evidence and witnesses, elsewhere the pair were proven guilty. -Reese could not reveal the true explanation at the time as the very objective of his extraordinary operation- effectively an author’s failed publicity stunt- had so spectacularly back-fired in abject failure. Pleading anything but innocence was therefore not an option for either player."

So, as requested, after forty years, I have provided a mouthpiece in order for Terence Reese to explain these exceptional matters to the world from beyond the grave. He was unrepentant.

If you assume that the Terence Reese – David Rex – Taylor incident happened, as described, it would then be a question for the reader to make up their mind if the explanation is believable. As far as the observations and photographs are concerned the story would fit. As far as the analysis of the bridge hands is concerned, each side put up arguments whether Reese and Schapiro used knowledge of the heart suit to their advantage. If it had been known at the time that the signals were being exchanged, this would have likely been looked at differently. Should they have not been taking advantage of the signals, it would be reasonable to assume that some of these examples would not have occurred. In any event it is absolutely against the rules of bridge to exchange any signals regardless of whether they are used for benefit. What of Ralph Swimer, and his story of Schapiro’s confession, which would certainly be given much more credence if Rex- Taylor’s story is believed? It would seem unthinkable and illogical, that Schapiro would not have offered this explanation at the time, if in fact he had confessed to his captain and the explanation was true. If true, Swimer would have been entitled to win his libel action and be saved from the ensuing part of his life, where he suffered taunts and ostracism from members in the other camp.

Terence Reese, Britain’s most famous bridge player, stopped playing after 1970. After captaining the British team to a bronze medal in 1976, he then retired absolutely from the game. He spent much of his time playing backgammon, which he enjoyed but was a very average player. He played the game he was a master of no more, but continued writing. He died in 1996.

Boris Schapiro continued to play, inside Great Britain, in national tournaments. In 1998 he won the Gold Cup - the main British Championship for the eleventh time. He was 89 at the time, an age record. In the same year he won the World Senior Pairs Championship in Lille France. He is believed to be the oldest person ever to have won a major title in any game or sport. Schapiro was very impulsive and was often outrageous with his choice of words. His friends attributed this to his particular sense of humour and if it was misdirected would usually be laughed off. Boris was the journalist for the Sunday Times. He organized for many years an International Pairs event, in conjunction with The British Bridge League. Originally called the Sunday Times, later it was sponsored and called the Macallan. Many of the games top stars came to play from around the world. I was fortunate to be invited on five occasions from 1976 on and to win twice. In the early seventies my late father Louis and I were visiting London to watch the tournament. It was a reverent scene- the players all wore tuxedos. Boris had a white one. He usually chose a different partner to play with each year, either a friend from Britain or top European player. On this occasion he was playing with another top British player. The players were seated, and there were a few spectators around them. My father and I strolled over to Boris, and my father asked quite innocently. “What system are you playing Boris?” He instantly got the reply from Boris "We are playing the hearts Louis, playing the hearts!!!".

Boris Schapiro died in 2002 without ever admitting to any guilt in the Buenos Aires Affair. He denied “confessing” to his captain at the time and Sir John Foster chose to believe him and not Swimer.

In 2004 Alan Truscott brought out a second edition of his book “The Great Bridge Scandal." In it he introduces a number of different instances and accounts where the ethics of Reese are severely questioned. One main instance is from the World Olympiad in Turin in 1960. Here, an American, Don Oakie (a member of their laws committee) being suspicious of Reese and Schapiro, had watched them for a session taking notes. Oakie  alleged, that as well as both players holding their cards showing a different number of fingers on the back, they changed holding their cards from the left hand to the right hand. Oakie alleged this also had a meaning as to the strength of their hand. Truscott agreed, and showed a correlation in the fingers being displayed, and the number of hearts held, exactly similar to the code he said they used in Buenos Aires. Here, Truscott shows that if the facts were correct, the signals Reese allegedly admitted in conversation to David Rex-Taylor using, were in force five years earlier.

As for holding the cards in different hands, personally, I cannot imagine a world class bridge player making himself a target for accusation by continually switching the hand in which he held his cards. I believe both Reese and Schapiro to be far too astute to employ such easily detectable methods. It does   though make you wonder why they would hold their cards in different hands, or if the story was true.

