Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer's Journey into the World of Bridge

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At one time the game was even bigger than baseball. Today bridge is played by more than twenty-five million people in the United States alone, with Bill Gates, a sitting Supreme Court justice, and the guys from Radiohead among its devotees. In this spirited homage, Edward McPherson recounts the colorful history of the game and his attempts to master its mysteries in time to compete at the North American Bridge Championships—despite being barely able to shuffle cards, let alone play competitively. Insightful, ...

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Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer's Journey into the World of Bridge

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Overview

At one time the game was even bigger than baseball. Today bridge is played by more than twenty-five million people in the United States alone, with Bill Gates, a sitting Supreme Court justice, and the guys from Radiohead among its devotees. In this spirited homage, Edward McPherson recounts the colorful history of the game and his attempts to master its mysteries in time to compete at the North American Bridge Championships—despite being barely able to shuffle cards, let alone play competitively. Insightful, funny, and steeped in respect, The Backwash Squeeze is an affectionate view of a grand game by an outsider trying to make his way into the inner circle.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Modern or contract bridge is less than a century old, its roster of enthusiasts already include many greats names. Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Dwight Eisenhower, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates were or are bridge buffs; and this table game has also the drawn the talents of the Marx Brothers, Hugh Hefner, Sting, Radiohead, Ian Fleming, and Agatha Christie. To get to the roots of this addictive pastime, Brooklyn-based Edward McPherson traveled around the country, interviewing both veteran "Wednesday night" players and teenage pros hell-bent for victory. While conducting a refreshing tutorial on bridge culture, he manages to demonstrate that the addictive appeal of the game is less strange than it seems.
Publishers Weekly

McPherson is an amusing writer who believes that "bridge is a battle between fate and chance mediated by skill." In this lighthearted book, he relates bridge's history and tours its contemporary universe. Originally derived from the British game of whist, the modern version of contract bridge was developed in 1925 by railroad heir Harold Stirling Vanderbilt. McPherson provides snapshots of men such as Ely Culbertson and Charles H. Goren, whose writings and activities spurred a bridge craze in the '30s and '40s. Traveling to Kansas City, Gatlinburg, Tenn., Las Vegas and London, among other locations, McPherson attended tournaments and visited clubs, interviewing famous players and collecting fascinating anecdotes. During classes at the Manhattan Bridge Club, the author became friends with 83-year-old Tina and persuaded her to accompany him to Chicago where the two played as partners in an annual tournament. The author says the bridge-playing population is aging, a process exacerbated by the current preference for poker among younger card players. Although McPherson provides a brief introduction to the rules, those who have played bridge will derive the most enjoyment from this breezy, absorbing account. (July 3)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Lively and approachable field guide to the daunting challenges of contract bridge. Joining the ranks of the country's 25 million bridge players, magazine writer McPherson begins his education in a small classroom of 12 eccentric neophytes led by Manhattan Bridge Club co-owner and self-proclaimed "teacher to the stars" Jeff Bayone. Soon after, the author is quizzing lifetime professional Michael Polowan on his success secrets. As McPherson's own game steadily improves, so does his luck in acquiring a compatible (and enduring) gaming partner, 83-year-old Tina. Over the course of 16 months, the author learns the "tricks" of the game, including the private language of codes and signals shared between partners. He soon becomes a member of the American Contract Bridge League, chasing tournaments from Kansas City to London. (Wryly detailed accounts of his travels mostly compensate for the hokey human-interest pieces and lackluster play-by-plays.) McPherson interviews a 19-year-old bridge champion and partners with a 93-year-old grandmother. He also spotlights bridge-playing celebrities: Warren Buffett, Wilt Chamberlain, Omar Sharif and Bill Gates are among those known to get in on the action both online and at live tables. Alternating extensive gaming history with oddball personality profiles, McPherson's text underscores the major and minor intricacies of a game known for its "mentally-taxing" complications. His presentation, by contrast, is accessible, chatty and unintimidating. A unique primer for hardcore enthusiasts. Agent: Emma Parry/Fletcher & Parry LLC
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061127656
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/24/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward McPherson has contributed to such publications as the New York Times Magazine, New York Observer, I.D., Esopus, Absolute, and Talk. Originally from Texas, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats
A Newcomer's Journey into the World of Bridge

Chapter One

A Clean, Well-Caffeinated Place

New York, New York, April 2005

"If you're stupid, you can't play good bridge," says the man at the front of the class. I would settle for decent bridge, but I keep my mouth shut. The guy is a six-foot-four 190-pounder, who seems to bear a spiritual kinship and distant resemblance to Groucho Marx, complete with mustache and hundred-mile-an-hour New York yawp. He promises he has much to teach us, before launching into a long riff about card games, intuition, and the film Pirates of the Caribbean, which he claims to have seen about ninety-two times. He talks with his hands, which are grabby and communicative and have absentmindedly picked a rubber band off a deck of cards and now stretch it to mesmeric effect. We are on the fourteenth floor of a building in midtown Manhattan. There are twelve of us in the room; we sit four to a table, our rapt attention on this man, Jeff Bayone, who is our counselor, our confidant, and—above all else—our bridge teacher.

