The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats: A Bridge Odyessey

The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats: A Bridge Odyessey

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by Edward McPherson

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There is one card game that towers above all others as the most intelligent, intricate, and psychologically absorbing ever to be invented. It has a rich history. It's played and loved by some of the world's most famous and influential people. And it's not the one that's currently on television twenty-four hours a day.

In 1925 Harold Stirling Vanderbilt


There is one card game that towers above all others as the most intelligent, intricate, and psychologically absorbing ever to be invented. It has a rich history. It's played and loved by some of the world's most famous and influential people. And it's not the one that's currently on television twenty-four hours a day.

In 1925 Harold Stirling Vanderbilt invented modern bridge, and a national craze was born. In the 1930s, bridge was even bigger than baseball. Its devotees would eventually include the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Wilt Chamberlain, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played to unwind before the Normandy invasion. Today bridge players number about twenty-five million in the U.S. alone; current celebrity addicts include Warren Buffett (who goes by the online handle "T-Bone"), Bill Gates, Hugh Hefner, Sting, a sitting Supreme Court justice, and the guys from Radiohead.

In this spirited homage, Edward McPherson recounts the history of the game while attempting to master its deep mysteries in time to compete at the North American Bridge Championships in Chicago. Barely able to shuffle cards let alone play bridge, he sets out to discover why the game became and remains such a popular pastime, stopping in Dallas, Kansas City, Gatlinburg, Gettysburg, Las Vegas, and London. He focuses on a handful of professionals and eager but fumbling amateurs, and the characters he meets convince him that in a game that pits mind against mind, close attention to the cards often reveals much about those sitting at the table. He attempts to learn from bridge's devoted fans—from white-haired grannies and international playboys to teenage pros and billionaires—how its legacy can be preserved for future generations. And along the way, he picks up a playing partner of his own: Tina, a New York octogenarian with sharp card skills and energy to burn.

Insightful, funny, and steeped in respect for bridge, The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats is an affectionate view of a grand game by an outsider trying to make his way into the inner circle.

Editorial Reviews

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.

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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.

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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Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer's Journey into the World of Bridge 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
larrymci More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago