ARTICLES

How innocent card players become bridge fiends

A million Canadians play a game called contract bridge. But it’s much more than a game to a few thousand addicts, some of whom have thrown up promising careers to concentrate on one of the trickiest, most demanding mental exercises man has ever devised

PETER GZOWSKI October 10 1959
ARTICLES

How innocent card players become bridge fiends

A million Canadians play a game called contract bridge. But it’s much more than a game to a few thousand addicts, some of whom have thrown up promising careers to concentrate on one of the trickiest, most demanding mental exercises man has ever devised

PETER GZOWSKI October 10 1959

How innocent card players become bridge fiends

Why aren’t you a bridge expert? Probably because you make all of these four common mistakes, explained here by four Canadian aces.

A million Canadians play a game called contract bridge. But it’s much more than a game to a few thousand addicts, some of whom have thrown up promising careers to concentrate on one of the trickiest, most demanding mental exercises man has ever devised

To most of the million-or-so Canadians who play bridge in private homes and summer resorts, it is a nicely complicated exercise in four-handed gamesmanship, primarily designed for whiling away rainy evenings when there’s nothing good on TV. But to a few thousand fanatical others, it is The Supreme Contest: a religion, a way of life or sometimes — 1 have been told in all seriousness —• an addiction as hard to shake as narcotics.

These faithful arc the big-time tournament players — habitués of a tight, tense, cosmopolitan world dedicated to the proposition that all men are created to play bridge. They do almost every weekend, in one of the more than three hundred major tournaments in the U. S. each year or the twenty in Canada.

But the major tournaments — those in which the continent’s best, and most fanatical players battle for local, regional, state, provincial or national titles — are only theabove-surface part of the bridge world’s iceberg. The ardor of the tournament aficionados has sparked a current worldwide revival in the game. Revival may not be the word. For while mah-jongg, canasta, tiddlywinks, dominoes, hearts and scrabble have all won quick fame then faded like aging movie queens, contract bridge, the end product of a family of card games as old as the King James Bible, has remained an international favorite pastime ever since it grew out of whist, via auction, thirty-seven years ago.

This year in Canada thousands of new faces are

PETER GZOWSKI

appearing in ten full-time clubs or approaching a score of professional teachers. More than seventy newspapers are carrying daily puzzlers and advice on bridge. The sale of playing cards is up fourteen percent — to three and a half million packs. Novelty counters arc crammed with bridge napkins, pads, pencils, ashtrays, instruction pamphlets and do-it-yourself bridge sets. And sales are brisk for a shelf-filling number of books on How To Play Bridge or How To Improve Your Bridge.

Most of the newly interested are playing “rubber” bridge — the kind you probably play with friends, pivoting among yourselves. “They arc also,” says Eric Murray, a Toronto lawyer who has won more tournaments than any other Canadian, “playing atrociously.” Real bridge, say the experts, is duplicate bridge and it is the boom in duplicate that has the bridge world atwittcr.

Duplicate has distilled the element of competitive skill that is the true appeal of all bridge to its purest degree. In rubber bridge, a pair of utter palookas could conceivably outscorc two experts for an evening simply by holding better cards. In duplicate, a complex system eliminates most of the luck. All hands are played from wooden “boards.” After they’re played they’re passed to another table. In an evening's play, all East-West players will get a whack at all East-

West hands; all North-South players at all NorthSouth hands. The teams play against a sort of “par,” i.e. if all other teams lose eight hundred points on one hand, a team can come out ahead by losing only six hundred.

So much has duplicate spread in Canada in recent years that it is now possible to find a game in Winnipeg, Toronto or Vancouver any night ol the week and in most other large cities most nights — if there’s room. Mrs. Kate Buckman sold her prospering Skyline Club in Vancouver and moved to Toronto to open a rubber club and teach. No duplicate, she swore. The buffs clamored. Last winter she ran three duplicate games a week anil this year she’s afraid that her twenty tables and the week’s seven days won’t be enough to accommodate all the people who want to play.

Almost every city of more than thirty thousand has its own weekly duplicate league and some, like St. Thomas and London, Ont., now play together so they can get in two games a week. Enough Canadian universities have intramural leagues to play an intercollegiate final for a championship the combatants take as seriously as the Stanley Cup. Employee leagues at firms like Bell Telephone, Imperial Oil and International Business Machines and service clubs and women's groups arc running hundreds more games.

