In mankind’s journey through time, generations of storytellers preserved epic events by oral tradition. They enriched their stories over countless campfires, weaving in life lessons the storytellers sought to impart into their clans, not shy about molding the stories to meet the inspirational needs of the time. Who knows what triggered the chain of stories which yielded Beowulf. We are left only with how that epic story was told when it found its way into print centuries later.
Which brings us to post-World War II America, a time war veterans were devoted to proper upbringing of their children, which meant school, church, and . . . bridge. Bridge was de rigeur. The lady of the house tended to the social refinements appurtenant to a “night of bridge;” kids learned what “etiquette” meant by what it meant in the context of a “night of bridge.”
Parents knew from their own experiences that the game teaches important lessons not taught in school. Besides, the parents loved the game, and what’s there to do in those years of scarce television, especially where we lived, miles away from anybody at the end of a dirt road, after cows are milked? Little did parents know how halcyon those years were–the world being so simple, kids were spared the vexations inherent in having so many choices, which made it easy to say, “tonight, we learn bridge.”
Before my first session, little did I realize I was about to be exposed to a spectrum of disciplines at age six that colleges exalt as fundamental, taught with an alpha arsenal of teachers’ aids: the thrill of a game; the exhilaration of chocolates; the bonding of family–a milieu where kids can sense parents as thrilled as kids; the tranquility of down time, Friday or Saturday night; and the ultimate of all–learning by doing, where doing is a game. A humanities professor with a Renaissance-man background (board-certified psychiatrist; Navy surgeon, Vietnam), told me no teaching technique is more effective than using kids’ own passions as the engine to motivate them to further their own education; that bridge and chess should be required courses in grammar school.
The spectrum of disciplines began with communications: how bridge owes its name to the importance of effective communication: bidding allows partners to ‘bridge’ the information gap, and teaches the art of effective listening, not just to your partner but the opponents. Just like in real life.
Math and logic: counting, scoring, “premiums” for doubled contracts; “penalties” for going down. The mathematical implications of distribution: voids can neutralize10 points in an opponent’s hand, if you’re on offense, and help defeat contracts on defense. Math interfacing with logic in an endless matrix of context and variables.
Economics and business: what a “contract” means, how you’re free to enter into any contract you want to in bridge just like real life, with rewards if fulfilled and penalties if not. How to deal with failure–there’s always a next hand. The virtues of patience and discipline, don’t overbid to make up for mistakes; you can lose and lose, yet win the night on one hand if you’re patient and disciplined.
Logic, philosophy, and language: the meanings of “convention” and “Standard-American”. “ARCH” (analyze the opening lead; review the bidding; count losers and winners; then ask, “how can I make the hand?”)–a fertile springboard for practical application of methodology, counting, psychology, risk and creativity. Deductive reasoning–you can learn by what is not bid, as well as by body language.
History and geography: leaders like Eisenhower and Churchill on two continents gauged men’s potential in war by their tendencies in the game of bridge–assessments that helped win World War II. Patton [played with Ike, Bradley and Marshall in the third basement of Bentley Hotel in Alexandria (we saw the tables and plaques there), thus we learned about ten military bases in Louisiana] studied psychological profiles of his adversaries to glean critical tendencies.
Psychology and more history and geography: feints and psyche bids in bridge are like feints and psyches in battle; Normandy was one big risky feint, which could have backfired (just like feints and psyche bids can in bridge); Longstreet marched his troops
around a town seven times, which feint prevented the Union Army from attacking. Sacrifices are like the British sinking the French fleet when the Germans captured France–a calculated decision that losing the fleet (going down) would help more than I it hurt.
Ethics, which segues into religion and tolerance. Ethics:” bidding means representations to your partner; in the play, yes, you can cheat, but you’ll take the fun out, lose your reputation, and fail, just like in the game of life; all known religions ban cheating–the Good Book, Quran, Torah, Analects of Confucius; an Allied ship was in an Axis harbor when WWI broke out, its captain and the Turkish military leader played a night of bridge to see whether the ship would be released; we got the globe out and learned where Turkey was and who the Axis powers were, and Dad continued: “The Allied officer and his XO won the match, the Turkish leader honored his commitment, and released the ship; Moslems are good folks: they go back to Abraham just like Jews and we Christians do.”
The game exemplified these disciplines in real time. A feint: Dad was declarer. I tabled my hand as dummy, and sat behind him to watch. He was in 3NT, holding 8 3 2 of clubs and Q 9 in the dummy (if I squeaked a bid, Dad would jump to 3NT, his bread and butter contract). He needed someone to lead into one of his suits–he had a collage of jacks and eights under kings and aces–before the ladies clobbered our contract with a club lead (they had eight of ‘em). I thought we were dead.
While the strings of pain were tightening in my psyche, however, Dad pulled out .. . the 2 of . . . clubs! The two of . . . clubs? Took my breath away. Mom played low; Dad inserted the 9, and Sue played the jack. Sue thought and thought, and led back . . a heart! Into Dad’s strength. It was riveting. He had demonstrated the fine art of a feint.
