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It was one of those odd days that sometimes occur in Los Angeles. In the morning it was cold, and a smaze closed the airports. You couldn't see the hills above the city. The sky was about 10 feet up, and a traffic light a block away was a wink of no particular color, though shaded with orange.
By early afternoon there would be a sudden glow in the smaze, and the day would turn sweat-hot. An hour later the glow would vanish. The tennis players would put on their windbreakers again at Rancho Park, out on Motor Avenue about halfway between the studios of 20th Century-Fox and MGM.
At an arrangement of small wooden bleachers beside one court, eight or 10 people in tennis whites crouched over a backgammon board. The next court down, on a similar arrangement of bleachers, sat a man in tennis clothes, dark glasses pushed atop a thick crop of black hair. From the court came the steady whacking of tennis balls back and forth, and an occasional cry or gasp, but the man rarely looked up. He was studying a stack of index cards covered with symbols and strange jottings that looked like something that might have been found on a stone slab in the ocean off the coast of Peru.
"I don't know, Billy and I will have to go through this pretty thoroughly," said Eddie Kantar, looking up from the cards for a moment. By Billy, he meant Billy Eisenberg—the rather short, bearded man who kept grinning as he ran from one side of the court to the other, returning shots as if each one was a pleasure to send back. Eisenberg and Kantar are bridge partners, one of the best pairs in the world. In addition, Eisenberg is a backgammon champion, the winner of the recent self-proclaimed World Championship in Las Vegas. In a two-event Olympiad—bridge and backgammon—Eisenberg would be the solid favorite. But not at tennis.
"I can't stand it," said a young man with a tennis racket in his hand and BEACH BUM on his T shirt. "Those guys will have the court all day for one set."
"Yeah, Billy has found somebody who plays tennis just like he does," Kantar said. "This could go on for hours." The young man groaned. Kantar looked at the cards again. He and Eisenberg have been playing bridge as partners since 1971 when Eisenberg left the Dallas Aces and moved to Los Angeles. As a pair they have won two national championships. Still, they are always searching for a better way. There are plenty of good bridge players, and a professional must be very sharp to survive. On the index cards was a system for bidding and opening leads that was slightly different from the one Kantar and Eisenberg had been using. They hadn't agreed to try it out, but it was something else to think about.
"You get to know your partner pretty well after a while," Kantar said. "You can detect tiny mannerisms, you know how he thinks. The problem is when he decides to do it your way, and you decided to do it his way, and you haven't told each other. That's the kind of trouble we want to avoid. Billy and I don't usually have any difficulty in communicating. He has a good memory, is competitive, and is cool under fire. But the main thing is, he knows what's going on all the time, he has a feel for what's happening.
"Not many people make a living out of bridge. Bridge tournaments are not oriented toward prize money. They hand out prestige and master points. But a lot of wealthy players want to win so bad they'll hire Billy or me to play with them. They want recognition. We've got recognition, we want the money."
Eisenberg finished the set and came over to the bleachers. He wiped sweat off his face, beard and tinted glasses with a towel and then dried the modest belly he has developed from years of sitting at tables. "Should I have beaten that guy?" he said. "I was tired until I saw him start to get tired, and then I thought I might have him, but he got me anyhow."
"Listen, about these cards..." said Kantar.