That’s just the minor league. The fever only begins there. Every month out of this group emerges new grist for the awesome mill of tournament bridge. continued on page 62

continued on page 62

How innocent card players become bridge fiends

Continued from page 31

Canada will see its most spectacular big-time tournament in 1964, when for the first time the summer “national” — which should really be called “continental'' — championships are held in Toronto. More than eight thousand bridge fiends will muster in downtown hotels. They will spend most of their visit crouched over card tables in convention. dining and ballrooms converted, for eight days of afternoon and evening sessions, into temporary cathedrals of bridge. Sessions completed, they'll pace ferociously, drinks tinkling, up and down the corridors, waiting for the answer to life's most important question: Who’s ahead? So high will the tension grow that, before it reaches its peak on the final day. it is a safe bet that at least one of them will drop dead.

What lures these otherwise - innocents into the big-time grind and keeps them there is a system unique unto bridge: master points. At each of the three hundred and twenty tournaments supervised and accredited by the American Contract Bridge League, the winners and runnersup in as many as eight categories (open

pairs, master pairs, teams of four) are awarded a number of master points based on the importance of the tournament and the number of entrants. Master points are worth nothing tangible. In fact, because of the entry fees and traveling expenses involved, they cost money — ten dollars a point is a good estimate for an average player.

When a player has won three hundred master points he becomes a “life master,” sort of a knight commander of bridge. Two thousand U. S. players are life masters; seventy-five Canadians.

It is theoretically possible to btty a life mastership, by playing in enough tournaments and paying acknowledged experts as partners. One wealthy Toronto businessman recently bet $10,000 he could become a life master in two years. By paying the expenses of superior players, he did surprisingly well in his first few matches. He doubled his bet. His “partners” found out and the price of hiring them to play with him went up.

Most tournament players run from better-than-you-and-me to very good indeed. Towering over them all is a coterie

How would you play this hand to make six spades?

WEST Mrs. Marjorie Anderson és J 10 6 3 y Q J 9 8 6 5 ♦ J 72 *

SOUTH (leorge Boeckh éS A k () 9 5 4 y A K JO ♦ 3 k O 7

NORTH Mrs. ha Y Boeckh és 8 7 2' y 7 4 3 2 y A Q 10 * A 10 5

EAST ]}ill Anderson éS V 4 K 9 8 6 5 4 * .1 9 8 6 4 3 2

East-west vulnerable South declarer at six spades Opening lead: the queen of hearts

The key play in this hand was once called the Anderson coup, after Bill Anderson, a brilliant mathematician and one of Canada’s top players. Here, it’s used against him, by George Boeckh, also a life master and a close friend of Anderson’s.

Bidding has gone regularly: two spades from Boeckh, three from Mrs. Boeckh; then Boeckh bid Blackwood (four no trump) for aces and (five no trump) for kings. He abandoned the try for grand slam when he found the diamond king was missing.

Boeckh takes the first trick with the king of hearts and Anderson discards the nine of diamonds. Boeckh cashes his ace of spades and Anderson drops the four of diamonds.

Boeckh must get rid of a heart loser. How would you do it?

Concluding that Anderson may

have the king of diamonds (just a guess; Anderson may be false-

carding) Boeckh rules out a finesse.

Instead, he cashes Mrs. Boeckh’s

diamond ace at the fifth trick, after three rounds of trump, takes two clubs in his own hand and forces Mrs. Anderson in with her good spade. When she leads the seven of diamonds, Boeckh is given a

ruffing finesse. Anderson plays the

king over dummy’s ten, Boeckh

trumps and throws his losing heart

on the queen of diamonds.

The coup will work whatever

Mrs. Anderson’s diamond holdings:

singleton, Jx, Kx, KJ or the hand as it stands.

Life - master - like, Anderson, in describing the hand, emphasizes that east and west are vulnerable. Otherwise, they’d have a good sacrifice in diamonds.

One expert says, “I get just as much fun from a table of LOL’s — bridge’s ‘little old ladies’ ”

of real geniuses who are as different from the average as Mickey Mantle is from a Triple A utility infielder.

Among the hundred thousand members of the American Contract Bridge League

— including about four thousand Canadians — there arc a few score whose names regularly top the major tournaments. An impressive number are Canadians and many have left their mark on the bridge map.

