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Original Issue

The Dogmeat Was Hard to Swallow

Being both a topical essay describing the adventures of two neighborhood-type bridge pigeons who find themselves among a field of wolfish Life Masters in the richest tournament ever held and an illuminating commentary on the vanity of man

This is the story that answers the question: Can a man from a little mining town in the West find fame and fortune playing rubber bridge for big money? The answer is no.

It began when a magazine editor and bush-league bridge player named Ray Cave collared me on a trip to New York and said, "Hey, there's a $20,000 rubber-bridge tournament in Las Vegas. Richest tournament in the history of bridge. Let's you and me enter."

"Well, I would love to, Ray," I said, "but I have to play quarterback for the Packers. Bart's not feeling so good."

As Cave slunk off, stung by my sarcasm, I wondered whether he was cracking up. A $20,000 bridge tournament in Las Vegas would attract every hotshot bridge player in the U.S., plus all the card cheats, big-time hustlers and Life Masters that could afford the fare. Where would Cave and I stand in a gathering of eagles like this?

We were both what the experts describe as "dogmeat," "bait" or "fish." A once-a-month game with the neighbors was our milieu, and the neighbors aren't named Goren. Of the two of us, Cave was the better. He had been playing for about 20 years and once amassed 1½ master points in a serious fling at duplicate bridge. He figured to become a Life Master in his 17th or 18th incarnation, provided he could figure out a way to carry his points over. Myself, I held a grand total of zero master points. When I played, which was practically never, it was for a 10th of a cent a point and, if I didn't show up, my opponents would send a cab for me. I usually referred to myself as the bridge champion of Gilpin, Colo.—which sounds pretty good if you don't know that Gilpin is a ghost town inhabited only by me, Earl Hoffman and one or two itinerant gold panners, none of whom plays bridge.

A few evenings after Cave's suggestion, I found myself whiling away an evening playing against three lovely ladies, and the impossible happened: one of them played worse than I did! This sweet, white-haired lady, an executive of a big corporation and an exemplary person in all other regards, played and bid her cards like an inmate of a maximum-security ward. She could not count trumps, or any other suit, she bid and led out of turn, she thought that a small slam was a slap in the face and that you became vulnerable by having overstrict parents. At the end of three agonizing hours of "bridge," the sweet, white-haired lady was the only winner. She had totaled 3,600 points; everybody else was minus. She had held the right cards. At rubber bridge she was unbeatable.

The next morning I sought out Cave. "Put on your sneakers," I said. "We're going to Las Vegas."

Now we were standing in the lobby of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, world's capital of gaucherie, blinking in the glare of sequined dresses and numbed by the noise of slot machines. Cave seemed extra jumpy and so was I, and the paging system did nothing to relieve our anxieties. "Telephone call for Oswald Jacoby," the voice would blare. "Call for Mr. Tobias Stone. Paging Mr. Howard Schenken.... Harold Ogust.... Jim Jacoby.... Robert Nail.... Ivan Erdos...."

"Do they ever page anybody except international bridge champions?" Cave asked.

"Yes," I said. "A while ago I heard a page for Cliff Russell. He's just a national bridge champion."

This was the day before we were scheduled to play 48 hands of bridge against some of these people, and we both had the shakes. At dinner that night a spot of red showed up in my vichyssoise, and that's how we found out my nose was bleeding. Cave was very intolerant about the whole thing. He had had his nosebleed at lunch. Lena Home came onstage to entertain us—that was included in the $200 tournament fee—but I failed to hear a note. I was too busy worrying. What would happen in the morning when everybody found me out? How could I face my friends back in Gilpin, Colo. when the scandal was exposed? It wasn't just that I was a bad player. I didn't know how to keep score! For 15 years I had been playing bridge and pushing the score sheet toward somebody else. But the rules of the Sands Hotel First Annual International Bridge Tournament clearly specified that everybody had scoring responsibilities. I was certain to be found out.

I noticed that Cave was barely picking at his medallions de boeuf. "What's the matter with you?" I whispered. "You're not paying any attention to Lena Stone."

"Horne," he said. "And I can't tell you what's the matter with me. I'm too ashamed."

"You're gonna have another bloody nose?"

"Worse than that."

"What is it? You can tell me. I'm your partner."

Cave looked around to see if he could possibly be overheard. Then he whispered, "I can't shuffle."

