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A HANDFUL OF ACES
William Johnson
March 23, 1970
Top-class bridge players are fiery individualists, each sure he is the game's best. Now millionaire Ira Corn (far right) has persuaded a group of prodigies to sublimate their egos to a team effort. In consequence, his Dallas Aces are favored to bring the U.S. its first world title after more than a decade of embarrassment
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March 23, 1970

A Handful Of Aces

Top-class bridge players are fiery individualists, each sure he is the game's best. Now millionaire Ira Corn (far right) has persuaded a group of prodigies to sublimate their egos to a team effort. In consequence, his Dallas Aces are favored to bring the U.S. its first world title after more than a decade of embarrassment

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Son of a barber from Little Rock (who is a great-grandson of a Son of the American Revolution), holder of a master's degree from the University of Chicago ('48), formerly assistant professor of business administration at SMU, lately founding father and/or board member of three grand corporations—Saturn Industries, the Michigan General Corporation and Computer Complex, Inc.—with annual combined sales of $204 million and growing, Ira Corn Jr. is an imposing man. Even barefoot and bath-robed he looks formidable. Yet, Corn gives off no emanations of braggadocio or arrogance or brute corporate power. He is essentially a sunny man, with a hint of the pedantic in his conversation. His discourses run a splendid gamut—Eric Hoffer's sociological theories, the Dallas Cowboys, the politics of Vietnam, the inconvenience in getting really fine art reproductions anywhere outside of Europe (Corn's walls are cluttered with such reproductions from Watteau to George Bellows, all gorgeously framed).

Obviously a man of many bents, with a special genius for acquisition, Corn might have moved along the average, lavish ways of other rich-Texan types—constructing ever more complex conglomerates, picking up an apartment development here, a fleet of Lear Jets there, an Andy Warhol silk-screen, as whim might decide. As whim did decide, however, Corn became hooked on bridge eight years ago, an utter addict to the manic joys of the game.

"My God, I virtually quit work for a year to improve my bridge," he said. As he spoke, he rose from his easy chair and began to pace excitedly about the room, his bare feet slapping on the parquet floor. "My God, there is no way you can explain properly the intensity of top-rank bridge competition. If you're successful in a particularly challenging situation—I mean if you outwit and outbid and outthink your opponent and your card instincts are all functioning at their best in a given hand—then that is the purest kind of exhilaration I can imagine. Your adrenaline flows in waterfalls." As he continued to speak, the slap-slap of Corn's feet seemed to keep pace with his mounting excitement. "Bridge is the ultimate essence of competition. It is brutal, more brutal than football [slap-slap] because you have no way to rationalize defeat, no real excuse that your opponent is younger or stronger or better coached or had a better high school sports program. No, in bridge you have laid your intellect, your full ego [slap-slap-slap] and your complete psychological self there on the table against your opponent. And if you lose you can only admit that you have been thoroughly inferior!

"Or"—here Corn stopped slapping about and waggled a finger sternly—"or you blame your partner! And there is where the fabric of great bridge is made or ruined: in the strength of the partnership, not the individual star!"

And there, of course, lies the mother seed of Ira Corn's Dallas Aces: a constancy of partnership. But many other Corn-bred theories have gone into the building of this team. In the years that Corn was playing his own superior game of tournament bridge (he and his partner, Dorothy Moore of Dallas, won the 1963 Spring National mixed-pair title), he was also coolly assaying the entire pattern of bridge in the U.S. as if it were the annual report of a company he would like to acquire. "The whole star system was intrinsically opposed to the idea of world championship bridge, of course," he said. "But what's worse, the kind of competition our best players got into was working against them, it was softening up their games badly." Most American bridge tournaments are based on ACBL match-point awards, which simply means that one pair competes against perhaps 30 or 40 other pairs by playing the same set of duplicated hands over a period ranging anywhere from one evening to 10 days of competition. On each deal, the pairs are given match points in direct relation to how well they have scored compared with other pairs in the competition. Among rabid bridge players (which is practically a redundancy), a large bag of master points (awarded for tournament successes) represents a mark of status only slightly less valuable than an equivalent number of shares of AT&T stock. Since both members of a partnership are awarded the same number of master points for doing well in a tournament, it is common (and thoroughly acceptable) practice for an average, wealthy, run-of-the-mill, lowbrow ace-trumper to hire himself an expert as a tournament partner, assuring himself a score of master points that he would be totally incapable of achieving if he were playing with another dunce of similar ability.

When Ira Corn put his analytical mind to dissecting this arrangement of standard U.S. bridge competition, he was appalled. "Look, it's well and good enough for an expert to make some money winning points for someone else—but what the hell does that kind of bridge have to do with world-class bridge?" said Corn. "Any expert coming into your average regional or sectional tournament or even the early rounds of the nationals knows very well that he can simply overwhelm any opponents he'll meet. He's playing what I call Kill-the-Palooka. He's knocking off the palookas in, maybe, 90% of the tournaments he plays in, because even in your top tournaments you don't hit really expert competition until the last couple of sessions.

"You'll never hear a top player admit that killing palookas will hurt his game, and you'll never hear him admit that playing match-point partnerships with funny women and rich gynecologists is making any difference to his game," said Corn. "But, dammit, I say it pollutes his capacities. I say that killing palookas despoils an expert's abilities. And this is what we've been doing that's wrong—we're sending in too many palooka-killers to play the Italian Blues. There aren't but 5,000 or 6,000 tournament bridge players in all of Italy, so the Blues don't have even the temptation to spend their time playing with Mrs. Jones' mother-in-law."

Corn's feet were going slap-slap all over the living room as he unleashed the blast of fact and opinion. Of course, it is one thing to diagnose the dangers of palooka-pollution and despoliation at the hands of funny women; it is quite another to know what to do about them. Ah, but while those of us poorer in imagination or material wealth might have floundered in doubt, Corn did not. To him, the answer was obvious.

He simply scoured the North American continent for half a dozen men with a genius for bridge and an aptitude for civil temperament. Then he persuaded them to drop their careers, leave their homes and move to Dallas, where they would do nothing each livelong day but play bridge, talk bridge, bid bridge and dream bridge. For this, Corn would pay each man a starting salary of $800 a month if he were single, $950 a month if he were married, plus all expenses to major tournaments. No one would get even a little bit rich for the first couple of years, said Corn, but he was almost certain that rigidly enforced insulation from palookas and a constancy of partnerships would eventually lead to a world title, fame, goodwill, trophies, lots of invitations to dinner and, yes, an unlimited amount of money from little side operations like best-selling books and personal appearances and endorsements and bridge excursions and TV programs.

Corn thinks several hundred thousand dollars a year could be made from such sideline gimmickery. But not until the Aces bring home a world championship. Even if they do it as early as this spring in Stockholm, Corn's expenses for creating and caring for the team will have risen to well over $300,000.

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