Card Playing: Page One

I don’t know how people learn to play bridge. Some take lessons I suppose, but most just pick it up.

When I was nine years old, my parents let me watch their bridge games with the neighbors. I sat behind Dad, by command. I was usually sent to bed before the conclusion. I don’t know where my parents learned the game, but they were fair players and did well—except against the Gassenheimers, who were good players. My father used to subscribe to some bridge pamphlet that he got weekly. There was always a double dummy hand by Emile Werk. Dad would Werk on it, pardon, for a while, and then tell me it was unsolvable. That would get my competitive juices going, and I would solve it. This would annoy Dad, and please him at the same time (he had such a smart son).

When I was twelve I started playing with other children in the neighborhood for a twentieth of a cent a point—two dollars if you were unlucky. I don’t know where I got the money. When I was about sixteen, I started playing against the best players in Montgomery, Julian and Hilda Slager—tournament players. They became close friends of mine. My partner against the Slagers was another friend, Perry Hewitt. These games were fun, and I have good memories. One memory isn’t bridge.

Perry asked me to meet him at a restaurant one night. We could discuss bridge while he had dinner—then he would drive me to the Slagers. I got to the restaurant just as Perry’s steak arrived. He started talking bridge. I said, “Perry, eat your steak while it’s hot.” He said he couldn’t until he got his coffee. I said, “Oh,” and talked bridge. Minutes later Perry’s coffee arrived. He poured the whole cup of coffee over the steak, and started to eat. This was a first, and a last for me. It is not recommended as a health hint—but we beat the Slagers that night.

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As I say elsewhere, I deteriorated to New York City. There I played at a bridge club. There were plenty of games, and a reasonable card fee. At the club I met Morrie Elis, one of the best player of the cards there ever was (not just my opinion). Morrie was not a great bidder. I should say that the game of bridge has changed since I was a boy. It had been Auction bridge, now it’s Contract. In Contract bridge the bidding is of great importance. You only get credit, or grief, for what you bid. In Auction bridge you get credit for what you make, whether you bid it or not. Contract bridge has the advantage of giving players more to yell about. They can call each other names for the bidding, as well as for the play. In some games the words “idiot” and “stupid” are heard as often as “diamonds” and “clubs.”

I started playing in bridge tournaments with Morrie Elis, and we did well. In one tournament, playing with Morrie, one of the most important things in my life occurred. We had just finished two hands against P. Hal Sims, a great player, author of the Sims System, and his partner Eddie van Vleck. We had gotten good scores. As we were leaving, Hal was making some pointed comments about Eddie’s bidding. I noticed Eddie’s neck getting red with what seemed suffused anger. Morrie and I were at the next table when there was a commotion. Eddie was on the floor having an epileptic attack, as I was told. The convulsions looked to me like a series of electrical shocks. Years later I remembered this. If I hadn’t seen it, A Remarkable Medicine Has Been Overlooked wouldn’t have been written.

At one of the tournaments I met Eddie Hymes, a member of the Cavendish Club. Eddie suggested that I join the Cavendish. He proposed me, and I became a member. At the Cavendish, the smallest game was for a half a cent a point. I played in that, and Eddie took half my game. A quarter of a cent was all I could afford. I hadn’t been a member long before Eddie Hymes started calling me “Baby Face.” I supposed it was because of my looks. I couldn’t be sure because there was a famous outlaw named “Baby Face” Nelson. Baby Face caught on, and I was called that at the Cavendish for decades.

At the Cavendish Club there were great players. There was a famous team, the Four Aces, which won more tournaments than anyone in those days. Strangely, there were five Four Aces, Oswald Jacoby, Howard Schenken, Jimmy Maier, David Burnstine, and Michael Gottlieb. And there were Johnny Crawford and Baron von Zedtwitz. At another club nearby, Crockford’s, Ely and Josephine Culbertson were members. Ely had invented Contract bridge, and deserves a lot of credit for it.

At the Cavendish, when I was playing with these outstanding players, I was always trying to bid as I thought they wanted me to bid. That’s not a good way to play bridge. You’ve got to have your own personality, your own style, and let your partner cooperate with you on an equal basis. So I didn’t do as well with those players as I should have.

