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Bridge was still strictly a U occupation in the middle '20s. Duplicate had not been born, and the only professionals played for high stakes in the old London clubs. They lived by their wits, but their birth had laid the foundations of their incomes.
Soon after leaving Cambridge with nothing but an arts degree, legal aspirations, and a few straight-grained briar pipes (bought out of my bridge winnings at the university), I joined a cock-and-hen club called The United Berkeley.
The women, who outnumbered the men by three to one, were most frightening. "Table up," one of them shouted across the room at me—a hesitant new boy standing by the fireplace, not knowing how to cut into a table. "Don't you want to play?" And then, in the same breath to one of her opponents, "You're out!" It was my misfortune to cut with this termagant. I had been brought up on the old whist rule of leading from my longest suit, however weak, against no trumps, and when I led from it again (duly giving my opponent his ninth trick), she withered me with the blast, "Don't you ever change your suit?"
One old lady arrived every afternoon like a ship in full sail; she wore skirts that swelled out all round, a well-boned or tightly laced front and a hat with an ostrich-feather plume. This majestic anachronism claimed she could trace her lineage back to King James I. She refused to sit at any but one table or to touch any silver coins which had not been washed and polished. She always carried a bagful of newly minted florins and shillings, and if she ever won she left the money on the table in front of her to pay for the next rubber. At another table, I once expressed admiration at her appearance, and one of the old cats told me that she kept an antique shop in Kensington. The poor soul was not considered U.
Another old lady, whose name escapes me, was conspicuous for strings of pearls which, her enemies alleged, were given to her by King Leopold II of the Belgians, for services rendered. After dealing, she once took a quick glance at her cards and announced that she had only 12. "Look under the table," said one of her opponents; "the missing card is sure to be there." And it was. As she bent down to pick it up, the opponent remarked casually, "She always does that when she has a bad hand." "Are you accusing me of cheating?" asked King Leopold's friend. "Well," was the reply, "you were thrown out of the Pall Mall Club." "So were you," retorted the other. "But not for cheating," was the final riposte.
My bridge and psychology had now so improved that I elevated myself to a higher tariff. Some of the half-crown players had read books on auction and thought that they could win by orthodox bidding without knowing how to handle the cards. "How are you getting on?" asked a friendly doctor one day. "I have just been massacred," I answered. "My partner made three mistakes in the last hand." "That is nothing," replied the doctor, "my partner made four mistakes to one trick; you work that out."
As a whole, table manners are best where the stake is highest. Charles Goren noticed that there were no acrimonious post-mortems in the Portland Club, and at The United Berkeley Club, the atmosphere was most serene in the top class. My best early lesson was the reproof of an opponent. He took me aside when I was correcting my partner and said: "Have you ever shouted down a tunnel?" Since then I have not taught bridge, except on paper; I could not afford to lose both my money and my temper.