I jumped. "You can't shuffle?" I said.

"For God's sake, keep your voice down!" Cave said.

"You've got us into a $20,000 bridge tournament, and you can't shuffle?"

Cave stared at his food. "Look," I said, "let's talk this over."

Back in the room Cave explained that normally he could shuffle as well as the next player, but under the least bit of pressure he folded. "My hands start trembling, and the cards fly all over the place. I just can't help it. It goes back years."

"To what?"

"Well, one night my wife and I entered a little duplicate tournament in the YMCA in Baltimore. We were scared to death and she was riffling the deck before the first hand and one card got away and went straight up in the air and came down in a cup of coffee."

"Now, compose yourself, Ray," I said.

"And our opponents looked at us as though we had just committed some unpardonable social error. And ever since then I haven't been able to shuffle."

To help calm him down, I confessed that I did not know how to keep score. He smacked his forehead with his hand and suggested that there were only two avenues open to us: we could sit up all night practicing shuffling and scoring or we could kill ourselves. So there we sat, the two bridge demons, Cave mixing the cards over and over, me studying a Goren scoring napkin. Once Ray said, "Another thing tomorrow. Play fast and you won't look like an amateur."

"That makes me play worse," I said.

"Yeh, but if you play fast they think you must have had some clever reason to do what you did. They see clever reasons you'd never think of."

"O.K.," I said. "Now be quiet. I'm learning how to score slams."

At 3 in the morning we broke the study session. "All I want to do the first day is to remember who dealt and if it's my opening lead and no misdeals," Cave said prayerfully.

"And all I hope is I can remember that clubs and diamonds are 20 each," I said, "and spades and hearts are 30 each and a little slam vulnerable is 1,000."

"Seven fifty," said Cave.

The great masters were ready.

Alfred Sheinwold, author, bridge champion and director of the tournament, delivered the opening remarks the next day. "This is the biggest money bridge tournament ever held," Sheinwold said, looking out over a sea of Schenkens and Jacobys and Stones and a little puddle of Cave and Olsen, "but we're going to keep it on a very relaxed basis and not be rough with anybody.... If you lead out of turn or misdeal or something like that, it's not the end of the world."

"Oh, yes, it is!" Cave muttered.

"We'll swap the decks around to help prevent any cheating," Sheinwold went on, "and we'll have some casino men around who'll know what to look for if anybody starts dealing too skillfully."

Sheinwold said that only "Standard American bridge" would be played, but that each pair would be permitted three deviations, a remark which caused some raised eyebrows in the sophisticated audience. He meant that players would be expected to bid and play in roughly the normal style, but that teams could have a maximum of three special conventions or understandings, provided they carefully explained them in advance to their opponents. None of this meant a thing to Cave and me. Clean-cut fellows, we played as we lived: with no deviations. Our only conventions were second hand low, third hand high and always start with the fork at the farthest left unless you skip the salad.

Grimly we headed for the table and our first match. We would have to play eight-hand matches against each of six pairs and repeat the ordeal against six other pairs the next day. To qualify for the knockout matches for the big money, we had to win six of our first 12 matches. Ha-ha. "Now, don't worry, Ray," I said. "You'll shuffle just fine."

"And you'll score just fine," he said. "The only thing I ask is that you promise not to cry."

"I can't promise," I said.

We arrived at our assigned table in a card room approximately two miles long, and there were our opponents, two middle-aged, white-haired men wearing white, short-sleeved shirts and the expressions of zombies—highly intelligent zombies. They looked like they had just walked out of a poker room in a James Bond movie. They extended limp hands by way of introduction, looked at our nude deviation sheet, showed us their frightfully complex one and handed Ray a new deck of cards to shuffle. My heart began pounding.

Ray turned to one of the opponents. "Wouldn't you like to shuffle?" he said, offering the cards.

"No," the man said without looking up.

The first time Ray brought the two halves together to shuffle they didn't quite touch, and he achieved nothing. Then the whole deck squirted up in the air in a perfect two-and-a-half with a full twist in the layout position, but with his shaking hands Ray somehow caught everything on the way down. He gave the cards a couple of riffles and they merged! He had shuffled! Let people say what they want, for my money Ray Cave never stood so tall.