Perci val E. (Shorty) Sheardown, the shy, stocky 47-year-old professional who runs Toronto’s flourishing St. Clair club, is acknowledged by the game’s élite to be among the world’s best bridge players. A one-time classics student, Sheardown

— who still reads Greek and Latin or sings German folk songs for pleasure — has been playing bridge almost continually since he left the University of Toronto. But he still gets as much fun playing with LOL’s—the bridge world’s name for its brigades of “little old ladies” — as with experts of his own class. There are few enough of them. Though he spent six years as an intelligence-corps sergeant and has played few tournaments in the 50s, Sheardown is high among the continent’s top fifty point winners. And as a teacher, he has been almost solely responsible for making Toronto known, after New York and Miami, as the toughest tournament arena in North America.

A brilliant Toronto actuary has made Canada’s biggest contribution to bridge. William Anderson, now president of the North American Life Assurance Company, worked out most of the mathe-

matics behind the most important single development in the game: the Goren point count system.

Charles Goren, a lawyer and a graduate of McGill University, is now the high priest of North American bridge. In 1947, when he was still just a deacon though he’d already written a few books on bridge, he discussed with Anderson a new bidding system he was evolving. Its basis was assigning precise values to high cards and to distribution. To perfect it, Goren needed the talents of a man like Anderson who had become, at 21, the youngest Canadian actuary ever. Anderson agreed and for nearly two years he probed and played, tested and retested Goren’s theories. They stood up. Goren published them. The system has been the chief reason why Goren bills himself as the world’s foremost authority on bridge and gets little argument and why his books have sold more than five million copies.

In his research and in the competitive play that made him an internationally ranked player, Anderson had the help of his wife, Marjorie, Canada’s first woman life master.

Probably the best-known and mostfeared Canadian players are Eric Murray, a Toronto lawyer, and Doug Drury, a full-time bridge player, operating out of Vancouver. Murray is our all-time highest point winner (2470) though he’s only 30. Drury could well be the game’s best bidder and a new wrinkle he evolved, now known as the Drury two-club convention, is used by perhaps ten per-

cent of North American tournament players. Murray and Drury are the only team ever to have won the U. S. national men’s pairs title two years in succession.

Toronto has developed at least two other players of the Murray-SheardownDrury class: Bruce Elliott, an accountant, and Bruce Gowdy, also an accountant, now living in Sarnia, Ont. Gowdy was an enfant terrible of bridge, becoming a life master at twenty. Elliott, a sports enthusiast but a life-long spastic, has turned a tremendous competitive courage toward the bridge table.

Montreal has produced Sam Gold, a McGill mathematics graduate who was chopped from the civil service early in the Depression and, by necessity, turned his acumen to bridge. For two years he played for a living and became, after Sheardown, our second life master. Gold, now a prosperous businessman, is an active partner in Montreal's Linton Bridge Club.

Bridge is all ability

Some fine women players, too, come from Montreal. Mimi Roncarelli, former wife of the restaurateur who defeated Premier Duplessis in a lengthy lawsuit, is a life master and runs a bridge club. Her favorite partner is Jacquie Bégin, probably our best and undoubtedly our most colorful woman player.

Mme Bégin’s lusty - languaged arguments have won her international fame. But she’s equally capable of turning on exquisite charm. In a recent Quebec City tournament she courteously refused the penalty when a shy opponent, a priest, made an insufficient bid. Sweetly waiving her right to call the director, she allowed the priest to make the bid he had meant, then proceeded to double his contract

and whip it by four tricks. Although an enforcement of the penalty would have saved him hundreds of points, the priest left the table thanking her profusely for her sportsmanship.

Some skilled younger players are nowemerging from the clubs. A former McGill student, Marvin Aultman, began playing bridge at Mimi Roncarelli’s club at nineteen and now, two years later, is a life master. Sam Kehela, a brilliant Iraq-born Londoner, has settled in Toronto under Shorty Sheardown’s wing and seems headed for international fame. So does Don DaCosta, a young Jamaican, also playing under Sheardown’s tutelage.

Many of these experts have forsaken promising careers in business or the professions to devote their lives to computing the permutations and combinations of fifty-two pieces of pasteboard. Why do they do it? What is the fascination of this game-that-is-a-passion?

