The Magazine

Where the Auction Is

The game of bridge and the human condition.

Dec 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 15 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats

A Newcomer's Journey into the World of Bridge

by Edward McPherson

HarperCollins, 368 pp., $23.95

Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, yachtsman and socialite, invented contract bridge on a cruise ship waiting to transit the Panama Canal. The year was 1925, and by the end of the decade bridge had become--for all segments of society, high, low, and Hollywood--the most popular card game in America.

The Marx Brothers played enthusiastically, as did Dwight Eisenhower, Wilt Chamberlain, and Mahatma Gandhi--though never, I believe, at the same table. So did James Bond, who cheats the villainous Sir Hugo Drax in a high stakes game at Blades Club. Blades is modeled on the world's oldest bridge club, the Portland, to which Ian Fleming belonged. (Had Drax been a true expert, he'd have known the deck was stacked when he picked up his cards and saw the Duke of Cumberland hand, a famous swindle from the days of whist.)

In April 2005 things looked different. When Edward McPherson proposed to write a book on bridge, Jeff Bayone, part owner of the Manhattan Bridge Club, told him he was nuts. Bayone teaches poker, too, because poker is what's hot. Celebrities no longer play bridge. They play poker, "probably because they're nitwits." Poker is easy to follow on TV and the cable networks can't seem to get enough of shaved heads and wraparound shades and the soul-stirring drama of money changing hands. Championship Bridge with Charles Goren, featuring four decorously dressed adults who played for the equivalent of matchsticks, went off the air in 1964.

Now, says Jeff Bayone, bridge is dying. A younger generation of players "DOES. NOT. EXIST." The reason? "It takes thirty minutes to teach Texas Hold'em, and in an hour you can be as good as fifty percent of the people playing the game. That would take years of study in bridge."

All of which made McPherson's project admirably countercultural. And of course, James McManus had already done the poker bestseller, Positively Fifth Street. Advance publicity for The Backwash Squeeze treats Fifth Street as its fraternal twin, a comparison misleading in every possible way--most importantly because McManus, a lifelong amateur player, writes about a mania from within its grip, while McPherson is a novice under no compulsion to play bridge, a bemused anthropologist touring the game's subcultures.

That territory is varied. "Rubber bridge" can be played for simple social fellowship or (at tony private venues such as the Portland or New York's Regency Whist Club) for serious money. Four players partner one another in turn, which demands flexibility and a "table presence" attuned to each player's strengths and weaknesses. "Duplicate bridge" is the format for tournaments, which are mainly contests for glory and rankings. It reduces the luck of the deal: Partnerships are fixed, and the hands are dealt once and circulated, to be played repeatedly by different competitors. A pair's score on any hand is determined by how well it did in comparison with those who held the same cards.

Increasingly, both forms are played online, where one might find oneself at a virtual table with enthusiasts Bill Gates (screen name Chalengr) or Warren Buffett (T Bone).

Accordingly, McPherson seeks out not only experts but also ordinary amateurs, with an emphasis on spunky old ladies. Prominent among those is Tina, an octogenarian in his beginners class who became his regular playing partner. Reserved, intelligent, with a dry sense of humor, a season's subscriber to several off-off Broadway theaters, Tina is the sort of person about whom there seems always something new and surprising to be learned. The book's slender narrative chronicles their growing friendship.

"You're the only person in the world," she once says, "who knows this much about me." That story concludes with their trip to Chicago, full of trepidation, to enter a beginner's event at the North American Bridge Championships.

Some of McPherson's anthropology is clichéd. Do we need yet another comic take on flabby vacationers in a tacky American tourist town? And vignettes of "ruthless" old ladies at an afternoon tournament and "brilliant" play by the author's friend's nonagenarian grandmother raise the question: How would he know?

But his descriptions of the stratosphere--the money game at fancy clubs or at London's raffish TGR, the tournament circuit and its stars--are absorbing. He presents the professional Michael Polowan, for example, as an artist for art's sake. Polowan rarely plays for cash and never hustles--always making sure that the other players in a money game know just who he is. His living comes primarily from fees for partnering others in tournaments, but he deliberately limits that income because too much time with weaker players takes the edge off his game.

Bob Hamman, widely regarded as the best player in the world, is CEO of an appealingly odd company called Sports Contest Associates. Its specialty is providing insurance for blockbuster promotions, such as a sports arena's offering some randomly chosen fan $1 million if he can sink a half court shot. The underwriting procedures, Hamman says, involve "some adjustments, some computations, and some unscientific wild-ass guesses."

Do not infer from Hamman's profession that bridge is a contest of actuarial skills. "The percentages" are easily learned, and won't get you out of the novice class. Bridge is a game of inference and judgment. Top players develop an astonishing skill at deducing the lie of the unseen cards--not from the fidgets and tics that poker players call "tells" but from chains of inference such as: If this guy had those cards, would he have played that one given what he knew then--or could he anticipate that I would ask this very question and therefore, to deceive me, played then what would otherwise have been the wrong card?

It takes guts to "go against the field" and base bold plays on such elaborate counterfactuals--and to weather the occasional catastrophes that result if they prove to be misjudgments. When asked to name his most memorable hands, Hamman demurs, because the ones that stand out are "the shipwrecks."

Zia Mahmood is perhaps the most famous world-class bridge player, and certainly the most presentable: a charming egotist, always elegantly dressed, often surrounded by female kibitzers. Of all the top players, says McPherson, Zia has the best time. He made a splash in 1981 by leading a Pakistani team of complete unknowns into the finals of the world championship. In 1999, the mainstream press noticed his offer of a million-dollar prize for any computer program that could beat him, followed by his clobbering of the seven that were tried. That outcome was never in doubt, and an understanding of computer chess shows why.

There are two approaches to chess: brute force, following out untold millions of possible lines of play (I do this, then he does that, then I do that, then ), or imagination and insight--which among other benefits, reduce to a very few the lines of play worth considering. Humans play chess with imagination and insight, and computers attempting to mimic that have always failed. Computers have succeeded by, in a sense, playing a different game. But there's only one way to play bridge, which relies heavily on concealing, revealing, and discovering hidden information.

Is bridge dying? How does one market the world's "deepest and most difficult card game"? The American Contract Bridge League has a lame website for kids. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have stumped up a million bucks to fund bridge clubs in middle schools but found limited interest--in part, it seems, because of prudish panic at the very thought of card playing. The Cavendish Invitational, a high-stakes money tournament begun in 1975, has been Las Vegasized. Its premiere event, the Cavendish Pairs, begins with an auction to buy one of the invited partnerships ($12,500 minimum) who then play a three-day tournament. The million or so in auction money is pooled and paid out to the owners of the highest finishers.

And just what is a "backwash squeeze," anyway? You'll have to find out for yourself. McPherson quotes, for comic effect, the opening lines of a technical description and gives himself a pass on understanding it. Let's not bother our purty little heads about that.

Bridge will not disappear, but how lamentable if it were marginalized by its virtues--by difficulty and depth. In 2004 the Washington Post did report ambiguous news about its potential comeback among the hip set, "along with other retro favorites such as bowling shirts, TV dinners and kitten heels."

McPherson and Tina fared poorly in Chicago. Despite that showing, and the hellish travel foul-ups they suffered (flight delays and lost reservations), Tina declares, "I'd do it again."

A good decision; it's a beautiful game. And after I finished The Backwash Squeeze, I went to my shelf of bridge books and, for the first time in 30 years, opened one.

David Guaspari writes from Ithaca, New York.