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Mechanicsburg

Prager_HeadshotPerhaps it was Jo Ann’s susceptibility to supplication by woebegone puppy dog moi, or maybe she was moved by the way I accentuated my preemptive banishment to the Partnership Desk at the Hunt Valley Regional by dropping down and lapping from our late Labrador Retriever’s water bowl, but she made good on her “We’ll see” chit in a way that I did not see coming.
“You can get up off the floor now, Fido,” she beckoned. “I get it. You want to go straight from Double-A Ball to The Big Show and be part of the starting lineup. Am I right?”
Woof! Woof! I shot up on my hind legs.
“Okay, then – here’s the deal. Three weeks ahead of Hunt Valley, District 4 has a regional in Mechanicsburg, just outside Harrisburg. We’ll go there, just you and me, for a couple days and see how we do. How about that? And enough with the cockamamie dog routine,” she protested, pushing me away. “You know I don’t like it when you pant and lick my face.”
The lure of travel to places we’ve never been before, with implied rewards of entertainment and intellectual enrichment, echoed in memory as we mounted up for Mechanicsburg. The drive from well south of Baltimore to northeast of Harrisburg took nearly two hours along first-generation ‘superhighway’ featuring twisty curves and patchwork roadbeds. Great fun, especially as I-83 around York, Pennsylvania, with its narrow lanes and corkscrew slalom course, is downright scary as all get-out.
The host facility was a hybrid accommodation hailing from the early 1970s. It was half motel – of the rudimentary, no-frills variety back when they were still called ‘motor hotels’ – and not quite half hotel, in that its hub did have meeting rooms but lacked in-house dining. For grub, one needed to go no further than the arterial highway one parking lot’s distance from the entrance, where fast food joints abounded, each a gaudy monument honoring America’s venerated and adored arteriosclerotic, hypertensive treats: salt, sugar, and fat.
What the Antediluvian Arms Motor Lodge (name changed to protect the inelegant) lacked in charm it more than made up for in seediness and disrepair. Dampness was rampant. Carpeting along connecting corridors squished creepily underfoot. Aromatic cocktails of offensive smells and suppressive applications of Lysol disinfectant could assault the nostrils at any turn. Having dwelled for a spell in student housing at U.C. Berkeley back in the day, I felt right at home.
Pregame cerebral calisthenics included the usual review of our convention cards, plus a menu of friendly do’s-and-don’ts tailored to address my penchant for daydreaming, an adjunct to lifelong affliction with medium to high degrees of ADHD – a considerately compact, cadenced acronym for Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. (I’m not a fan of being tagged as someone suffering from a ‘disorder’ or ‘syndrome’ or even a namby-pamby sounding ‘condition.’ Please, let’s stick with acronyms, where the less we know, the better.)
Herewith, my mentors’ hearty, healthy breakfast serving of Pregame Do’s-and Don’ts:

  • Stay focused. Think of bidding as common language conversations where the same words may have different meanings in context.
  • Remember – and alert – partner’s use of tricky conventions such as Drury and New Minor Forcing. Again, we’re talking about context.
  • As declarer, after the opening lead, count winners and losers – and map your initial strategy before calling for dummy’s card.

The locker-room preamble also included Stiff Upper Lip Commiserations and Reassurances in advance of flubs and drubbings:

  • Bridge is a game of errors; we learn from them.
  • Don’t let one bad hand bum you out. New board: clean slate.
  • Even if we’re doubled, vulnerable, and down three – it’s only one board.

Only many months later, on the cusp of a daylong teams event, would I be informed there was a codicil to that last sentiment: “Of course, you would not ever want that to happen in Knockouts or Swiss. The IMPs would kill you.” Imps? Trolls? Poltergeists? I had so, so much to learn.
Happily, the first morning’s open pairs competition proved to be survivable. Mantras that had been incanted so often by my three encouraging sponsors came to the fore and calmed the inner troubled waters of doubt and apprehension. One board doesn’t make or break the session. You have a partner; you’re in it together. Bidding is an open, four-party conversation. No secret handshakes: when in doubt, ask to see the convention card. Perfection is an illusion. Do your best, remember to breathe, and it’s all good. Bridge is a game … have fun!
At the end of the seventh round, the racket of a dot matrix printer clattered across the entire open expanse of the playing room. “Interim standings,” Jo Ann explained. “One more round to go.”
Three boards later, we were done. “When do we find out?” I asked, preferring, as did Don Vito Corleone, to receive bad news sooner rather than later.
“People are still playing, Honey. Let’s go get some lunch first, and then we’ll find out after we get back. They’ll be posted up on one side of that Section B stanchion over there.”
At Burger King, I greedily snarfed a half day’s calories, including a whole day’s ‘recommended’ allowances of fat and sodium, in the form of one glorious cheese Whopper and a small order of fries. There is something about being away from home which serves as a Get Out of Jail Free card for indulging in classic fast food. Especially if you are able to salve your conscience and expiate the sin by rationalizing, “At least I didn’t go for the large fries or a Big Mac.”
On our return to the playing room, Jo Ann led the way in navigating the forest of tree-like, paper-hung obelisks until we reached that of Section B. “I don’t see our names,” quoth I.
“Around here, Honey, to the East-West pairs,” she beckoned. “See for yourself.”
Mirabile dictu, we had scratched.
(To Be Continued)