In an atmosphere of hysteria, tears, laughter, a near fistfight and endless bickering, the Italian bridge team won the world championship last week for the sixth straight time, playing on home grounds and beating teams from the U.S., France and Argentina. It was a cruel defeat for the U.S. team, which led Italy by 21 points with the end almost in sight. Then, within the space of a few hands, everything fell apart. The Italians took an 18-point lead and, in the final session in the early morning hours bridge players know so well, they played the equivalent of a basketball freeze to hold the lead and win.
The victorious Italian team was essentially the same one that has been so successful over the years. There was Giorgio Belladonna, a paunchy man with a mustache, who wrings his hands and mumbles to himself at tense moments. Massimo D'Alelio has wavy hair, which he likes to preen, and an eye for the ladies. Eugenio Chiaradia, at 52, is the oldest; a short, wiry man the others call Professor. Benito Garozzo is the youngest, 35, short, dark and friendly; Camillo Pabis Ticci, although less experienced than his teammates, is a fine technician. And lastly there is Pietro Forquet, the star of the team and one of the world's most remarkable cardplayers.
Forquet is 38, suave, handsome, well tailored, polite, quick-witted and tough. His bridge during the entire match was brilliant. Forquet played practically all of the 27 sessions for Italy, an extraordinary feat of endurance, yet he managed to remain cool and unruffled when others had melted. After one particularly drawn-out session against the French that lasted until 3 in the morning, the two French players staggered wearily down the marble steps to the lobby, ties loosened, hair ruffled. Chiaradia came next, looking very old and tired. Then came Forquet. His tuxedo was still immaculate. He had four fingers of one hand hooked in his coat pocket, thumb extended, and in the other hand he held a cigarette at a jaunty angle. His step was light and springy, and he looked for all the world like a man ready for a night on the town. Those nights on the town worried Italy's captain, Carl' Alberto Perroux, almost as much as the opponents did. A year ago in New York the Italian team had a mighty good time—but so did their rivals for world championship honors.
This year's championship was held in the Hotel Billia in St. Vincent, a small town that perches on the side of a mountain in the Italian Alps. At first glance, St. Vincent does not present the threat to Captain Perroux that New York did. There is just the narrow main street lined by red gardenias and sidewalk cafes and a little table-tennis hall where you can listen to opera on the juke box. But just outside the main part of town and no more than 50 feet from the hotel where the Italian team was quartered, is Europe's richest casino, the Casino della Vallee. The casino has eight roulette wheels and many more tables for such games as chemin de fer, but this was forbidden territory to the Italian squad.
The U.S. team spent most of its time before the matches began studying the complicated Italian and French bidding systems. Captain John Gerber had mailed the systems to all his players, but when the team gathered in New York, it was obvious no one had bothered to study them. "If we had to play right now we'd lose," snapped Gerber angrily. It was not the last time Gerber was to be angry. He is a gruff, aggressive man with white hair and thick, black eyebrows. His demanding nature rankled the Europeans. It even rankled his own players at times.
There were six players on the U.S. team, three pairs. The oldest player was Howard Schenken, a tall, silent man who at 59 can still play a hand as well as anyone in the world. Oswald Jacoby once said: "If I could play with whoever I wanted to, I'd get Schenken. If I couldn't get Schenken, I'd wait until I could."
Schenken's partner was Peter Leventritt, a tall, thin, amiable man who runs a New York card school. He is reputed to make no minor errors, though an occasional major one, but at St. Vincent he played well when it counted.
The youngest pair on the team was Arthur Robinson, 27, and Robert Jordan, 35. Both are cocky, irreverent but refreshing. The third U.S. pair was Bobby Nail and Jim Jacoby. Gerber regarded them as his weakest pair. "Nail," he said, "is a fighter, but Jimmy lacks experience." Jacoby, a robust, outgoing young man of 32, is the son of Oswald. The Italians immediately nicknamed him Il Bambino. The U.S. drew Argentina as an opponent the first day, Italy the second and France the third, continuing that rotation through nine days and 432 duplicate boards.
The matches were played in four hotel rooms, each furnished with a card table with a green felt cover, an overhead lamp that hung inches above the table top, and a few easy chairs. Each match was witnessed by only a referee, an interpreter and, in two of the rooms, an announcer, who broadcast the bidding and play into two downstairs ballrooms, where kibitzers watched the four hands on a large screen called the Bridge-O-Rama.
When the matches began, Italy started strong by leading France 49-5 after one session and 127-34 after the first day. Argentina, as expected, was the weakest of the four teams, and its players might well have spent their time more profitably at the casino. That left only the U.S. to prevent Italy from winning a sixth straight championship.