When I was thirty, I devised a scientific method of playing gin rummy, and used it against Oswald Jacoby and Johnny Crawford, the best players, and beat them regularly. Indirectly this helped my bridge. I got respect. Now I could bid my hand as I thought I should, rather than as I thought they thought I should. Baron Waldemar von Zedtwitz—we called him Waldy—was an unusual person. In the first place, he was a multimillionaire. In the second place, he looked different from anyone I’ve ever seen. He was about six feet tall, very thin, almost nothing but bones. Waldy was nice, but extremely serious. He liked to play with me as a partner because I bid psychics (bids meant to fool the opponents, but sometimes they fooled partners). Waldy was good at picking up psychics. Waldy was renowned for guessing Queens. If a Queen could be finessed either way, he was great at guessing who had it. He told me he worked on vibes.

One afternoon the Baron and Harold Vanderbilt, the yachtsman, we called him Mike, were playing at Crockford’s. They were playing Josephine and Ely Culbertson for large stakes—not to Mike or Waldy, but to me. I was the only kibitzer, behind Waldy. There was a hand; Waldy played in four hearts. To make his contract he had to guess which of the Culbertsons had the queen of hearts. The opening lead gave no indication. I was sitting in back of the Baron, enjoying the situation. I think he was aware of my thoughts. Waldy played a couple of side suits. Then he went into his act. He brought his right arm up over his head, and started kneading his left earlobe with his fingertips. He did this for a while. Then he reversed the procedure, and kneaded his right earlobe with his left hand. Then he went all out. He put his cards on the table and put both arms over his head, and kneaded both ears. The strain on the opponents had gotten intolerable. Ely had the queen, and was looking innocent. Josephine was looking slightly guilty. Ely, to be casual, decided to rearrange his cards. Something went wrong, a card popped out of his hand and arched slowly to the floor to the right of Waldy—face up. It was the queen of hearts. The Baron “guessed” it.

Oswald Jacoby, captain of the Four Aces, and a brilliant bridge player, was a good friend of mine. Ozzie had an aptitude for probabilities, an essential in a job he’d had as insurance actuary. He quit the job because he preferred to gamble for a living. He won money at bridge, poker, gin rummy, and would bet on anything. When I began to make money, he told me he was glad he wasn’t rich, it would take the fun out of gambling—a profound thought. Next to gambling Ozzie’s favorite sport was eating. Frequently, after an afternoon session at the Cavendish, we would go to a nearby Longchamps restaurant. In the restaurant there was a large table with a variety of desserts. As we went in, Ozzie would pick up a strawberry tart or apple strudel and bring it to our table. He’d eat that as an appetizer. Then he’d have a shrimp cocktail, meal, and dessert.

I qualified for the Masters Bridge Championship when I was twenty-eight, and played in tournaments. But, as business got some of my attention, I gave up tournaments and just played rubber bridge. Later, when the Dreyfus Fund and Dreyfus & Co. occupied so much of my time, I gave the game up entirely, for about twenty-five years, and came back to it twenty years ago. I play at the Regency and the Cavendish now. Bridge players are funny characters. When they’re playing, the game is the only thing. They could have a view of Niagara Falls, but wouldn’t care if the drapes were drawn. And don’t try to tell a joke at a bridge table. You wouldn’t be heard over the arguments about the last hand.

When I was sixty-two, I miraculously won the United States Open Doubles Lawn Tennis Championship for sixties-and-over, at the Rockaway Hunt Club, with Gardnar Mulloy. It was Sunday afternoon, and I went to the Cavendish Club to play bridge. I cut into a game with three of my friends, including Ace Greenberg, senior partner of Bear, Stearns.

Braggarts give me a pain, but this was too good to hold in. I said, “You fellows will be pleased to know you’re playing with the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Doubles Champion.” There was silence. While they were searching for compliments, I was thinking of modest responses. Fifteen seconds went by. Then Ace said, “Deal.” I dealt. Come to think of it, fifteen seconds of pure silence, from bridge players, is an accolade.

Years ago I discovered an unusual way of playing gin rummy. I’ll include a lesson in gin. If you’re a gin player, this may be worth reading.

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