How big a handicap can a bridge expert give his opponents and still win? And what kind of advantage can he afford to offer? In the past these fascinating problems have been tackled in some unusual ways.
In the days of the rugged individualists it was not uncommon for a bridge argument to wind up with the challenge, "Name your stakes and get yourself a partner." A player skilled in the wiles of gamesmanship might add a bit of amateur acupuncture via: "We'll play you for 20� a point and give you half your money back if you lose."
This isn't quite the same as the 2-to-1 odds that P. Hal Sims once accepted in return for giving Ely Culbertson the ace of spades on every deal. Sims forgot to add an essential stipulation: pay off at the end of every rubber. Upon discovering this error, he managed to recoup some of his losses by arranging a new match on slightly different terms. But B. Jay Becker, Sims' partner at the time, recalls, "We were very lucky and won a little, but it still wasn't enough." Sims was also the one who, when asked for a handicap by a couple of inexperienced opponents, thought a moment, then said, "O.K., you can cheat."
In an earlier day Culbertson once tacitly agreed to comparable odds when he and his wife Josephine found that the pigeons they were playing against were a pair of crooks. Their signals were so obvious that Jo couldn't understand why her husband didn't stop the game and she called him aside for a conference. "I know they're cheating, darling," Ely assured her. "But they don't know what to do with their information. I do."
A similar idea was recently the basis for perhaps the most remarkable handicap ever offered. In an exhibition staged by the American Contract Bridge League at its Fall Nationals in Lancaster, Pa., four members of the world champion Aces played six deals against four bridge-playing athletes—baseball's Tim McCarver, Jim Bunning and Richie Ashburn and pro golfer Frank Beard—who were allowed to pass their hands across the table for a 15-second study before the bidding began. What is more, if the athletes became the defenders they were permitted to take an additional five-second refresher look at each other's cards.
Such a handicap would normally have been devastating except for the fact that the hands were prepared in advance by Eddie Kantar, West Coast bridge star and co-author with Jackson Stanley of a new book called Gamesman Bridge (Liveright, $5.95). Kantar built a gimmick into each deal, expecting that in some cases it might be missed by the athletes but found, without benefit of a peek, by Aces Mike Lawrence, Bob Hamman, Bob Wolff and Bob Goldman.
A throng of spectators watching on Vu-Graph found the show both amusing and exciting, even though the programmed plays did not always come off. In the second deal of the match (below), however, Kantar's canny contrivance worked exactly as planned—for the athletes.
The athletes had been advised to bid whatever they thought they could make, hence McCarver's jump to three no-trump. West won the first trick with the king of hearts but could not continue the suit, so McCarver galloped home with the obvious 10 tricks. When the hand was replayed, the audience watched as Lawrence opened the South hand with one no trump, Goldman jumped to three and Ashburn (East) added foresight to hindsight (he had of course seen his partner's cards) by doubling!
Beard, who was also aware of the situation, led the king of hearts, Ashburn overtook with the ace and the athletes waltzed home with the first five tricks.
"You should have built in a double-cross," the Aces complained to Kantar. "Give South four hearts to the 10 and...."