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In the old days the baron's most characteristic peculiarity was a constant and ferocious tugging at his ear lobes—a habit he was broken of by a friend who warned him a malignant growth might result. Von Zedtwitz has since shifted the point of attack to his large mop of white hair, darting his long pale fingers into it, twisting, kneading, knitting almost, as in the concentration of his play he remains completely unconscious of his surroundings. Vanderbilt recalls that some springs ago in Hollywood, Florida a waiter spilled an entire pitcher of water over Von Zedtwitz during tournament play with no apparent reaction that Vanderbilt, or the waiter, or anybody else there could note. "Well, he was in a huddle," Vanderbilt says matter-of-factly.
"A partnership is never better than its worst member," is an old bridge adage, and a good one. Vanderbilt and Von Zedtwitz have proved themselves a happy combination—their most notable achievements being the winning of the Vanderbilt Cup for the knockout team-of-four national championship in 1932 (the other members of their team were P. H. Sims and Willard S. Karn), in 1940 winning it with Edward Hymes Jr., Charles S. Loch-ridge and Robert McPherran.
The Vanderbilt Cup is an open duplicate tournament for teams of four or five players. Eight teams are seeded. After two qualifying sessions, the remaining 64 (formerly 32) teams play knockout matches, as in a tennis tournament, to determine the winner. A pair of one team plays against a pair of the other team at each of the two tables. The same hands are played at both tables but in reversed positions; for example, if a pair of one team bids and makes a slam in spades at the first table, the pair of the other team at the second table will have an opportunity to recoup their loss by bidding the same slam later, thus offering the best possible gauge of relative skill. If the pair at the second table fails to make the slam after bidding it, there occurs what bridge players call a "swing"—a difference of points scored on the same hand.
One such swing occurred in what was perhaps the most famous hand in Vanderbilt's 1932 victory for the Vanderbilt Cup. It happened in the quarter-final round, one of the most publicized hands in the entire history of tournament bridge, a hand full of drama and the one which is still Baron Von Zedtwitz's favorite (see opposite page).
The Vanderbilt group was playing against a team captained by Mrs. Ely Culbertson. Mrs. Culbertson and her partner, Mr. Huske, had long finished playing against P. H. Sims and Willard Karn, the other members of the Vanderbilt team. All of them were pacing up and down the Ritz-Carlton ballroom waiting for the Vanderbilt-Von Zedtwitz table to finish. Finally, as the last board was placed down, the official scorekeeper announced: "One board to go. Mrs. Culbertson's team leads by 210 points."
When Mrs. Culbertson and Mr. Huske had played the hand, they had arrived at a contract of four spades and had been set two tricks, not vulnerable, or 100 points, by Sims and Karn. It seemed an impossible situation for the Vanderbilt team. Sims, a big burly man built like a football tackle, muttered that the jig was up as he strode heavily around the ballroom, looking up from time to time to see Vanderbilt and Von Zedtwitz brooding over their cards. The suspense was increased by the fact that no kibitzers were allowed. Only one man was privileged to watch the players—the tournament director Alfred M. Gruenther, then a lieutenant, now the chief of NATO, and in bridge circles renowned as the dean of tournament directing. It was from Gruenther that the crowd had to await news of the progress of the match, and his next bulletin was electrifying. He announced that Von Zedtwitz had the contract at five diamonds.
P. H. Sims threw up his hands in despair. He had played the board in setting the Culbertson-Huske pair, and it seemed impossible to make five diamonds with the same cards that had resulted in a two-trick set at four spades. Pausing in front of his wife he said: "It can't be done. It's all over. They have to lose a spade, a heart, and..." Suddenly he grabbed a deck of cards, and with Mr. Culbertson, a crowd of players, kibitzers and reporters wedging him in so tightly against a bridge table that he could hardly manipulate the cards, Sims laid out the hands as he had remembered them (actually giving one too many trumps to the dummy). "He has a play for it," Sims whispered. "He has a play for five diamonds."
Vanderbilt was unaware of the suspense until, dummy on that last board, he walked across the ballroom to compare notes with his teammates. Informed of the dramatic circumstances in which the hand was being played, he crept back to his seat. Three tricks had been played. The baron had lost two, and was in a huddle—lost in concentration. Then suddenly he began to play his cards quickly and with authority, and with the announcement from Gruenther "the baron makes five diamonds!" the ballroom erupted into shouts better suited to the boxing arena. The crowd rushed for the bridge table. The cards were left in such a mess by the excited players that Gruenther had to call them back to straighten the hands out for proper recording. Mrs. Culbertson pushed through to congratulate Von Zedtwitz. For years he had been a member of the Culbertson team, making the journey to England that propelled the Culbertsons to fame. "As long as it was you, Waldy," she said to Von Zedtwitz, "congratulations!"
Following their victory in the quarter-final round the Vanderbilt team went on to win the tournament, playing a brand of bridge that prompted Charles Lochridge, who played against them in the finals, to say: "In all my experience in playing in bridge tournaments I have never encountered such perfect cardplaying as was displayed by our adversaries. I think it can be safely said that during the entire 30 boards there was not a bad bid or play made by either Mr. Von Zedtwitz or Mr. Vanderbilt."
An average bridge partnership fortunate enough to play a rubber or so against Vanderbilt and Von Zedtwitz would not have the uncomfortable and disastrous experience they might expect in playing against an expert team—unlike, say, taking on Gonzales and Segura in a tennis match. In fact, the bridge partnership might win a rubber or two, or even a number of them, depending on the luck of the cards; but in the process of play they would become increasingly aware of the vast weight of mental equipment brought to bear against them. By the time four tricks have been played an expert can come close to telling his opponents exactly what cards they hold. An expert's card memory is prodigious. P. H. Sims used to warn people who challenged him at gin rummy. "It wouldn't be an equal contest," he'd say. "Unless you get a perfect shuffle some cards will stay in the same order, and I'm the kind of fellow who can't help remembering the exact order in which the cards turned up for the previous three deals."