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First held in 1929 in New York City less than four years after Harold Vanderbilt invented the game, the Goldman Pairs competition is the oldest major pairs championship in contract bridge. The winners back in 1929 were George Reith, 52, a Manhattan stockbroker well known in auction-bridge circles, and a mercurial kid from Brooklyn barely half his age named Oswald Jacoby. That was the year Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics began their three-year domination of the American League. Babe Ruth won his 10th home-run championship, Bobby Jones won the U.S. Open and Walter Hagen the British Open, Albie Booth was quarterbacking at Yale, and Knute Rockne coached Notre Dame to another undefeated, untied season.
In May 1978, in New York, where the venerable Goldman Pairs championship was celebrating its 50th year of competition, one of the leading contenders for the Goldman Trophy—he eventually finished 10th in a field of 104 pairs—was that same mercurial kid from Brooklyn, Oswald Jacoby, now 75 years old.
Jacoby, the guest of honor at the Goldman as well as a participant, hurried into the Rhinelander Room at the New York Hilton like a well-stoked steam engine, his white hair frothing above an intense and intelligent face that resembled a cross between Ezra Pound's and Robert Graves'. He bustled from table to table as though he were in competition with himself to see how many hands he could shake. There has hardly been a waking second in Jacoby's life when he has not been in a contest with somebody over something. He not only won the first Goldman Trophy, but he has also won more national bridge championships (32) than all but two other players, John Crawford (37) and Howard Schenken (32). He played his first hand of bridge whist at the age of six with the Jacoby family doctor in Brooklyn. He played his first game of poker when he was eight, against some older children one rainy afternoon; he won the big pot of the day, he recalls—60�, or 12 weeks' worth of allowances—when he drew three kings to a pair of sevens. "That started me off on my career," he jokes. Nearly 70 years later he'll still take on just about anybody in the world at just about any game—bridge, poker, backgammon, you name it—and, what's more, he'll put his money where his mouth is.
"There have always been people better than me at some game," Jacoby says, "even when I was in my prime. But I am still the best player of all games in the world today. There's no one around who can beat me."
Aggressive talk from an aggressive man. No one has ever accused Oswald Jacoby of being modest.
"Jake!" the bridge players at the Hilton called. "Ozzie! Over here!" Because Jacoby has lived in Dallas since 1937, most Eastern players seldom get to see him except at major tournaments like the Goldman. They respect him, admire him, even love him. Everyone in the room, whatever his age, had learned something from Jacoby, had kibitzed his masterful play, had read one of his dozen-odd books, had studied his syndicated columns, had used his numerous bidding innovations—the weak jump overcall, the Jacoby transfer, the Jacoby two no trump. Few at the Hilton had not been beaten by him at something—bridge, backgammon, gin rummy or pinochle, or even at tennis, or who would win the World Series, or who could multiply 647,992 by 435,638 fastest in his head.
There were a few, too, who had suffered Jacoby's well-known flashes of anger, then glowed in his instant warmth; or who had borne the brunt of his caustic wit, then bathed in his instant camaraderie. But there was no one there, absolutely no one, who could keep up with the man, with his 100-mph speech, his dizzying leaps of logic, his enthusiasm, his ebullience. E. J. Kahn Jr., writing in The New Yorker, called Jacoby the elder statesman of games, likening him to Bernard Baruch counseling Presidents in the White House. He's more than that. He's Bernard Baruch with a propeller beanie on his head, an elder statesman with the zest and joie de vivre of a bright-eyed 12-year-old setting out to conquer the world.
"Ozzie is beautifully childlike," says present world bridge and former world backgammon champion Billy Eisenberg. "He's the most amazing man I've ever seen. At 75 he's got more enthusiasm than 10 people, and it's incredibly contagious. People want to jump into the water and splash around where everybody's having a good time, and that's what happens when he comes into a room. He's magnetically alive. He's like a vortex of energy going around and around."
Most of the serious contenders at the Goldman, as at any major bridge tournament, were in their 20s and 30s; the concentration, mental endurance and physical stamina required for long hours of high-level bridge virtually preclude anyone much beyond 50 or so from standing a chance. However, Jacoby, honorary guest though he was, had not been dug up out of mothballs for the occasion like an old battleship. Far from it. Other aging bridge greats might retire, but Jacoby says, "I seem to go on forever."
Two weeks before the Goldman, he had played in the Cavendish Invitational Bridge Tournament in New York and came in fifth in a field of 40 pairs that included the very best bridge players in the world. The following week in Boston he won the New England Backgammon Club's charity tournament for the Boston Symphony, where, along with his wife, who is one of the best women backgammon players in the world, he was, again, the guest of honor. "If a man lives long enough and doesn't go to jail," Jacoby says, "he gets honored for something or other."