Aces of Clubs

Bridge: It's not just a game, it's a subculture. And it's all over this little subcontinent like a cheap suit

There were four shots in all, the first two of which missed, the next two of which whizzed past a hastily shut bathroom door and into the goosebumped flesh of one John G. Bennett, well-to-do perfume salesman, veteran of the Great War, and within minutes, a fresh corpse. The year was 1929. Babe Ruth was swatting for the Yanks. Wall Street was dancing toward doom. And in Kansas City, Missouri, the former Myrtle Adkins, Bennett's wife of eleven years, was charged in the case heralded on three continents as the Bridge-Table Murder.

The final Sunday of Bennett's life commenced innocently, on a golf course, where he and Myrtle joined their friends Charles and Mayme Hofman in a foursome. The couples reconvened at the Bennett manse, where a planned expedition to the cinema dissolved when the men declined to don appropriate attire. The quartet dined on leftovers instead, and after dusk they settled in for what would be described in court as a "fun stakes" match of contract bridge.

Though played in nascent forms since the Sixteenth Century, bridge as such had been formalized only four years earlier, by the millionaire Harold S. Vanderbilt, who had drawn up rules during an ocean cruise from Los Angeles to Havana. Almost at once, the card game had become the darling of a swelling leisure class, a pastime that bluntly gratified the American drive to acquire and conquer.

The fateful night began well for the Bennetts, but after two hours the tide shifted. Affectionate patter gave way to questioning glances across the table, then surly remarks. Just before midnight Bennett dealt the fatal hand and opened the bidding with one spade. His wife jumped directly to four spades, a contract that required her husband to win ten of the thirteen possible tricks. He fell short by two and chided his bride for overbidding. She replied in kind. He issued four brisk smacks, she a spate of lung-draining sobs. The Hofmans' futile efforts to intercede ended when Myrtle fled, reappeared in the den with a revolver, and shot the man she had just unflinchingly referred to as a "bum bridge player."

At the trial, her lawyer, retired U.S. Sen. Jim Reed, went to great pains to obscure the bridge squabble. He cast the gunplay as a freak accident: Mrs. Bennett had tripped, the pistol had gone off. Four times. As a measure of the tragedy, and to the utter disgust of the prosecutor, Myrtle wept inconsolably throughout the proceedings, as did Reed. The Hofmans, however, defended Mrs. Bennett on more practical grounds -- as a bridge player. They testified that Mr. Bennett had, in fact, overbid his hand and played incompetently. "Myrtle put down a good hand," Mayme Hofman maintained. "It was a perfectly beautiful hand."

The jury deliberated just long enough to allow the three members who were unfamiliar with bridge to learn the rudiments, then acquitted Myrtle Bennett of murder, a ruling that later allowed her to collect the $30,000 insurance policy purchased by her late husband.

Bridge aficionados love to recount the Bridge-Table Murder. They find the irony of Bennett's foolish play, the karmic deservedness of his demise, as smoothly intoxicating as cognac. Alexander Woollcott preserved the events in print (the article appears in his collection While Rome Burns). Along with its summary of the incident, The Official Encyclopedia of Bridge offers a step-by-step analysis of how Bennett, through more astute play, might have made the contract -- and, presumably, spared his life.

The other reason players retell this story, and so often, has to do with self-concept. Modern bridge nuts, it seems, share an unspoken fear that, were they ever to stand trial, most juries would find them guilty of aggravated irrelevance. "You play bridge?" the judge might ask before swearing in the first witness. "You mean that game for little old ladies?" The Bennett murder goes a long way toward conveying the notion that bridge is not a game for grandmas, but for lovers, for killers, for the raging passions of the elite.

Throughout the middle of this century, bridge was considered a terrifically fashionable pursuit. During the glum Thirties, Ely Culbertson, the game's first showman, held the world captive. His grudge match against twelve fellow experts, the so-called Bridge Battle of the Century, was front-page news for two months running. Bridge became the unofficial stress-reliever of the Allied troops in World War II. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower is said to have soothed his own nerves at the bridge table during his daring invasions of Normandy and Casablanca. After the war, with Ike in the White House, the game won mass appeal. Humphrey Bogart, Groucho Marx, even the Brooklyn Dodgers played. By 1958, the year a Time magazine cover story anointed bridge the nation's "number one card game," it was the pastime of 40 million Americans.

But with the advent of television and computers, the general acceleration of the cultural vibe, and the splintering of leisure time, bridge got nudged aside. People considered it too complex, and too sedentary. Club memberships dwindled. Knowledge of the game fell off precipitously. Loyalists muttered grimly of extinction.

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