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

Bridge survives today in large part thanks to a stubborn subset of adherents who have converted what was once a brainy amusement into a blood sport. Slavishly addicted, eager for attention, players have taken on the shadings of a benign cult. Nowhere is this more apparent than in South Florida, a celebrated storehouse of bridge lore where world champions flock and thousands of hopefuls tussle for scraps of recognition in the area's dozen clubs. Together they have constructed for themselves a precious cabal, founded on the alleviation of loneliness and the vain pursuit of perfection, endowed with its own elaborate systems of patronage, marred by avarice and egotism.

It might look silly. But then, who's to argue against the redemptive graces of a four-spade contract, bid and made?

Kim Hall lays his business card on the table. "BRIDGE," it reads. "Group and Private Lessons/Learn to Play/Play to Win." He flips the card. "YOGA," says the other side. "Group and Private Lessons/Feel Better/Peace through Relaxation."

Hall pulls his legs into the lotus position and attempts to explain. "In the first chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, entitled 'The Sorrow of Argina,' we are told of the heartache Argina feels as he is about to go out on the battlefield to fight his cousins. Krishna, the god of love, but also the fiercest fighter in the universe, has agreed to drive his chariot. Argina tells Krishna he is very sad because he will either have to kill his cousins or be killed by them. But Krishna explains that since his cousins want him to fight, the only way for Argina to preserve the essence of his being is to do battle. In a sense," Hall concludes, "this translates to bridge."

All around him, fellow members of the South Miami Bridge Club have begun arriving for the 1:00 p.m. game of duplicate bridge. By far the sport's prevalent form, duplicate allows partnerships to compete directly with one another by playing identical hands at different tables and comparing scores. Unlike "rubber" bridge, which is more informal, duplicate matches are scrupulously scored and require supervision by a director, a duty that today has befallen Hall. Before game time, club members are happy to gab and to nibble on the fixings set out at one side of the room. But with play under pay, the tense murmur of bidding predominates.

Pass. One no-trump. Pass.
"Now, some might say that the competitive nature of bridge contradicts yogic thinking, that its frenetic or anti-peacemaking qualities are not holistic," Hall says softly, conspiratorially. "But the more I play bridge, the more I draw on Krishna's words. I think less about my score and more about whether I was fulfilling the nature of my being." Hall smiles, revealing a set of teeth specked with the remnants of a homemade rum ball.

Two hearts. Pass. Three hearts.
"In other words, was I playing bridge in a yogic fashion, or was I being somebody I wasn't?" he continues. "In a way, the people sitting here right now are doing yoga."

Pass. Four hearts. Pass. Pass. Pass.
"When you meet at a bridge table, there are four little hearts going lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. And you have some cards and some kinds of vibrations are taking place. And those vibrations have to be in sync with the om, or the original sound of the universe." Hall flicks the amulet dangling from his neck, on which that Sanskrit letter is etched. "Because when you're out of kilter with the vibrations of the cosmos, that's when upset takes place that is not easily reversible."

Hall turns to look at the feuding couple, his slightly bulbous eyes sizing up two more souls out of kilter.

Hall believes anything can be done in a yogic fashion. He has even seen a man who became one with the cigar he was smoking -- a generous assessment, considering that secondhand smoke drove Hall from bridge for five years. "I never meant to get back in," he says dreamily. "I was painting houses. But one day I wandered in here looking for clients. I figured if I played a little bridge with them, they would find me more trustworthy." He discovered that most clubs ban smoking. He teaches three classes a week now, and ekes out a living by offering individual lessons and pulling in directing fees. The yoga lessons, he notes, are often free.

The round ends. Hall dashes to the director's table and picks up a portable microphone. "All right, let's move on for round two. Remember, this is a jackpot game. Twenty dollars to the winner, ten dollars for second. So the bottom line is, take no prisoners."

Leon Kass is too disgusted with his partner's play to find the proper word in any of the seven languages he knows. So rather than speaking, the Russian immigrant slowly picks up the cards lying before him as dummy and turns them over. To the opponents on either side, the message is clear: His partner, a fading socialite, has played so poorly that he is signaling surrender. Had she been counting cards (as Kass has), she would have realized that her spades and clubs in dummy were winners. Instead she has led a diamond and is on her way to a drubbing. Another drubbing.

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