Former Bear CEO Jimmy Cayne at center of bridge scandal

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Bridge cheaters take center stage

As the financial crisis simmered, Bear Stearns Chief Executive Jimmy Cayne's love of bridge drew him away from the office at critical times. Eight years, a job departure and one whistleblower later, the cerebral card game is again causing him public headaches.

Late in August, two of Cayne's teammates on the competitive bridge circuit, Lotan Fisher and Ron Schwartz, were accused of cheating, casting doubt on the legitimacy of a key tournament victory.

A nasty fight has since erupted between the rival who made the allegations and the pair he is targeting. The 81-year-old Cayne, who fellow players say paid the accused players for their participation on his team, has offered to forfeit a long-sought championship title the group won if they are found culpable.

It's an unusually public contretemps in the sleepy world of bridge, a sport favored by sharp logicians that often resurrects images of grandmothers and great aunts and rarely makes headlines beyond the game's fan sites. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are both avid players, but they don't frequent the competitive scene, where Cayne—who left his job at Bear Stearns just months before the firm's collapse in 2008—is among the biggest names.

And Cayne isn't the only sponsor to face allegations of teammate misconduct.

In recent weeks, four other prominent players have also been fingered as cheaters: No. 1 and No. 2 ranked players Fulvio Fantoni and Claudio Nunes, members of the Monaco team who have so far declined to comment on the accusations; and German team players Josef Piekarek and Alex Smirnov, who have admitted to "some ethical violations" and have dropped out of the upcoming Bermuda Bowl, a highly anticipated matchup that starts Saturday in Chennai, India.

Several bridge organizations are investigating the allegations against the six players, and the World Bridge Federation, the governing body of international competition, has threatened action against any proven cheaters.

Cayne himself does not stand accused of cheating, but the issues his two players now face have dealt at least a temporary strategic blow. That's because of the structure of top-ranked bridge teams, many of which are sponsored by a single, deep-pocketed player who hires other talent to participate in groups of six individuals.

Cayne can play on a team of four without Fisher or Schwartz, or replace them with one or more players in upcoming tournaments, say other players, but top teammates can prove elusive at this point in the bridge year, which starts in earnest during the summer, when new groups are often formed.

For their part, the top-ranked Monaco team players, Fantoni and Nunes, have said little publicly about their predicament.

"We will not comment on allegations at this time reserving our rights to reply in a more appropriate setting," reads a Sept. 14 post placed on the website fulviofantoni.com, which describes itself as Fantoni's official website. (Fantoni has not responded to a direct message posted on his site, and Nunes could not be reached.)