In an atmosphere of hysteria, tears, laughter, a near fistfight and endless bickering, the Italian bridge team won the world championship last week for the sixth straight time, playing on home grounds and beating teams from the U.S., France and Argentina. It was a cruel defeat for the U.S. team, which led Italy by 21 points with the end almost in sight. Then, within the space of a few hands, everything fell apart. The Italians took an 18-point lead and, in the final session in the early morning hours bridge players know so well, they played the equivalent of a basketball freeze to hold the lead and win.
The victorious Italian team was essentially the same one that has been so successful over the years. There was Giorgio Belladonna, a paunchy man with a mustache, who wrings his hands and mumbles to himself at tense moments. Massimo D'Alelio has wavy hair, which he likes to preen, and an eye for the ladies. Eugenio Chiaradia, at 52, is the oldest; a short, wiry man the others call Professor. Benito Garozzo is the youngest, 35, short, dark and friendly; Camillo Pabis Ticci, although less experienced than his teammates, is a fine technician. And lastly there is Pietro Forquet, the star of the team and one of the world's most remarkable cardplayers.
Forquet is 38, suave, handsome, well tailored, polite, quick-witted and tough. His bridge during the entire match was brilliant. Forquet played practically all of the 27 sessions for Italy, an extraordinary feat of endurance, yet he managed to remain cool and unruffled when others had melted. After one particularly drawn-out session against the French that lasted until 3 in the morning, the two French players staggered wearily down the marble steps to the lobby, ties loosened, hair ruffled. Chiaradia came next, looking very old and tired. Then came Forquet. His tuxedo was still immaculate. He had four fingers of one hand hooked in his coat pocket, thumb extended, and in the other hand he held a cigarette at a jaunty angle. His step was light and springy, and he looked for all the world like a man ready for a night on the town. Those nights on the town worried Italy's captain, Carl' Alberto Perroux, almost as much as the opponents did. A year ago in New York the Italian team had a mighty good time—but so did their rivals for world championship honors.
This year's championship was held in the Hotel Billia in St. Vincent, a small town that perches on the side of a mountain in the Italian Alps. At first glance, St. Vincent does not present the threat to Captain Perroux that New York did. There is just the narrow main street lined by red gardenias and sidewalk cafes and a little table-tennis hall where you can listen to opera on the juke box. But just outside the main part of town and no more than 50 feet from the hotel where the Italian team was quartered, is Europe's richest casino, the Casino della Vallee. The casino has eight roulette wheels and many more tables for such games as chemin de fer, but this was forbidden territory to the Italian squad.
The U.S. team spent most of its time before the matches began studying the complicated Italian and French bidding systems. Captain John Gerber had mailed the systems to all his players, but when the team gathered in New York, it was obvious no one had bothered to study them. "If we had to play right now we'd lose," snapped Gerber angrily. It was not the last time Gerber was to be angry. He is a gruff, aggressive man with white hair and thick, black eyebrows. His demanding nature rankled the Europeans. It even rankled his own players at times.
There were six players on the U.S. team, three pairs. The oldest player was Howard Schenken, a tall, silent man who at 59 can still play a hand as well as anyone in the world. Oswald Jacoby once said: "If I could play with whoever I wanted to, I'd get Schenken. If I couldn't get Schenken, I'd wait until I could."
Schenken's partner was Peter Leventritt, a tall, thin, amiable man who runs a New York card school. He is reputed to make no minor errors, though an occasional major one, but at St. Vincent he played well when it counted.
The youngest pair on the team was Arthur Robinson, 27, and Robert Jordan, 35. Both are cocky, irreverent but refreshing. The third U.S. pair was Bobby Nail and Jim Jacoby. Gerber regarded them as his weakest pair. "Nail," he said, "is a fighter, but Jimmy lacks experience." Jacoby, a robust, outgoing young man of 32, is the son of Oswald. The Italians immediately nicknamed him Il Bambino. The U.S. drew Argentina as an opponent the first day, Italy the second and France the third, continuing that rotation through nine days and 432 duplicate boards.
