The first thing you need to know about Daniel Sivan’s feature documentary Dirty Tricks, premiering as part of the Hot Docs festival, is that the title is a pun.
You see, it’s about a cheating scandal in the world of elite bridge and, of course, a “trick” is the standard competitive unit in the game — as it is in hearts, spades and euchre.
That, it turns out, is actually all you probably need to know going in. Bridge gives the impression of being impenetrable — a game you can’t master unless you’re wealthy enough to have idle time or you’ve had decades of life experience building up to a regular game in well-earned retirement, like my grandmother, your grandmother and everybody else’s grandmother. With Dirty Tricks, Sivan is determined to strip away all barriers to entry, so much so that there’s a good chance you won’t come away from Dirty Tricks knowing anything more about bridge than when you started. But you likely will have had enough fun not to stress out that a much more nuanced version of this story could have been told.
Sivan introduces the game through designated celebrity player Isaac Mizrahi and an ultra-rudimentary primer that ultimately fast-forwards through anything of substance and leaves you with one basic rule: You can’t communicate with your partner in any way.
Anything else is ephemera.
The story focuses on Lotan Fisher, who wandered into a bridge club as an 11-year-old and, after only one afternoon of playing, was targeted as a potential champion. A young Israeli gifted with a photographic memory and a hunger for greatness, Lotan rose through the international ranks with partner Ron Schwartz. They traveled the globe living a somewhat glamorous life until, in 2015, former teammate Boye Brogeland accused them of cheating. What followed was several years of Fisher trying to clear his name and return to bridge and Brogeland trying to prove the cheating conclusively, even if his crusade for integrity could topple the entire “sport.”
It’s a nuts-and-bolts “mechanics of the scam” story in the mold of HBO’s bloated McMillion$ or, on the feature side, The Sting or Ocean’s Eleven. Sivan uses snazzy split-screens, a jaunty and percussive soundtrack and occasional bursts of animation to bring what otherwise might be a story of pale men sitting at tables to life (though there’s a lot of that).
A few of the personalties are engaging, including Fisher, who has an aloofness borne of genius. Those who aren’t engaging have a zealot’s hatred for Fisher that makes them persuasive, if never likable. The documentary’s biggest liability is that Brogeland is either dull or simply blandly righteous, and so there’s no way for Dirty Tricks to ever become a colorful portrait of a rivalry like The King of Kong. Sivan has assembled an assortment of national and multinational championship bridge players and if I’m not sure if they’re really “representative” — of either the sport in general or the pinnacle of the sport — that’s because of my own ignorance. And I couldn’t begin to tell you why Mizrahi was chosen as the lone representative of “famous person bridge love,” and at times even he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing here.
Sivan made the decision to tackle the story as a universal one, and makes the assumption that if the people in the documentary are passionate about the thing they’re doing, the audience will at least feed off that enthusiasm. He’s generally right and it helps that folks in the documentary are adroit with comparisons, alluding to athletes like Michael Jordan to Lance Armstrong. If Sivan doesn’t really figure out how to illustrate what Fisher is accused of doing, it’s partially because he doesn’t try to and partially because maintaining ambiguity is central to his thesis.
I’m also not sure Fisher is great at explaining why his brain is especially attuned to bridge or why bridge was where he chose to direct his talents rather than poker or blackjack or something with the potential for even greater rewards. And since it’s made clear that the best bridge players can make half-a-million a year — obviously a lot, but not when compared to the $10 million prize for the main table at the World Series of Poker — that seems relevant to me.
There’s a general context to the affluence of bridge that the documentary doesn’t get anywhere near. Almost all of the talking heads are white. Almost all are men. Again, it seems relevant to ask questions about the specific type of threat an Israeli man, one whose family background is never mentioned, might pose. If cheating actually is rampant in bridge, and that’s a reasonable conclusion, how is it particular to this sport? What was the basis for the sport’s previous delusions of competitive purity? Nobody would ever be shocked to learn that somebody in poker or blackjack cheated, but how did bridge’s reputation as a game of the wealthy and powerful allow it to pretend the game was above such things?
The result is a documentary that moves at a quick clip, and in a world in which you can easily imagine Sivan telling this story over six-to-eight episodes on Netflix — he previously co-directed Netflix’s questionably focused five-part The Devil Next Door — I’m a strong advocate of restraint. At the same time, I feel like things are missing here, beyond just an education in all things bridge.
Venue: Hot Docs
Writer/Director/Producer: Daniel Sivan
Executive producers: Danna Stern and Guy Lavie
Editors: Daniel Sivan, Doron Djerassi, Jesse Overman