Monday, August 18, 2008

Bridge

"It is exasperating, really, teaching other people bridge," says the narrator in Ruth Adam's 1938 novel, I'm Not Complaining. "You cannot get away from the idea that they are being stupid on purpose." This summer, after a hiatus of about a decade, I took up bridge again—briefly. We had bridge-playing friends visiting us for a few days—one of them, Jhumku, a former tournament champion with an encyclopedic knowledge of the nuances of bidding. The other players were Clara and Jhumku's fourteen-year old daughter, Sara. Sara, who was my partner for the first few tentative hands, was amazed at the slowness with which I arranged my cards and counted points. She couldn't quite believe that I was really that slow. She thought I must be being stupid on purpose.

After ending up (quite appropriately) as the "dummy" for several hands, I finally had an opportunity to play a hand, and successfully made a contract of four spades. Thank goodness. In 1929, a housewife in Kansas City shot her husband to death for failing to make a four-spade contract. This is one of the fascinating things I learned from an essay on "the rise and fall of contract bridge" in The New Yorker (September 17, 2007). Contract bridge was a creation of the 1920s—it was invented on the evening of October 31, 1925 on a cruise ship en route from Los Angeles to Havana—and its popularity reached its peak during the Eisenhower administration. Ike himself was an avid player. Bridge expert Charles Goren's encyclopedic Goren's Bridge Complete went through six editions between 1942 and 1963. Goren, who was spurred to perfect his game when a college girlfriend laughed at his poor play, was earning $150,000 a year from bridge in the late 1950s (over a million in 2007 dollars), and by 1958 his bridge books had sold over 3.5 million copies in the United States alone. ABC even aired a television program, Championship Bridge with Charles Goren, from 1959 to 1964. Then, like the novels of Barbara Pym, bridge became passé. These days, as Edward McPherson observes in The Backwash Squeeze & Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer's Journey Into the World of Bridge (HarperCollins 2007), most regular players are older than the game itself.

2 comments:

Jim H. said...

My wife is a bridge whiz and early in our relationship I tried to learn the game. Hearts and euchre and even whist I can do, but not bridge. She mightn't have shot me, but we are both happier that I never learned to play. When her bridge friends come, I take care of the dog.

Mary Schier said...

Back in the 1980s, when I was single, an older woman I worked with encouraged me to learn to play bridge because "you'll meet so many intelligent men." I tried, but am a card dunce generally, and soon quit to take up other means of meeting intelligent men.

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