The bridge table was gilded with kings, queens, chocolates and cashew nuts, and our learning curve shot up exponentially with each match. Soon, our minds were spinning in the magic of finesse (neutralizing force), intrigue (voids can vaporize 10 points in a defender’s hand, simply amazing) and confidence (you bid it; you play it). So, small wonder the magical hooks of the game were set early and deep. Bridge assumed center stage in another family’s heritage.
Which brings us to that Saturday night, where an event so epic occurred in 1957, it triggered an oral tradition in our family that rivals Beowulf. Dad and I were playing the “girls”, Mom and Sue (my older sister by a year) . It was a must-win night for us boys: the girls had come from way behind the night before–Mom had bid a slam to win the last rubber. How they had won both matches the previous weekend was too awful for words (but when you’re vulnerable and need one lousy part score to win the final rubber and thus win three straight matches, however, you never know how vulnerable you are until Mom doubles).
The injustice of those dark nights, therefore, meant this night is ours. It must be. As Beowulf said, “It’s more worthy to avenge injustice than to mourn”.
It’s 10 o’clock. The stillness of the night has been broken repeatedly by primal screams you’d expect from 5-0 trump splits and ‘down-two-doubled and vulnerable,’ and taunts sung by Sue like a ballad to ensure they’re rubbed in (taunting, a sister’s way of beating into you a life lesson: how to take a ribbing. “Zero tolerance” had not entered the Southern mind in bridge any more than in football. Kids got no trophy for losing).
It was the fifth rubber. Victory hinged on who wins the final game. Both sides vulnerable. Dad and I had a 90 part score. I had a new wedge of chocolate cake a la mode. The mode was homemade vanilla ice cream–nirvana.
I was looking at S KQJ109, H A7, D 543 and C KJ9. Fourteen good points. Fifteen counting the heart doubleton. My inner guardian angel saw it, too. She whispered, “Justice, my dear one!”
I opened a spade.
The table went silent. The implications of the 90-leg, both vulnerable–the fourth straight match ours to win by patching a lousy part score–hung over the table like a powder keg with its fuse hanging there in plain sight, ready for a match.
Sue bid two clubs (study your adversary: a ten-year old adult, she established the family’s Inquisition Department, anointing herself as Destroyer of Evil; poured a bottle of Dad’s blackberry wine down the kitchen sink; to her, psyches and sacrificing are “cardinal sins;” ‘misrepresenting’ your hand is evil).
Sue’s bid means five clubs and 13high-card points, bank on it.
Dad bid two hearts (study your partner: Dad was one for psyches and sacrificing). But this is too early for either. His bid means five hearts and 10-plus ‘points’ (caveat: to Dad, those ‘points’ get multiplied when he has singletons and voids). (Math: 14 + 13 +10 = 37, subject to said caveat).
Mom did not hesitate. “Three notrump.” Turned to me and smiled. (Study your adversary: Mom, the mentor de la maison, taught the game to the family. Uses Sue’s reliability as a fulcrum for maneuvering, which makes Mom dangerous; yet, Mom’s dangerous anyway). (Math: Mom wouldn’t bid 3NT with three points. So, now all you can count on is your own 14 points . . ., so switch to psychology: Mom is smiling, Dad is serious. Mom did not hesitate!)
It’s life or death now. All eyes are on me. Do I bid on? Do I pass? Do I double–like Mom did to wreak injustice the last three matches?
Justice owes us boys. The endorphins from the cake and ice cream were streaming double! into my inner ear and the thrill of impending victory through my veins. Justice gives you opportunities like these to let Her Performe Her Handiworke. Justice prevailson the Strengthe of Hands like This Hand, aided by the Good Judgement of Her Faitheful Servante. Moi. It will take but one word. DOUBLE!!!!!
Yea, though I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death with my double, I have two outside entries. Surely. I’m thinking 1,100.
A small voice broke the rising advent of euphoria, whispering, “Not so fast.” Mom’s wearing her game face; yes, if she’s about to lose the night, she may sacrifice.
But why sacrifice so early in the bidding?
No, kill that thought–all we needed was a two bid to win this match. So she can’t be sacrificing. Then, it dawned on me: all they need is a game; 3NT is just that.
So what is Mom doing? Defying the hand of Justice? The face of justice: 1,100. The face of injustice: if I bid 4 spades, and Dad has psyched, Mom doubles with five of my spades–and it could be 1,100 to the girls.
Discipline: Dad has a bid; if he’s void in clubs, has a ton of my spades, he’ll raise. If not, he may double. But no: he cannot know how strong my spades are; if I don’t double, and double now, we miss 1,100.
The silent table watched the silken chocolate wedge of cake on my fork, graced with two pecan halves, balance its way under a silken floret of ice cream en route to the part of my anatomy the table sensed would chew on the matter awhile–a gastro-cerebral pause to be followed by the words on which so much depends: my next bid.
The warm luxury of the chocolate triggered a comforting thought: I have two outside entries! Dad must have at least one! It’s clear now: Mom’s kidding. 1,100 has become crystal clear. I can feel it.