The matches were played in four hotel rooms, each furnished with a card table with a green felt cover, an overhead lamp that hung inches above the table top, and a few easy chairs. Each match was witnessed by only a referee, an interpreter and, in two of the rooms, an announcer, who broadcast the bidding and play into two downstairs ballrooms, where kibitzers watched the four hands on a large screen called the Bridge-O-Rama.
When the matches began, Italy started strong by leading France 49-5 after one session and 127-34 after the first day. Argentina, as expected, was the weakest of the four teams, and its players might well have spent their time more profitably at the casino. That left only the U.S. to prevent Italy from winning a sixth straight championship.
For a moment during the second meeting it looked as if the Italians would handle the Americans as easily as they had the French. Italy made three no trump in one room and outwitted declarer for down one, doubled, in the other. The net gain was seven International Match Points for Italy. But the U.S. bounced back immediately. Robinson-Jordan pulled a little razzle-dazzle on Belladonna, luring him into a foolish double with a series of cue bids and, in the evening, Schenken gave a masterful performance of dummy play. At the end of the first day, the U.S. had a 37-point lead, 118-81.
Three days later the U.S. and Italy met again, and this time the Americans cracked and threatened to fall apart. The first two sessions were standoffs, then Jordan-Robinson razzle-dazzled themselves into a disaster when Jordan cue-bid three no trump, holding three small hearts, and Robinson, holding a void, left him there. But the U.S. kept beating the Italians on part-score hands and, going into the evening session, the U.S. had lost only one point of its lead.
Midway through the third session the Italians bid a grand slam and made it, even though they were missing an ace and two kings. It was the third time that they had bid a grand slam on which a finesse was needed, and all three times the finesse was right. Robinson-Jordan, playing the same hand, stopped at six, and Italy gained 11 IMPs. "When they bid that grandy, Schenken's shoulders seemed to sag," said Leventritt later.
Indeed, the whole U.S. team seemed to sag, and the disasters started to snowball. Schenken doubled three no trump, which would have been set, and Forquet moved out to four diamonds. Schenken doubled again, and Forquet made it. Forquet-Garozzo landed six clubs, Jordan-Robinson stopped at five. Schenken-Leventritt bid three clubs, down four, when three spades was solid. It was a nightmare for John Gerber, watching it all on the Bridge-O-Rama screen.
The session had left the U.S. team in nervous shape. Gerber heatedly called a team meeting and ordered his players to lay off the beer and wine at meals. Players gibed at each other. Leventritt couldn't understand why Schenken had doubled four diamonds. When Robinson explained a bid, saying he just wanted to take a shot at it, Bobby Nail said sharply: "Let's not be taking any shots." One of the players' wives complained openly about the way Gerber was handling her husband. "Those wives," Gerber had said earlier. "I don't want them here. They bicker and ruin a team's morale." The morale of the team that night certainly was all but ruined.
On Saturday bridge players from all over northern Italy crammed into the ballroom of the Billia to watch the final three sessions of the match between Italy and the U.S. It was a noisy, exuberant crowd, cheering each successful Italian finesse, moan ing whenever the Americans reached the proper contract.
Toward the end of the first session, Leventritt, who had played well up till then, made his first big mistake of the match, doubling a sure four-heart contract bid by Chiaradia. Forquet redoubled like a cat spotting a mouse. The audience cheered wildly, but the cheers changed to wails of anguish as, play by play, Chiaradia choked and proceeded to toss it away. Moments later as he emerged from the room, he was accosted by a swarm of furious Italians. One of them shouted something at him, and suddenly little Chiaradia clenched his fists and started to swing. He was quickly led away by a friend.
Chiaradia's blunder was the U.S.'s last happy moment. In the second session Gerber paired Schenken with Nail, and the two had several costly misunderstandings. By the time the second session was over, the U.S. was behind for good.
When the last board of the long evening was played, Pietro Forquet and Benito Garozzo left the room in which they had won the championship and strolled down the flight of marble stairs. Both were engulfed in a mob of happy Italians. Forquet fought his way over to where John Gerber was standing. "It is too bad," he said. "You play well and you should win. Maybe next year." He shook Gerber's hand and then ducked outside away from the crowd. The casino was not far away.