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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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.