So with quiet deference to la femme de la maison, I politely interjected “Double” into the silent tension. If Mom can double her only son and her only husband, like she’d done unapologetically in the recent past, I can double my only mom and Sue (she’s not my only sister, anyway).
Eyes passed to Sue. I forgot: Sue has a bid. It can change things.
Sue’s eyes swept her cards. She ended up staring at one suit–to the right side of her hand: keeps her clubs there. She wants to bid. Is she yielding to some unseen restraint? What can it be?
It dawned on me: the words, “trust your partner” rang in my ears. Months ago, Mom doubled us at four hearts; Sue sacrificed with five clubs; they went down 800, yet we would not have made four hearts (down two, vulnerable, it would have been). “Trust your partner” is gospel if you’re Mom’s partner.
So, as I expected, Sue said “Pass”, but she looked down! Meaning: she thinks she’s done wrong.
The table turned to Dad. His forehead wrinkled. A veteran of two wars, yet in the grips of an adult-level worry. Stared at his cards. A shock rose in my inner self: Sue’s downward look was not lost on Dad. Sue will not psyche with a bid, but she has learned how to psyche with a downward look. Is she psyching? Does she have a runnable suit? No. She bid clubs and I have king and jack, protected by a nine.
Dad shook his head, lifted his eyebrows, and stared out into the night as deductions processed. My guess: he will take Sue’s downward look at face value: she’s worried. He broke the silence with a half-hearted pass, as if resigned to fate. Mom passed with her usual smile: she’s challenged her loved ones and quieted the night.
Confidently, I reached over and placed the spade king in the middle of the table. The full deal:
“Thank you, sweetheart,” Mom said. With a half chuckle. Not with confidence! It dawned on me: true-blue Sue committed a cardinal sin! She does not have 13 high-card points! Justice, come home to daddy! I can smell 1,100.
Mom stared at Sue’s clubs. Mom ARCHed and ARCHed some more. Seconds ran like molasses. “Win a few, lose a few,” she said, finally, as she smiled and put her ace of spades on the table.
Words like those and, “Nothing ventured nothing gained” shot fear into us boys. They mean Mom has harnessed the forces of intellect and is launching them against us. Mom taught us to ARCH. She’s dangerous then, because when she’s the ARCH-er, that means we’re the ARCH-ees. The targets. I can no longer taste any chocolate.
Mom led the club six. I played the nine . . . as smoothly as I could. I did not want to worry my king and jack all alone there in my hand. Ha! This will be it for clubs. A finesse with the queen will mean a club trick for the boys.
Mom reached over and played . . . the 10 (!)
Can that be? The 10?!! Mom played . . . the 10!!!???
My breathing stopped. What? A double finesse? Who does that when it’s life or death? Nobody taught us that. Has anybody ever done that in the history of bridge?
When Mom saw the 10 hold, she laughed one of her multi-functional laughs: she’s laughing at our agony as much as at the thrill of her success. Like when Dad hits his finger with a hammer, for example, his antics make Mom laugh–those things get her tickled.
Then Mom said, “OK, nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and led Sue’s little diamond. Dad played the nine, and Mom played another 10 (!) I can’t beat the 10!
When that held, her laugh took on a resonance; a quantum of infectiousness. Dad shook his head. Don’t tell me: Dad has the king and jack of diamonds?
The issue is far from settled. It remains to be seen how the suits will split–the table turned silent. But Sue’s ribbing still echoes through the ages, so I’ll save myself the pain of a further blow-by-blow: you can see how it ended for the boys.
Two double finesses! One measly jack in the wrong hand could have saved the Titanic! Two suits should not break three-three!
It was too fantastic for words. Opposing currents of agony and ecstasy twisted the scene into a tornado of commotion which echoed over the mountains and through the valleys, alarming the night creatures and even the day creatures trying to sleep.
The Hand established its own oral tradition, shaped over the years by story tellers in three states. One embellishment found it’s way back to me: “The cicadas got confused by all the racket and came out seven years early on that very night.”
Over the years, one conclusion clarified: the pain Dad and I felt had yielded to a wave of inspiration from Mom’s courage. Kantar had not published, we had no Goren columns to read–so, to us, the magic of a double finesse was compounded by the fact that there had been two of them.
Like that forgotten figure in the mists of time who saw fit to reduce the oral tradition of Beowulf into writing, I thought it was about time for me to follow suit. Mom left us not long ago, and I wrote a book to chronicle the courage she displayed in her life on many fronts, citing many examples, this bridge hand in the forefront. The book ends with, “No one is ever gone so long as there is someone to remember them.”
Hopefully, the psychotherapeutic and intellectual empowerment bridge can have on younger generations will never be gone as long as there’s someone to remember that empowerment. Someone who can divine a way to plant the seeds of that empowerment in the fertile ground of education. Bridge upstaged Beowulf one night in the back woods of Alabama. If only it can upstage the likes of Nintendo and Warcraft in a future generation of minds.