Judging by this last furious fortnight, it seems that the whole of Britain is one seething card table.
A conference of playing-card manufacturers from 30 different nations listened politely to my opinion of the future of cards and card games. I told them not to worry, but I am certain they took greater comfort from seeing the crowds that overflowed the 500 kibitzers' chairs ranged outside the "fishbowl" at Selfridges department store in London. Inside that fishbowl, bridge stars of 24 different countries went on view as they battled for the British Bridge World Challenge Cup. My partner, Helen Sobel, and I (pictured above, playing against England) were fortunate enough to win this cup with a score of 1,027. The other U.S. team of Martin Cohn and Sanford Brown was runner-up. Belgium placed third and France fourth. Twenty-four countries competed under their national flags, making the hall look like an arena for the Olympic Games.
Everywhere I went, I found evidence to prove that London bridge is not slipping. Quite the contrary.
It was not always thus. From 1930 on, if you heard an Englishman slowdirging London Bridge Is Falling Down, it would have been reasonable to presume that he was a devotee of the pasteboard wars, lamenting the low estate of Britain's contract-bridge fortunes. As late as 1950, when the present-day formal world championship team-of-four matches were inaugurated in a three-cornered match played in Bermuda, Britain's representatives had their ears pinned back not only by the victorious American team—on which I had the honor of playing—but also by the Swedish-Icelandic team.
To a nation that buys the most bridge books and playing cards per capita, that supports two bridge magazines, and whose regional matches, involving England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, are virtually international as well as internecine, such a state of affairs was intolerable.
Irate citizens wrote letters to the London Times complaining about the method of selecting the British team; there were dark hints that some players might have broken training; it would not surprise me to learn that embarrassing questions had been raised in Parliament.
In the next few years, matters took a turn for the better. Early in 1955 a British team broke our strangle hold on the Bermuda Bowl and carried it back across the Atlantic for the first time since it had been put into play.
Today an English pair, Terence Reese and Boris Schapiro, rank among the four or five most successful partnerships in the world; the best English team (Reese and Schapiro, playing with Kenneth Konstam, Adam Meredith, Nicco Gardener and Alex Rose), recently met the teams of 16 other nations in the European championship at Vienna and emerged without a defeat.
Although Britain lost not a single match in the Vienna tournament, which selected Europe's representative for the forthcoming world championship, curiously enough her team could finish no better than third.
In team-of-four competition, each deal is played in one room and replayed in the other, with the players seated so as to eliminate the luck of the deal.
Suppose in Room 1, Team A makes three no trump, scoring 600. In the replay, Team B makes four spades on the same cards, scoring 620. The swing is only 20 points, but on another deal it might be over 4,000.
Under European scoring, each deal is scored separately, but the difference in score is awarded International Match Points; one IMP for a difference of from 20 to 60 points, ranging up to 15 IMPs for a difference of 4,000 or more. At the conclusion of a match, if the difference between two teams is less than six International Match Points, the result is considered a tie.
Britain wound up with no less than six ties, including one against the winners—the same Italian team that handed my teammates and me such an unmerciful shellacking in the last world championship played in New York early this year.
The Italians are the first team to return to the world championship with exactly the same player lineup—Walter Avarelli and Giorgio Belladonna of Rome and Eugenio Chiaradia, Massimo D'Alelio, Guglielmo Siniscalco and Pietro Forquet of Naples. Two of their three pairs employ systems of such bewildering complexity that, although I played against them for many sessions, it was only when I was requested to do a book on their system (shortly to be published by Doubleday) that I gained some impression of what was going on.
There has been considerable speculation whether the Italians win because of their system or in spite of it. Whenever I have observed them, the Italians played superbly enough to win no matter what system they used.
British methods have endured three swings of the pendulum since contract swept both Whist and auction bridge off the world's card tables.
At first the British were vigorously opposed to artificial bidding conventions. In 1934 the Card Committee of London's lawmaking Portland Club, prodded by Colonel Walter Buller—who was, appropriately, even more British than John Bull—declared that Ely Culbertson's ace-showing 4-5 no-trump convention, which long antedated Blackwood, was illegal! Buller's argument was that the laws prohibited a player from exposing or naming any of the cards in his hand, so it must be illegal to "expose" them through a bidding convention. The question wasn't settled until the Whist Club, America's lawmaking authority, with Commodore Harold Vanderbilt, father of contract bridge, heading its card committee, persuaded the Portland Club to retreat. Thereafter, artificial conventions won wide support in England.
Today, England, having returned to natural bidding, is close to the top once more. So close that a different result in a single hand of their match against Italy could have earned the British the right to meet the U.S. for the world title this winter.
One such hand, much discussed in Britain's clubs, saw one of the world's greatest card players go amiss.
North opened the bidding with one heart, and North-South duly reached a contract of four spades, played by Terence Reese with the South hand.
The jack-of-clubs opening went to North's king, and Reese, trying to avoid a diamond lead through his king, attempted to make sure that East did not win a trump trick. This he did by leading North's 9, with the intention of letting it ride. The technical soundness of this play is, of course, open to question. At any rate, when East covered with the 10 spot, South was left to wonder whether this was by choice or necessity.
Having won the trick with the king, Reese elected to trump a low club in dummy and lead another trump from North. East showed out, discarding the 4 of clubs, and the hand exploded. The trump lead was ducked to West's 8, and West's club return knocked out declarer's ace. Reese attempted to run hearts, but West trumped the third heart lead. Thereafter South had to lose two diamond tricks and might actually have gone down two tricks if East had not earlier discarded the 4 of clubs.
The winning play, as Reese himself immediately saw, was to play safe against the bad break in trumps by making his second spade lead toward dummy's jack at the third trick. Holding the queen, West could not win more than a single trump trick. Even if the cards were differently placed, with East holding the queen of spades and West the ace of diamonds, dummy's 10-9 of diamonds bolstered South's king so that he could not lose more than two immediate tricks in the diamond suit.
Cleaning up the trump situation before North's hand was shortened with the club ruff, Reese could have made five-odd and put the English into a position where the smallest additional swing would have beaten the Italians and clinched the championship and the right to meet America.
Reese's card-table exploits are so well known that he needs no apology, but it is only fair to point out the role played by fatigue in a contest where each team had to play the almost incredible total of 640 hands.
For the benefit of the carping critic it should be pointed out that this hand came near the close of a round-robin contest which involved 16 matches of 40 deals each. Given his choice, a player might well elect to compete in the Grand National Steeplechase, which, to this observer, seems to be run over a slightly less grueling course.
[Jack of Spades]
[9 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[4 of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[King of Hearts]
[Queen of Hearts]
[8 of Hearts]
[7 of Hearts]
[10 of Diamonds]
[9 of Diamonds]
[3 of Diamonds]
[King of Clubs]
[Queen of Spades]
[8 of Spades]
[5 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[9 of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[5 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]
[Jack of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]
[9 of Clubs]
[3 of Clubs]
[Ace of Spades]
[King of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[10 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[3 of Hearts]
[King of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]
[Ace of Clubs]
[7 of Clubs]
[6 of Clubs]
[10 of Spades]
[Jack of Hearts]
[4 of Hearts]
[2 of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[8 of Diamonds]
[7 of Diamonds]
[Queen of Clubs]
[8 of Clubs]
[5 of Clubs]
[4 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]