I saw the opponents give each other a quick look that seemed to signify something or other, but I couldn't figure out what. Ray won the cut for deal and opened the bidding with one tremulous heart, but the opposition won the auction with a bid of three diamonds. Hardly had play begun when I accidentally dropped a card on the table. "That's an exposed card!" one of the white-haired men announced. I certainly didn't think it was an original Velàzquez, but he shook me with his pouncing attitude, and I said stupidly, "Oh, is it?"

A few leads later, after Cave had failed to show up with certain high cards, the declarer sniffed the air as though something smelled, placed his hand on the table face down, fixed Cave with a steely look and said, "Do you bid psychs?" (A psychic bid, or psych, is any utterly meaningless bid completely unjustified by the cards you hold, and if you make such crazy bids, which we didn't, you must announce your habit to the opponents in advance, which we hadn't.)

"No," Cave said.

"Well, sir," the opponent said, scaring me half to death, because I knew that the only time bridge players call you sir is when you're in trouble, "you certainly bid a psych this time!"

"I did?" said Cave, turning a cowardly ashen.

"Yes, you did!" the man said hotly. He played out the hand, went down one and shouted, "Director!" This was the nightmare we had dreaded the most, and here it was happening on our first hand. The man was going to lodge an official complaint. One of the directors, a Solomonesque little man, listened to our opponent's argument in toto, and then said softly, "Well, thank you. I'll make a note of it, and if you have any more problems, call me." To Cave and me it sounded like: "Well, we'll let these card cheats get away with it this time, but if they try anything again we'll throw 'em out!"

If our team had the trembles before the match started, now we had locomotor ataxia, Bell's palsy and Saint Vitus's dance combined. A few hands after the director was called, we held enough cards for a laydown small slam in hearts, but we were too shaken to bid it. Ray misdealt twice, I gave up trying to keep score and asked Ray to do it, the opponents bid and made a slam, and the ball game was over. The little judge wandered over to us and said, "I see they scared you out of it." He explained that Ray's opening bid of one heart on a holding of

[x of Spades]
[King of Hearts]
[Jack of Hearts]
[10 of Hearts]
[x of Hearts]
[x of Hearts]
[x of Hearts]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[Queen of Clubs]
[Jack of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]
[x of Clubs]
[x of Clubs]

had not been a very good bid, "but under no circumstances could it be considered a psychic bid or unethical."

Did he mean..."

"Sure. They were just trying to make a fuss, to rattle you. They had no business calling the director on a bid like that."

Alfred Sheinwold joined the discussion. "Well," he said, after studying Ray's hand, "what you made was a gulpic bid—the kind of bid that you make and then gulp. But it could never be taken as a psych. They were trying to bug you."

They had succeeded.

I hurried to my room to get a tranquilizer, and couldn't find any. My wife had hidden them. I raced back for our second match. "Nice day, sir," a friendly receptionist said as I dashed by.

"Fine, thank you," I answered.

Ray grabbed me before I sat down. "Now, listen," he said in the avuncular manner he sometimes affects. "Just forget all about that last match. We followed suit, didn't we?"

"Mostly," I said.

"And we didn't do anything wrong, did we?"

"No. But they said we did."

"Well, never mind. Just settle down and have fun." His voice sounded on edge. "Just have fun!" he commanded.

We wobbled over to the table and shook hands with two of the most nondescript-looking opponents you ever laid eyes on. I didn't get their names, but I could tell instantly that they were a long way from the genius level. One of them wore a sort of hangdog look, a la Buster Keaton, but he did manage an occasional forced friendly smile, like a puppy at the vet's. The other had longish hair, curling at the back, like a 17th century professor of philology at Heidelberg. He, too, seemed to be going out of his way to act pleasant. Buster Keaton began a long explanation of their "deviations." Neither Cave nor I could follow him, although we kept nodding our heads in frantic agreement. When Buster was finished, the professor chimed in with something about the "Astro" convention. "Of course," he said, "we play Roth-Stone, and our club bids tend to be forcing and artificial." This gave me the terrible temptation to say, "Ours tend to be stupid and inaccurate," but I restrained myself. We were off.

At the beginning Cave and I picked up practically every picture card, and we jumped into a quick and solid lead. But what sportsmen our opponents turned out to be! Once I led out of turn, and they simply told me to put the card back in my hand. When Cave and I put up what seemed to me to be a singularly poor defense and I commented, "Nolo contendere" Buster Keaton said, "Well I thought you defended very well."