I asked that question of dozens of bridge experts, teachers, addicts, bums and duffers. Without exception they replied: the competition, the pitting of brain against brain.

“It's like a beauty contest,” said Shorty Sheardown. “If you lose at poker, or rummy, you can shrug it off on bad cards. In bridge — at least in duplicate — you can’t. If you lose, you lose.”

“Except,” added Sam Gold, “everyone seems to play with a stupid partner.”

It is possible, dealing a pack of cards into four piles, to produce 635,013,559,600 different hands. Even in a lifetime of bridge, it’s unlikely you’ll see the same hand twice. “You always find something new,” said Eric Murray and, like the eyes of all the buffs, his began to shine. “It’s the greatest game the world has ever produced.”

There are, of course, routine hands

that you or I might play as well as the experts. But in every session of duplicate there are one or two or three hands that require a special solution, a new problem that requires some original thinking.

But why are the experts better? What makes a good bridge player? Again I asked. Here’s their compound list of qualities. With them, you’re a potential champion. Without them, you’d better stick to the family foursome.

1 A killer instinct. You can’t wait for your opponents’ mistakes; you must make

them commit the errors you need.

2 Common sense. There is, insist the men who have it, no such thing as “card sense.” A bridge problem is a problem in logic.

3 A willingness to gamble. If a player won't take a calculated risk he won’t win. One U. S. national title was won by a Buffalo, N.Y., expert on the last deal. Toward the end of play he realized he had to make a crucial decision about an honor card. It was, he knew', 60-40 that

the card would lie on his left. He also knew that every other expert who played the hand would realize this elementary bridge arithmetic. They’d play it odds-on. If he did. he might tie for the top. He played against the percentage, gambling that the key card would be on his right. It was.

4 Some mathematical skill.

5 Concentration. A good bridge player in mid-hand is completely oblivious to everything but that hand.

6 Memory. The experts say it can be acquired. Most of the real ones can describe, card by card, a hand they played seven years ago.

7 Control. Under the tight-rope tension of a tournament a champion has to remain calm.

8 Experience. Though you’ll never see them all, the more bridge situations you have encountered, the fewer you will have to reason out.

9 Condition. Like a boxer preparing for a fight, a bridge expert trains for a tournament, by playing with his chosen partner against first-rate sparring pairs.

10 Stamina. A man who wants to win must have the mental — even physical — power to come up clear-brained and competent after days of solid minddredging.

With these abilities, the expert worries about the positions of all fifty-two cards, not just his own hand. His clues are the bidding and the early play of cards. Sam Gold can tell so much from the bidding that he has played exhibition matches in Montreal in which he would bid without looking at his own hand. If the other three men at the table were bidding honestly and with some intelligence, Gold could deduce the strength and distribution of his own cards.

Although the gulf between the expert and the minor-leaguer is as evident as ever, there is no doubt that Canada’s kitchen bridge is improving. More people are taking lessons, reading books or columns and taking bridge seriously. The Goren point count has made it more difficult to commit suicide by bidding.

But there will always be duffers. John Jacobson, a scholarly Britisher who has been teaching and playing in Toronto since the days of whist, published in 1941 a distillery-sponsored booklet which contained this hand:

There’s only one way to beat three-notrump by North and South. Can you find it?

The defense illustrates a simple unblocking play. The bidding proceeds regularly and South is declarer. West leads the six of spades. Queen from dummy. If East plays the two, his side will make only one spade trick. He must discard the jack, allowing West to make five and set the contract.

Playing at his club, Jacobson was asked to explain this play to a dedicated duffer. He did, duffer nodding wisely throughout. They began to play and, Jacobson swears, on the first hand precisely this deal was made. Jacobson, playing West, smiled and led the six of spades. Queen from dummy. Duffer scratched his head, smiled, and played the two. ic

NORTH Q, 8 A, 7, 6, 2 J, 10, 4 K, 6, 3, 2 WEST EAST A A, 10, 7, 6, 4, 3 A J, 2 V 9, 5, 3 y Q, J, 10 ♦ 5 ♦ A, 6, 3, 2 * 8, 7, 5 * Q, J, 10, 9 SOUTH & : K, 9, 5 ¥ : K, 8, 4 $ : K, Q, 9, 8, 7 Ä : A, 4