A Milk-bone for the Pup

Prager_HeadshotTwo months of club play had been humbling, educational, stressful, enjoyable, psychedelic, enervating, energizing – all rolled into one. Never one for nauseating carnival and amusement park rides as a youngster, I had endured a rollercoaster of wildly diverse experiences and emotions. Although my ‘hit ratio’ of adverse director calls per session had dwindled to no more than one per five, it was nevertheless jarring to be the subject of the sudden and all too frequently bellowed cry for the cops: J’accuse!

In those moments or minutes before Madame or Monsieur Directeur arrives to gather the facts, how can one not commence to fret with pangs of uncertainty and a soupçon of incipient guilt? Just what did I do?
I tended to identify with Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo’s hunted protagonist from Les Misérables. Look what happened to that poor fellow’s life for the crime of having stolen a mere loaf of bread with which to feed his starving family: prison and lifelong branding as an outcast.
Imagine then my shock and dread when, as North, I made the opening lead of a mid-level diamond to a contract of 4HE, earning a war whoop of director, please! What fresh hell had I loosed unwittingly into the play of the hand? Why was ‘a lead out of turn,’ as my accusers and my partner thus identified the transgression, such a bugbear for all concerned, often heralded well before the arrival of the director with the rolling of eyes, guttural groans, and teeth-sucking tsking of the highest order?
I soon learned the answer: the recitation of the ACBL’s Law 54 is a stemwinder which, regardless of the number of times one may have heard it proclaimed at tableside, begs to be recited in its entirety – or in summary form close to it.
One day, as declarer and for the first time, I became the ‘beneficiary’ of a Law 54 director call when an opponent flagged their partner’s error. It was only then that I came to fully appreciate the awesome gravity of a lead out of turn: it is an anvil of decisional responsibility plopped in one’s lap. The director, duly informed of the infraction, speaks words which speak volumes: “You have five options.” The balance of the soliloquy, a tablet of commandments having been delivered a gazillion times before, ensues on automatic pilot. Accept the lead. Reject the lead. Become the dummy. Insist that the suit be led by the proper opponent. Require the proper opponent to make the lead of any suit other than the one exposed.
I inquired regarding the availability of a Magic 8-Ball or a Ouija Board. “I’m guessing that I’m not allowed to ask my partner.” I was not kidding. The director was not amused.
I was obliged to decide all on my own, with four sets of eyes boring into my skull. The situation was fraught with seismic import. The fate of the free world hung in the balance. Points were at stake – master points, hovering above, demanding fealty. The opening lead can make or break. Do I or don’t I? Left? Right? Up? Down? What are those five choices again? A chorus of marginally suppressed moans arose, including two from an adjacent table.
Thus did A Lead Out of Turn join my list of most unwelcome turns of events, vying for the top spot with being marooned on the Island of One Notrump, having to make that most challenging of seven-trick contracts.
Four more weeks of Classroom à la Club apprenticeship earned my promotion to the non-ACBL sanctioned rank of (Cross Your Fingers) Fit for Tournament Play by Jo Ann, Contessa, and Mavis. I had come to the club after a Monday morning game to chauffeur Jo Ann back home and found the coven of three engaged in earnest conversation at a table near the entrance.
I ambled toward the rear, so as not to intrude, and pretended to study the prior week’s results tacked to the walls as I eavesdropped:
Mavis – “I think he’s ready.”
Contessa – “Ready for what?”
Jo Ann – “He’s sharper than he looks.”
I detected mention of something called The Hunt Valley Regional. Plans were being made for the mid-August tournament.
Jo Ann made it official on the ride home, briefing me on the committee’s findings. “You should come, too,” she invited. “Get a taste of what it’s like to compete on a larger scale with a whole bunch of new faces. Plus, being a regional, there are gold points and red points in the offing. We can fix you up at the Partnership Desk.”
It was a lot to take in, break down, and analyze. Gold Points and Red Points are pigmented incentives for those striving to climb higher in the official rankings. I coveted them not, however. Cured meats, pasta, and ice cream are my motivational hot buttons.
Then there was that “you should come, too” modifier, as if I were an afterthought in the scheme of things. Yes, I did understand that Jo Ann had standing commitments with Contessa and others. Her dance card was chock-a-block with Swiss Teams events and pairs double sessions named for people and places known exclusively in bridge circles – such as the Lucas Abernathy Memorial Tidewater Crab Pot Gold Rush Series.
“Remember, Gordon, you’re still a puppy,” whispered the devil’s advocate gremlin perched on my shoulder. “Yes,” I retorted, “but relationship capital should count for something. I am, after all, The Husband.”
I must have muttered that last part out loud. “I concur,” Jo Ann concurred, “and I wouldn’t trade you for any other – unless the offer was absolutely compelling.”
I forced a laugh and summoned my innermost plaintive, unassuming juvenile basset hound beseechment: “The tournament. Maybe you could squeeze me in somewhere?”
“Of course. We’ll see how things work out,” she replied, nodding affirmatively. “Can’t promise, Honey, but we’ll see.”
Yes, I was a whelp, newly graduated from the puppy farm. Thus, much though I would have preferred to dine on an entire can of Ken-L-Ration or a fat handful of savory Snausages, I settled instead for the Milk-Bone: “We’ll see.”
(To Be Continued)