The professor mentioned that they had lost their first match, and something about his modest manner touched my heart. The poor fellows. Here were Cave and I, playing just for the hell of it, and we were about to inflict a second straight loss on these fellows who, no doubt, took their bridge very seriously and yet were being so sportif about losing. They weren't dressed very well (one of them wore shower clogs), and maybe they had spent all their money getting to Las Vegas to play. I almost felt like taking a dive. But, as luck would have it, they picked up a good hand and scored a game. Now we were coming into the eighth and final deal, with our side still enjoying a diminished but comfortable lead. The professor did some figuring, and it developed that the only way they could beat us was to rack up at least four no trump, an extremely unlikely happening. I dealt the cards.

(Buster Keaton)

[9 of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[x of Spades]
[x of Spades]
[King of Hearts]
[Jack of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[King of Clubs]
[9 of Clubs]
[x of Clubs]
[x of Clubs]


[King of Spades]
[Queen of Spades]
[8 of Spades]
[x of Spades]
[x of Spades]
[9 of Hearts]
[x of Hearts]
[x of Diamonds]
[x of Diamonds]
[x of Diamonds]
[Ace of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]
[x of Clubs]

(The Professor)

[Ace of Spades]
[Jack of Spades]
[Queen of Hearts]
[10 of Hearts]
[x of Hearts]
[x of Hearts]
[King of Diamonds]
[10 of Diamonds]
[x of Diamonds]
[Queen of Clubs]
[Jack of Clubs]
[x of Clubs]
[x of Clubs]


[10 of Spades]
[x of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[8 of Hearts]
[x of Hearts]
[x of Hearts]
[x of Hearts]
[x of Diamonds]
[x of Diamonds]
[x of Diamonds]
[x of Diamonds]
[x of Clubs]
[x of Clubs]

Buster Keaton opened the bidding with one club, the professor bid a heart, Buster bid a spade, the professor bid two no trump, and Buster raised him to three. I led fourth from my longest and strongest suit—which is routine to most players but to me is a very skillful avant-garde ploy—and the professor won the trick in his hand with the jack of spades. Immediately he had to figure which outstanding ace to knock out, the club or the heart, assuming each hand held one ace. He had to hope that whichever ace he decided to knock out would turn up in my hand, because if it didn't, Ray would win the trick and lead spades back and they would be down like dirty dogs. It was a 50-50 guess, with no information to go on except my Cheshirecat grin, and the professor lucked into the right decision. He led a club, and when I took my ace he was cold for four no trump and the match. But we had lost by only 10 points. Ten points! The smallest amount possible! It was like losing a football game 61-60.

"Thanks," I said, proffering my hand to Buster Keaton. "Win or lose, you sure were nice guys to play against. By the way, what was your name again?"

"Ivan Erdos," he said with a gracious smile.

"Oh," I said, with my customary savoir faire, "I know of an Ivan Erdos in Los Angeles. Just wrote a very funny book called Bridge A-La-Carte. He's a bridge teacher."

"That's me," Buster Keaton said.

My mouth dropped. I turned to the professor. "If he's Ivan Erdos, then you're—"

"That's right," the professor said.

Tobias Stone! The great international player! The man who co-invented the Roth-Stone system. The widely known eccentric genius who taught his wife how to play bridge and then partnered her to more master points in a single year than any novice had ever won before. The terrible-tempered Tobias Stone who burned partners at the stake and squelched opponents with the most fiendish ripostes! The same Tobias Stone who many claimed would be the best player in the world except for his temper tantrums, and many others claimed was the best in the world, temper tantrums notwithstanding.

I turned puce, or so the professor said later. I overheard him telling another expert, "And when this guy found out who I was, he turned puce. He literally turned puce!"

The rest of the day was anticlimax. After you've played Stone and Erdos and lost by 10 points, nobody else is likely to rattle you. We lost our third match in a row, finally won a match by holding stupendous hands that even a Jukes-Kallikak team could not have messed up, and came into our fifth match of the tournament with a stirring record of one win and three losses. Right away we began losing again, and soon we were so far down that in desperation I pushed Cave into two contracts that Charles Goren, playing double-dummy with Ely Culbertson at his elbow, could not have made. Under this pressure, Cave revoked, and immediately one of the opponents, a wizened man who looked like Uriah Heep after a luncheon of pickles, leaned forward and said in a voice choked with happiness, "I'm afraid, sir, you revoked!" He jotted down the penalty with a big flourish of the pen, announced that at this juncture we could not win the match even if we grand-slammed, and departed our company, his feet barely touching the floor. Cave said, "Listen, Jack, if you ever—"

"Calm yourself," I interrupted, "and remember: have fun!"

