John Gerber won fame as a player, as a strong team captain and as the inventor of the ace-asking 4*C* bid that bears his name. A more important legacy to bridge may be found in the lives he influenced and continues to influence.
“Chances are that I wouldn’t be playing bridge today if it hadn’t been for Gerber,” says Sidney Lazard, considered one of the all-time greats of the game.
Bobby Wolff, another legendary bridge figure, calls Gerber “a father figure.” Gerber, Wolff says, “may have had the most influence on me when I first started to play.”
Gerber (1906-1981) was a strong captain of North American teams and a fine player in his own right. He won four NABC titles, was nine times a runner-up and won many regional events. He represented North America in the Bermuda Bowl in 1961.
In recognition of these achievements, Gerber was elected to the ACBL Bridge Hall of Fame, the fourth Texan to be so honored (Wolff, Oswald Jacoby and Jim Jacoby are the others)
Lazard recalls playing with Gerber early in his own career. “I had about five mentors and he was certainly one of the main ones. The two strengths of my game — defense and tactics — I learned from Gerber. “His offensive bidding might have left something to be desired, but he was a fine defensive player and a fine tactical player.”
Gerber was one of the first to realize that if an opponent discarded a suit and there were four of that suit in dummy, the opponent likely had five or more. “And that was more than 30 years ago,” adds Lazard, “long before anyone else even thought about it.”
Wolff recalls kibitzing Gerber. “He had a tremendous feel for the game. I remember kibitzing once when the bidding went 1-Pass-2-Pass; Pass and he balanced with 3. He was vulnerable and if the opponents had stopped to double him, he would have gone down a bunch.
“Instead, they went to 3 and went down themselves. I asked him later why he had taken such a risk and his reply was, ’Did you check to see what our matchpoint score would have been for minus 110?’ ” Wolff says Gerber was “a dynamic matchpoint player. It seemed his score was always 200-plus with 156 average.”
Gerber was no slouch at board-a-match play either. His team (Mervin Key, Harold Rockaway and Paul Hodge) won the 1964 Reisinger, averaging 71% over four sessions.
His regular Texas team — Hodge, Ben Fain and George Heath — was “a very fine team in the Fifties and early Sixties,” recalls Dan Morse, a fellow Texan who now represents District 16 on the ACBL Board of Directors.
He also remembers Gerber, an early riser, sitting in the hotel lobby at NABCs “willing to give advice. He was better at giving advice than taking it.”
Morse, who has enjoyed considerable success as a non-playing captain, notes that Gerber was the non-playing captain of North American teams in Bermuda Bowl competition in 1962, 1963 and 1965.
In New York in 1962, he split the partnerships of Bobby Nail–Mervyn Key and Lew Mathe–Ron Von der Porten, putting Mathe and Nail together as partners in an unusual move that worked well and almost captured the title from Italy. “Gerber,” says Morse, “believed in good card play rather than long-established partnerships.”
The next year in St. Vincent, Italy, he again broke up a long-established partnership, pairing Nail with Howard Schenken and benching Peter Leventritt and Jim Jacoby. This move was not successful and may have cost the Americans the championship.
It followed a little known incident that occurred at the time Gerber arrived at the Grand Hotel Bilia. An anonymous letter written in Italian was delivered to him. He secured a translator, but after the first paragraph was read to him, he asked the translator to stop; to deliver the letter to Italy’s captain, Carl’ Alberto Perroux and to explain that Gerber had listened only to the first paragraph.
The writer had accused the Blue Team of cheating. Perroux, after reading the letter to his team, suggested that the match be played with screens running across the tables (this was 12 years before present-day screens were employed) — but Gerber would have none of it.
The goodwill engendered by this exchange inspired Perroux and his team to present their championship trophies to Gerber and the American team in what was described as the greatest act of sportsmanship in bridge history.
When Gerber’s daring move to pair Schenken with Nail backfired, he faced a lot of flak, but the ACBL Board of Directors nevertheless appointed him captain of the next Bermuda Bowl team in 1965. That was the time when two members of his team brought cheating charges against a British partnership.
Gerber spent 10 minutes in the grandstand watching the famous British pair who were accused of using finger signals to tell each other how many hearts were held. The 10 minutes were enough to convince him and he became one of the strongest witnesses against the pair when the World Bridge Federation suspended them.
A very strong captain, Gerber was a great player in his own right. He represented North America in the Bermuda Bowl in Buenos Aires 1961 and won the Chicago (now the Reisinger) in 1964, the Master Mixed Teams in 1964, the Men’s Pairs in 1959 and the Men’s Teams 1953. He placed 2nd in the Spingold in 1954 and 1967; the Chicago in 1957 and 1959; the Men’s Pairs 1957, the Master Mixed Teams in 1967, the Mixed Pairs in 1953and 1968 and the Life Master Men’s Pairs in 1974.