A couple of weeks from now two official, undefeated world champion bridge teams—Italy's famous Blues and America's Aces—will be competing in the World Bridge Olympiad for sole claim to the world title. A paradox? Not really. Let me explain.
Every fourth year, beginning in 1960 in Turin, Italy, the battle for the world team championship of contract bridge has been waged under rules that are different from those of other years, when four or five zonal champions collide in head-to-head competition against the defending world champion and each other for the Bermuda Bowl. Instead, in Olympic years any country belonging to the World Bridge Federation may send a team to the World Olympiad. The Aces, Bermuda Bowl winners in 1970 and '71, won the right to represent the U.S. in this year's Olympiad (SI, Nov. 8). The Blues, defending Olympiad champions (they won in 1968 and in 1964) as well as 10-time Bermuda Bowl victors before they retired unbeaten in 1969, were, of course, the automatic choice to uphold Italy's honor.
The 1972 Olympiad—so-called because bridge is not an Olympic sport—will be held at the Americana of Bal Harbour Hotel in Miami Beach June 9-24. It will be the biggest ever. In addition to the U.S. and Italy, 38 other nations and territories will be represented. The previous record of 33 countries was set in Deauville, France in 1968, in spite of a general strike that kept two teams from getting there at all.
Miami's record-breaking entry will also mean that the pigeons will be tossed into the same pit with the hawks, for a complete round robin of 20-deal matches—three sessions a day for 13 exhausting days—will have to be played before the four eventual leaders can get down to the real business of settling the world championship. On Thursday, June 22, the 14th day without a breather, the four top teams will at last pair off (the leading team will get to choose its opponent) in a one-day, two-session semifinal of 64 deals. The two winners will then commence a three-session 88-deal final: two more 32-deal sessions on Friday followed by 24 boards on Saturday afternoon, immediately preceding the victory banquet that will bring this bridge marathon to a close.
No one is forcing me to climb out on a limb, but I would venture to say that the two finalists will be the Blue Team and the Aces. Which two of the other teams make it to the semifinals will depend on how devastatingly some of the hawks pluck the chickens in the opening 13-day scramble.
Thus, in the early going at least, every match will be worth watching. And a spectator wandering into the vast Open Room, the ballroom of the Americana, will find 28 tables to choose from—nine from the women's team championship, which will be contested simultaneously, and 19 of the 20 open tables from the main event. There will be one stipulation, however. Spectators wishing to watch at tableside will have to be seated before play begins, since the same 20 deals will be used in each of the matches. Doings at the 20th open table, which will be located in a room by itself, will be shown on closed-circuit television, accompanied by expert commentary and rear-screen projection of all four hands, in a theater-style setting for several hundred kibitzers who may enter at any time.
In previous Olympiads one could judge the importance of a particular match by the size of the gallery. This was not always true in Deauville, however, where Omar Sharif, playing on Egypt's team, was the biggest draw. His imposing crowd of kibitzers was not limited entirely to bridge enthusiasts. Two young ladies, who for hours had adored every move the actor made, afterward approached an official with a surprising question: "Tell us, sir, what game is Omar playing?"
But Omar will not be playing in Miami. Egypt's entry was canceled at the last moment when Sharif decided to remain in France to attend to his racing stable, the only sporting activity that can, for Omar, take precedence over bridge. This leaves Lebanon as the one Arab team that will, by political necessity, be forced to forfeit its match to Israel. In 1964, and again in 1968, both the Lebanese and U.A.R. teams sat out their matches against the Israelis, although in Deauville Omar expressed his differing personal view by playing one board with members of the Israeli team. Sharif's unmistakable gesture nonetheless failed to appease some of the Israeli sympathizers. About a year later the convention manager of Grossinger's was offered the attraction of an appearance at that Catskill Mountain resort by Omar and his Bridge Circus, which included members of the Blue Team. The manager's reply was swift and brief: "I think that first we would close the hotel."
This year's tournament is also scheduled to make strange political tablefellows. During the wheeling and dealing to have Morocco accepted as a new member of the World Bridge Federation and an entrant in the Olympiad, it was reportedly agreed that the Moroccan team would play all scheduled opponents, including Israel. Whether or not this proves to be true, Lebanon for sure will be conferring an advantage on Israel—at least 12 victory points for the forfeited match. Far more important, Israel will enjoy the enormous benefit of a bye round in a schedule that makes physical endurance a prime factor in determining the four eventual survivors.
My picks for the semifinals aside from the Aces and the Blues? Let's look at the Olympiad record. In 1960, when France won to break Italy's otherwise uninterrupted skein of world titles between 1957 and 1969, the other finalists were Great Britain and three teams from the U.S. (Thereafter, the rules were changed and entries limited to one team per country.) In 1964 the finalists were Italy, Great Britain, Canada and the U.S. In 1968 this cast had a single change: Britain sent no team to Deauville and The Netherlands finished fourth. But Switzerland and Australia came within an eyelash of getting into the semifinals, as they had in 1964, while Belgium finished a surprising seventh in the qualifying round and France wound up a disappointing eighth.