This is the story that answers the question: Can a man from a little mining town in the West find fame and fortune playing rubber bridge for big money? The answer is no.
It began when a magazine editor and bush-league bridge player named Ray Cave collared me on a trip to New York and said, "Hey, there's a $20,000 rubber-bridge tournament in Las Vegas. Richest tournament in the history of bridge. Let's you and me enter."
"Well, I would love to, Ray," I said, "but I have to play quarterback for the Packers. Bart's not feeling so good."
As Cave slunk off, stung by my sarcasm, I wondered whether he was cracking up. A $20,000 bridge tournament in Las Vegas would attract every hotshot bridge player in the U.S., plus all the card cheats, big-time hustlers and Life Masters that could afford the fare. Where would Cave and I stand in a gathering of eagles like this?
We were both what the experts describe as "dogmeat," "bait" or "fish." A once-a-month game with the neighbors was our milieu, and the neighbors aren't named Goren. Of the two of us, Cave was the better. He had been playing for about 20 years and once amassed 1� master points in a serious fling at duplicate bridge. He figured to become a Life Master in his 17th or 18th incarnation, provided he could figure out a way to carry his points over. Myself, I held a grand total of zero master points. When I played, which was practically never, it was for a 10th of a cent a point and, if I didn't show up, my opponents would send a cab for me. I usually referred to myself as the bridge champion of Gilpin, Colo.—which sounds pretty good if you don't know that Gilpin is a ghost town inhabited only by me, Earl Hoffman and one or two itinerant gold panners, none of whom plays bridge.
A few evenings after Cave's suggestion, I found myself whiling away an evening playing against three lovely ladies, and the impossible happened: one of them played worse than I did! This sweet, white-haired lady, an executive of a big corporation and an exemplary person in all other regards, played and bid her cards like an inmate of a maximum-security ward. She could not count trumps, or any other suit, she bid and led out of turn, she thought that a small slam was a slap in the face and that you became vulnerable by having overstrict parents. At the end of three agonizing hours of "bridge," the sweet, white-haired lady was the only winner. She had totaled 3,600 points; everybody else was minus. She had held the right cards. At rubber bridge she was unbeatable.
The next morning I sought out Cave. "Put on your sneakers," I said. "We're going to Las Vegas."
Now we were standing in the lobby of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, world's capital of gaucherie, blinking in the glare of sequined dresses and numbed by the noise of slot machines. Cave seemed extra jumpy and so was I, and the paging system did nothing to relieve our anxieties. "Telephone call for Oswald Jacoby," the voice would blare. "Call for Mr. Tobias Stone. Paging Mr. Howard Schenken.... Harold Ogust.... Jim Jacoby.... Robert Nail.... Ivan Erdos...."
"Do they ever page anybody except international bridge champions?" Cave asked.
"Yes," I said. "A while ago I heard a page for Cliff Russell. He's just a national bridge champion."