When France won the World Bridge Olympiad at Turin the other day (SI, May 16), it was a little difficult to make out from reports in the European press whether the main reaction was the elation of the victors or the recriminations among the losers. The papers gleefully stressed the poor showing of the Americans, who hadn't won a world championship for five years and obviously weren't going to win this time. And at one point, said
The New York Times
austerely, " Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Rubin moved toward each other with fists clenched, but were restrained under threat of suspension from the tournament." Most of the winners and losers of the teams of 25 nations then ran off for Juan-les-Pins, 140 miles away, for the annual Riviera tournament, and it was certain that the recriminations, complaints and insults would presently be flowering in the soft Mediterranean spring.
To those who are privy to the inner circles of big-time bridge, none of this should be surprising. Bridge experts are a weird and motley group whose jealousies and bickerings would do justice to a school for adolescent girls. They shout and rave and climb the table. They malign each other's personalities and deprecate each other's playing ability. When they win it is because of their skill; when they lose it is because of their partner. They are egotistical and supersensitive, noisy and moody, flamboyant and withdrawn and dozens of other mutually contradictory couplets. But there is one thing they are not—and this applies to every champion bridge player from Whitehead to Goren. They are not dull. However useless their card-table talents may seem to the outer world, bridge experts as a class are brilliant men. But their supercharged intellectual capacity makes for strange doings away from the table.
They make a game and a competition of everything. They are fascinated by puzzles and have weekly bets on who can do the Saturday Review's Double-Crostic the fastest. One bridge expert will go up to another and say, "A friend of yours died Tuesday. He had blond hair, and you played against him in 1937, Now, who was it?" Or on the phone: "I hear you're sick. Now tell me, who told me you were sick and who told the person who told me?" Once B. Jay Becker announced at a party: "Look at this envelope. It has an airmail stamp on it, yet it's postmarked New York and addressed to me in New York. Why?" Oswald Jacoby once asked a group of friends, "Who did I play bridge with this morning?"
Quipped a bridge player's wife, weary of the whole unending puzzle contest, " Eisenhower."
"You're right," the amazed Jacoby exclaimed, "but how did you get it?"
Nothing is too unimportant to be made into a contest. Once Charles Goren, Harry Fishbein and a group of other champions were post-morteming a match while waiting for a train. " Fishbein had a long string of runner-ups," Goren recalls. "He had finished second in a great number of tournaments and so had I, and I had a feeling that I had won more second places than anyone else. It was a moot point. We were in Syracuse, and Fishbein had placed second again, in a tournament held in a hotel, and we were at the railroad station going back to New York. Fishbein said, 'Boy, there's one record I have here at this tournament. I walked away with more pieces of soap than anybody else. I have four pieces of soap!' And in an instant I put my hand in my pocket and I pulled out five pieces of soap, and I said, 'Second again, Fishbein!' "
It is dangerous to tamper with every bridge expert's idealized image of himself as the best at everything. Conceit appears to be a necessary attribute of the expert. Says George Heath of Dallas, "Ask any really good bridge player who the best player in the world is, and he says, 'I am, of course.' "
The undisputed world champion of such bluntness is Tobias Stone, who, if he were not a fiendishly clever player, would have been asked to wash his mouth out with soap years ago. Stone is fond of bons mots like, "I've seen worse play, partner, but I can't remember when." His steady partner is his beautiful wife Janice, who holds the record for the most master points earned in one year by a woman. Mrs. Stone has learned to fight back at her irascible and brilliant husband. In one tournament, after Stone called his wife a dozen kinds of moron, she picked up two metal duplicate boards to throw at him, but held her fire when another player screamed, "My God, Stoney, don't duck! I'm right behind you!"
Other experts take out their ire on kibitzers. Once Helen Sobel wearied of a female kibitzer who was all but sitting in Partner Goren's lap. When the woman asked Sobel, in the middle of a hand, "How does it feel to play with an expert?" the best female player in bridge pointed to Goren and said: "I don't know. Ask him."
AN EQUANIL AND TWO DEXIES