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This is the unlikely tale of an unlikely type, a scholarly Texas millionaire who has, among other things, "cornered the floating supply of original Declarations of Independence." It is also a relatively uplifting story about a blooming friendship among six egotistical but affable young cardplayers, a tough but fatherly ex-Air Force colonel and a small but willing computer that has been programmed to deal slam-bid bridge hands. In this story, too, is a hint of the powers inherent in a pinch of patriotism, a ton of card sense and about one-third of a million dollars. For this is the chronicle of Ira G. Corn Jr. and the Dallas Aces and how they came together, and how the Aces have come now to represent the North American continent in play for the world championship of bridge this spring and how they expect to grow rich and famous together as the world's first and only full-time professional bridge team and charge onward, ever onward, to dominate both the tournaments and the commercial marketplace of American bridge for, oh, say, the next 20 years.
The point at which to begin this story is a view of world-class bridge, since that is the arena in which the Dallas Aces expect to thrive. It has been 16 years since an American team won a world championship. This is astonishing to contemplate, for bridge is played in the U.S. by perhaps 40 million people. Of those, some 250,000 have played in duplicate tournaments, most with at least a handful of master points to their credit. Granted, of the tournament players, only a rare few—not many more than 200—have risen to the excellence of world-class competition. Yet among those few are some of the most magnificent cardplayers ever to scowl at a jack-high hand...Tobias Stone and Alvin Roth and Edgar Kaplan and Charles Goren and B. Jay Becker and Howard Schenken.... Certainly no better individual players ever have sat at a table, yet they have all been punished and put down in play for the world title.
These annual embarrassments have come consistently at the fine Italian hands of the beautiful Blues, the widely famed and justly feared Blue Team of Italy. Belladonna and Garozzo and Forquet and Avarelli and d'Alelio and Pabis-Ticci and their foxy former coach Per-roux. Seemingly ingenious beyond mere mortality, masters of a bidding system complex as the Gordian knot, the Italian Blue Team has with a single exception (France in 1960) ruled since 1957 as champions of international bridge.
And who among us shall ever overcome? Who, indeed? In the matches of 1970 the Aces of Dallas will actually be favored to win by many experts.
Yes, it has come to pass at last, and one reason is that this American entry in the world matches is actually a team, born and bred in togetherness just as the Italian Blues have been. Until this year, the American Contract Bridge League held annual trials to pick its international team, and the brightest North American stars would all compete, often united in dazzling if short-lived partnerships for the trials alone. Clearly, the emphasis was on individual stardom; and, of course, when the North American "team" went to meet the Italians, togetherness always won. So last year, badgered by hundreds of bridge fanatics disenchanted by past failures, the ACBL changed its rules and picked its international representatives from a head-on playoff between the winners of U.S. bridge's two most prestigious team prizes, the Vanderbilt Cup and the Spin-gold Trophy. In that match in Phoenix last fall the Dallas Aces, winners of the Spingold, annihilated the Vanderbilt victors by 141 international match points.
To reach this point the six young men of the Dallas Aces have relocated their homes and sublimated their individualism to the sweetness of being together. It is true. In the world of bridge where volcanic tantrum, imperious narcissism and calculated hostility are as common as a one-club opener, the Aces have become a model of The Group Thing. They have built a bond from such clubby activities as jogging together through the suburbs of Dallas, holding endless bull sessions about the occult ways of the Orange Club or the Leghorn Diamond, obeying the same training rules of early bedtime and general abstention from strong drink and rich food and sharing the output of bridge hands from the SDS 940 computer they have been granted. They even travel to their tournaments dressed identically in orange, crimson or blue blazers, and more than once they have been mistaken for a small dance band or a squad of bellhops.
Yes, the groupish ways of the Dallas Aces are exceptional in the bitterly individualistic world of top-class bridge. Perhaps only another exception—to wit: The Scholarly Texas Millionaire—could have brought this about.
Ira G. Corn Jr. is a man of means, conglomerate class.
One morning last fall he settled into a fine leather easy chair in his living room and crossed one bare leg over the other. He had only just arisen and he was dressed in an undershirt, undershorts and an immense wine-colored bathrobe. The robe was immense because Ira Corn is immense, well over 6 feet and sometimes upward of 300 pounds. In his chair Corn lighted up a long cigar and began to speak in firm, gentle tones that were punctuated occasionally with startling howls of laughter. The conversation dealt with a day last May when Corn bid $404,000 to buy the only available copy of the Declaration of Independence as it had been typeset and printed in Philadelphia on the very night of July 4, 1776 before the very eyes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
"I had never bought anything like that before," said Corn. "It was kind of an impulse purchase—as if I'd suddenly decided to buy a pack of gum." He howled with laughter. "I hadn't actually decided to bid when I arrived at the auction. But then I found I was the only private individual in the room; everyone else represented some library, university or some other institution. It was an extraordinary opportunity. Irresistible."