As far as making the game of bridge a cleaner game by reducing the potential for cheating, there is no doubt that the Buenos Aires Affair prompted changes to be made. In 1975, the World Bridge Federation introduced the use of screens. In World Championship play, each player sits on the same side of a screen as an opponent and cannot see their partner at all during the bidding and only the cards being played during the play. These days it is not unknown, for the two opponents to enjoy some camaraderie, at the expense of a partner on the other side of the screen. Using a pencil and paper the players write explanations of the bidding. I have seen a player write, “My partner is crazy he must have forgotten the system."

A final story.In the late1990s, my wife Maggie and I, were invited to a wedding at a nice hotel in London. It was a strange wedding for us, in that the men sat together and the women sat together. I had sitting on my left Boris Schapiro. When it came to the dessert he turned to me, and said quite out of the blue. “You know Barnet, your father thought Terence and I were guilty of cheating.” I replied “ A lot of people did Boris, not just my father.” He leaned over to me and continued in his way, “Well I am the only person left alive who knows the truth, what do you think of that?” Taking this as an invitation I took the bait, "Well Boris do you want to set the record straight, with me anyway?” He leaned over to my side and went as if to whisper in my ear. Anyone familiar with Boris Schapiro, would not be surprised to hear, that what I heard was a not unfamiliar expression- a phrase containing a word not to be found anywhere in the English dictionary. Too bad I had missed the opportunity for a scoop.

There is no doubt if there is an afterlife Terence Reese and Boris Schapiro will be playing bridge in a cardroom somewhere. It is up to the reader to form their own opinion and guess the location of the cardroom.

Dlr: East
Vul: N-S
N♠Q 10
♥K 10 7
♦9 8 7 4
♣K J 7 4
W♠J 6 5
♥6 5
♦J 3 2
♣10 9 8 6 5
  E♠A 9 8 7 2
♥9 2
♦K Q 10 5
♣A 3
  S♠K 4 3
♥A Q J 8 4 3
♦A 6
♣Q 2
     1♠  X
 2♥ !!!

So Schapiro made a quite extraordinary call of 2 ♥ opposite a passed partner. The bid would normally show 4 or five cards in the heart suit ! The prosecution said it was no coincidence that his partner held only two hearts in his hand and so there was no possibilty of their bidding overboard in hearts and going for a large penalty. Reese in his book said at favorable colours he would have "been alive to the possibility"  that the 2 ♥ bid was not genuine. Also that he could have called 2 ♥ himself without risk. He would have known partner held just two. And so all the hands exhibited had arguments and counter arguments. For me this was the most remarkable hand.

A hand  from Buenos Aires. Here Reese shows 3 fingers on the backs of the cards and has three hearts. The British Captain, Ralph Swimer looks on sitting in Reese’s left and is taking notes. Look how immaculately the players are dressed in 1965. You don’t see that these days. Source: The Great Bridge Scandal.

A hand from Buenos Aires. Here Reese shows 3 fingers on the backs of the cards and has three hearts. The British Captain, Ralph Swimer looks on sitting in Reese’s left and is taking notes. Look how immaculately the players are dressed in 1965. You don’t see that these days. Source: The Great Bridge Scandal.

Letter from Sir John thanking my father for gift of wine sent by the BBL as a small token for 15 months work which was performed free of charge.

Letter from Sir John thanking my father for gift of wine sent by the BBL as a small token for 15 months work which was performed free of charge.

My father’s notes working on the press announcement.

My father’s notes working on the press announcement.

Above from page 8 of the Foster Report.

Above from page 8 of the Foster Report.

The final paragraph of the Foster Report. Note signed with a blue pen by Sir John Foster and Lord Bourne. This is the original copy from 1966.

The final paragraph of the Foster Report. Note signed with a blue pen by Sir John Foster and Lord Bourne. This is the original copy from 1966.

Sources for this article:

  1. The Great Bridge Scandal - Alan Truscott, Masterpoint Press
  2. Story of an Accusation - Terence Reese, Heinemann London
  3. The Foster Report - Sir John Foster and Lord Bourne
  4. Papers of Louis Shenkin


The Great Bridge Scandal can be obtained from me at a price of  $21-95 + p and p.  A copy of the original Foster Report ( 11 pages) can be added for $10. email