"I am your mother," Jeff insists, stealing a line from his book, It's Bridge, Baby, copies of which he has already passed out—and signed—without our having to ask. He looks nothing like my mom, a Texas blonde named Sally, but what do I know? We are all newcomers to the game. For $149, we have signed up for six two-and-a-half-hour lessons, two practice sessions, and a copy of Jeff's book. He has taught more than three thousand students. He is the co-owner of the Manhattan Bridge Club, and, as it sayson the back cover, "bridge teacher to the stars."

We are not stars. But contrary to common preconceptions about bridge, we are not batty old ladies or nerdy chain-smoking neurotics, either. We are everything in between. There is a harried yuppie couple who refused to hold the elevator, an older woman with a diamond brooch and a shopping bag from Zabar's, a mousy forty-something mom, a young gum-chewing Greenwich Village teacher, a well-tanned English gent just back from a cruise, and a balding Turkish man who favors crisp blue button-downs. The woman on my right, a chatty Cathy in her fifties with a close-cropped coif, seems a little starstruck—she takes one look at my copy of It's Bridge, Baby and points out that Jeff is the author of the book he just signed. I nod and she beams. She had to find this class through the Yellow Pages because an Internet search for "New York" and "bridge" mainly turned up architectural sites (and doubtless got her on a watch list). She has dragged along her silent-but-smiley friend, with whom it soon becomes clear she is living, though she seems reluctant to admit it to strangers.

She is excited; we are all excited—not to mention a little scared and intimidated. For bridge is no walk in the park. You use the same fifty-two cards that you use to play poker, War, and Go Fish, but the game is closer to brain surgery than rummy. It starts simply enough. There are four players, two teams of two. For each team, the goal is to bid on and then win a certain number of "tricks." This is where beginners fall off the deep end. During the bidding, which happens before the card play begins, partners employ sophisticated systems that function as specific codes. Through a combination of bids ("one spade," "three hearts," etc.), they exchange detailed information about their hands—what they have, what they don't have, their high cards, their longest suit, and so on—all the while trying to bid the "correct" number of tricks they think they can win, given a certain trump suit. The more intricate the system, the greater the precision, but even the most complex conventions are overwhelmed by staggering odds. There are fifteen legal words—"one," "two," "three," "four," "five," "six," "seven," "clubs," "diamonds," "hearts," "spades," "no-trump," "pass," "double," "redouble"—that can form exactly thirty-eight bids, which must be used to discuss the 635,013,559,600 possible hands a player might be dealt. Thus partners work and work to refine their private language, all before a single card is played.

The play of the hand is brisk, cunning, and mentally taxing. For starters, you are expected to count all fifty-two cards. (As one professional bridge player later explained to me: "Keeping track of fifty-two? That's easy. You should be able to do that right away. It's a given, really.") There are stratagems galore, a host of offenses, defenses, feints, fake outs, and finesses. In his memoir, The Bridge Bum, world champion Alan Sontag quotes the writer Marshal Smith, who declared a bridge player should possess " 'the conceit of a peacock, night habits of an owl, rapacity of a crocodile, sly inscrutability of a snake, memory of an elephant, boldness of a lion, endurance of a bulldog, and killer instincts of a wolf' "—a list to which I might add, given the Herculean amounts of coffee consumed around the table, the bladder of a whale.

I am in Jeff's class for a simple reason—I want to write a book about bridge. And let it be said up front: I set out to write this book for money. When I conceived of this plan, I was poor, having spent the previous year cobbling together freelance gigs; I was getting married; I needed a new computer. I had written a biography of Buster Keaton, which was enjoyed by my mother and dozens of others, and after a desultory month or two of halfheartedly shopping the first chapters of an unfinished novel—apparently nobody wanted to pay up front for a hazily conceived, disappointingly autobiographical story from a would-be first-time novelist—I was ready to leave behind my personal obsessions (which ran along the lines of old movies, subway tunnels, and chorizo) and really sell out. I would pick a topic so commercial, so calculatingly crass, that it would guarantee me oodles of cash—from here on out it would be fine dining, exotic trips, and maybe one of those posh gold-plated iPods or a washer-dryer.

The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats
A Newcomer's Journey into the World of Bridge
. Copyright © by Edward McPherson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments     ix
The Introduction I Am Not Qualified to Write: A Brief Bridge Tutorial     xi
A Clean, Well-Caffeinated Place     1
The Miseducation of a Bridge Player     23
Kibitzing in Cowtown     47
A Short History of Bridge: From Hoyle to Halloween     59
Gamblers and Grannies     64
A Short History of Bridge: From Ballyhoo to Mr. Bridge     96
A Manhattan Interlude     106
The Kids Are Alright in Gatlinburg     109
Social Studies     145
Fear and Loafing in Las Vegas     163
London Bridge Isn't Falling Down, But It Might Come Second to Fishing, Part I     200
London Bridge Isn't Falling Down, But It Might Come Second to Fishing, Part II     217
East Side Story     241
The Battles of Gettysburg     251
Oh, the Sunny Saturdays I Have Missed     273
Wild Times in the Windy City, or My Travels with Tina     281
Notes     321
Bibliography     341
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 6, 2009

    Great Book for Bridge Players

    The Backwash Squeeze is a great book about the card game of Contract Bridge. Written by a free-lance writer and novice bridge player it is a wonderful introduction to Bridge, to play at local Bridge Clubs, to the play of Duplicate Bridge and, finally, to play at Bridge Tournaments. It is perfect for long-time experienced players as well as people who play social bridge and are considering organized duplicate bridge at bridge clubs.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted April 5, 2013

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    Posted December 19, 2011

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