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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, ...
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.
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
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
Posted July 6, 2009
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.
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Posted April 5, 2013
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Posted December 19, 2011
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