Eddie Kantar is on his knees in the living room playing miniature Ping-Pong with a friend. He is using one of his bridge books as a paddle and he has spotted his opponent 12 points, yet he is in no danger of losing. Naturally, he has wagered a few units on the result, just as he has bet a few more on the Rams-Vikings game on television that is competing for his attention. He has bet not only on the Rams but on which team scores first, whether more points will be scored to the right or the left of the screen and in which quarter the most points will be scored.
Kantar likes to have a few units riding on just about anything that moves, a unit being a nickel, a dime or, often, slightly more. Later, when he leaves with his visitor for the Savoy Bridge Club, there will be some action on which elevator arrives first, what the last digit of the speedometer will be when the car arrives at the club and how many people will be in the main cardroom, kibitzers included. But it is not time to go yet, and so, having won the first Ping-Pong game, Kantar is now proposing a new one. He will hold three rackets, one in his right hand, the second in his left, the third under his chin. He will hit his shots with all three, in order. How can you lose? Wait and see.
Eddie Kantar, as you have judged already, is a gamesman. In fact, he may just be the world's greatest gamesman. If someone devised a decathlon of trivial skills, one that included, say, backward running, coin pitching, judging the exact minute of any event, running hook shots from center court, flipping cards into a wastepaper basket, balancing a broom on your forehead, memorizing telephone numbers, holding your breath, playing the match game and, of course, any form of table tennis, Kantar would be a gold medalist. As it is, he must settle for being the most successful bridge teacher in California and one of the best in the country.
Kantar is 38 and a bachelor. He has been teaching bridge in Los Angeles for a dozen years, to how many thousands of people Kantar himself finds it difficult to estimate. Wherever he goes in town—the Forum, the Coliseum, restaurants or movie theaters—he is likely to run into alumni. "Hi, Eddie," says a pretty young thing at the Forum before a Laker game. She has a problem and needs a quick fix. "Eddie, I was holding ace-king five times, doubleton heart..." and they are off and running in that mysterious language of advanced bridge players, rehashing a hand. No charge.
Kantar teaches five days or evenings a week, except on those occasions when he is playing in a tournament—he has won seven national titles—or when he is representing the U.S. in the world championship, either as a player, which he did in 1969, or as a coach, which he did in 1968. He also spends a part of each day writing bridge articles or books, which invariably contain a pleasant blend of wit and instruction. The rest of his time is free to pursue his second career, gamesmanship.
It is this second career that interests me. You see, until I met Eddie in Stockholm last June, I thought I was the world's greatest gamesman. I have always enjoyed all sports in which a winner is finally declared, and there are few games I have not at least sampled, card games especially. I am a bridge addict. In the morning, while other commuters study the Times on the train to New York, I play bridge in the back car with a diamond merchant, a Wall Street lawyer and a public-relations man for Decca Records. We play going home, too. At various times in my life I have fallen in with guys who would play hearts all night, every night. Same with poker. Four of us once got so intense about cribbage that we formed a league, drew up a 154-game schedule, adopted nicknames and issued make-believe press releases. I used to play a lot of gin at a tennis club in Los Angeles, the citadel of the game, but now the only chances I get are on airplanes, if my companion is willing. Otherwise, I deal myself bridge hands. Finally, there are the endless card games I play with my children—War, Old Maid, Memory, I Doubt It, Go Fish, Dead Man's Hope and Crazy Eights.
As for other games, you can always talk me into Monopoly, Scrabble, billiards, jotto, salvo and darts. I am the only father on our block who plays kick the can on summer evenings. Last August I was crawling on my stomach through my neighbor's shrubbery while trying to retrieve an errant can when whom should I come upon in the semi-darkness but my neighbor himself, pruning his yard. It didn't matter. He already knew I was crazy.
Croquet? It is one of the great cutthroat games. Checkers? A forgotten art. Shuffleboard? A classic. I love them all.
I do not mean to belabor this, merely to drive home the point that I love action and that whatever game you name, I will play it and probably beat you. If I were to draw up my own decathlon of trivial skills, it would be a 10-mile run, tennis, cribbage, underwater swimming (for distance), foul shooting, croquet, checkers, distance throwing (rocks or balls), bridge and table tennis. In this decathlon, I would have sworn that I would have won a gold medal. But that was before Eddie Kantar came along.
We were both in Stockholm to cover the world championship of bridge. He was there with his girl, Valerie Calamaro, who is merely gorgeous. I was alone, and the three of us spent much of our time together. The hotel had a swimming pool and slot machines and a gambling hall, and there were tennis courts nearby. Finally, there were bridge people around every corner. It was a perfect atmosphere for competition.