Somehow or other we managed to win our sixth and last match of the day and finished the first session with a record of 2 and 4. At the next table Oswald Jacoby, the undisputed genius who has accumulated more master points than any other player in the history of bridge, finished the day with a record of 1 and 5. We might be dogmeat, but we were plainly better than Jacoby.

That night Cave and I had one of our innumerable skull sessions. "Look," Ray said, "we played six matches and we're 2 and 4 and all that keeps us from being 3 and 3 is a match we lost by 10 points to the best team in the tournament. Doesn't that tell you something?"

"Yeh," I said. "It tells me that God is not dead."

"What it adds up to," he said, "is that dogmeat does have a chance. We can't win, maybe, but we can draw good cards and scare 'em." Ray said that from now on we were going to be tigers. We were not going to shake and tremble. "If we're gonna lose," he said, "let's lose through ignorance, not cowardice."

"Yes," I growled, "we're tigers. We'll go out there and kill 'em. We're ready for anybody." And we were. Except Harold Ogust and Cliff Russell.

Ogust is an international player who will clobber you at the bridge table in the morning, kill you on the tennis court in the afternoon and embalm you at gin rummy in the evening. Russell's calm exterior belies his several championships and a competitive drive as strong as Ogust's. After two hands and an opposing slam, we were 1,600 points down, and if we had been tigers, they had been tyrannosauruses. But Cave dealt us a slam of our own, made a doubled contract and suddenly we were back in the match. We even had the satisfaction of seeing the other partnership arguing. After a round of bidding in which they had failed to reach game, the soft-spoken Russell said, "Harold, with me that three-spade bid is forcing."

"With me? With me?" erupted Mr. Ogust. "What is all this with-me stuff? We're playing partnership bridge! You're always saying, 'With me this is forcing!' Well, with bridge it isn't!"

By the time the explosion was over, we were down to the last hand and all Cave and I needed was a game to win the match. We didn't get it and, to make matters worse, Ogust and Russell explained how we could have won if we hadn't made certain key mistakes. They were only trying to help us, they said. Thanks a lot, we said. Until then we had been living in a fool's paradise.

We lost our next match so badly that we had to concede again after the seventh hand. So now we came into the last four matches of the qualifying round, and all we had to do to qualify was win four in a row.

"Well, what the hell," I said. "We've sure had fun."

"That was the whole idea," said the wise old Cave.

Playing our cards with gay abandon, we won our next match against a whistler and a hummer who should be banned forever from whistling and humming in a $20,000 event. In a $10,000 event, O.K., but not in a $20,000 event.

Then we beat a professional tournament director and his millionaire partner and thereby removed their last chance to qualify, and we followed up this accident by knocking out another pair who had been on the edge of elimination. That made three miracles in a row and brought us into our last match needing one more miracle to qualify for the knockout finals and a chance for the money. "Who're we playing?" I asked.

"I don't know," Ray said, "but I understand it's another pair that needs to win this last match to qualify."

A few minutes later our opponents sauntered over to the table. They turned out to be Henry Baer, Dallas attorney and Life Master, and James Jacoby, son of Oswald and himself a bridge columnist and international competitor. They had just lost to Jacoby Sr. and Curt Smith, and now they were desperate. A director came over and said we were going to play in the "fishbowl," the public arena where dozens of kibitzers can look on. We were famous! The public was clamoring to see Cave and me!

"Everybody's interested in this match," the director added coldly. "It's the Jacoby team's last chance to qualify."

"It's our last chance, too," I said huffily.

"Amazing," the director said, without intonation.

We were allowed to remain at the same table, away from the fishbowl, after I explained that kibitzers made me nervous. Ray also voted against the fishbowl on the grounds that he might faint. This satisfied the directors. Alfred Sheinwold, the boss of the whole tournament, came over to make sure that everything was in order for this crucial match between the Jacoby-Baer team and the Cinderella entry of so-and-so and so-and-so. A woman embraced young Jacoby and said, "I wish you luck."