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

"Hey, whaddaya doing?" demands the socialite in a loud New York accent. Loud New York accents are the preferred mode of communication in most bridge clubs, and the Bridge Center in North Miami Beach is no exception.

Kass sighs, his jowls flapping in exasperation. The woman to his left, a Polish expatriate with a mane of slightly too-bright auburn hair, scolds him in Russian. He offers a token defense, then turns the cards back over.

"Thank you, partner," the socialite sneers. Kass mutters what is assuredly a series of Cyrillic expletives.

Leon Kass is not a mean-spirited man. He is, however, a nudnik. He can frequently be heard, from the other side of the room, locking horns with his partner, or an opponent, or the director, or all three. He has trouble finding a regular partner, which makes him dependent on coupling up with whatever the cat dragged in, which fuels the whole pitiful cycle. In a Darwinian sense, fringe characters such as Kass -- there are one or more at every club -- go a long way toward preserving partnerships among the rest of the herd.

But as a personality, Kass is not atypical. Most bridge players of any significant caliber are, at some essential level, nudniks, if not outright lunatics. They walk around with food stains on their clothing. They don't quite dress right. They jiggle their legs under the tables, and suck on butter cookies like pacifiers. They pick at their stockings.

Some sing delicate arias from their bridge autobiography. "I opened this club in 1934 and was the first life master 33 years ago," says Leah Bloch, a wizened woman with a froth of red hair who haunts the Normandy Isle Bridge Club off the 79th Street Causeway, huddled against the air conditioning in a sweater the color of macaroni and cheese. "That and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee, kid."

Other players are grouped together, reviewing hands in anxious flurries of bridgespeak:

"What lead did you get on that six-heart contract yesterday?"
"The one with six to the ace-king-jack?"
"Queen of spades."
"You win it on the dummy?"
"Can't. You need a winner on the board to make your low diamond good."

When these junkies square off, usually in cramped rooms, under hellish fluorescent lights, jacked to the gills on coffee, the tension is electric. The battle isn't just for top honors, it's for acceptance. Because everyone knows the best players will always be coveted as partners, no matter how they misbehave.

The insular universe of bridge, with its strange protocol and psychodynamics, has made it a magnet for academics, sociologists in particular. As early as the 1920s the classical theorist Georg Simmel was dissecting the game's dominance-submission patterns. Later Harry Stack Sullivan, a neo-Freudian, commented on the obsessive-compulsive nature of those who played. In the Sixties Erving Goffman redefined bridge as an "interaction ritual" that produces "spontaneous involvement."

The most recent, and enlightened, of these bookish thinkers is professor Lawrence Sneden, a sociologist at California State University, Northridge, who authored the just-published Popular Culture as Metaphor: Duplicate Bridge as a Way of Life.

As is the sociologist's wont, Sneden provides detailed demographic portrait of the bridge world. The average player is 58, most likely white, and earns $58,000 per annum. Though 20 million Americans play, only 200,000 of them belong to the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) -- the game's U.S. governing body and the largest bridge association in the world -- and fewer than 100,000 could be considered experts. Those are concentrated on the coasts, with several thousand good players in South Florida alone.

An accomplished player himself, Sneden spent a year immersed in this subculture, coming to view the game as a retreat from the apocalyptic shadings of our epoch. "America is a society in decline," he observes. "It's obvious to all of us, even if we don't want to admit it. We are a lonely, chaotic culture. Bridge people have found a way to bring order to their lives and to replace the emotional bonds collapsing around them."

A bridge to sanity. Not surprisingly, the game is revered among prison inmates and hostages. POWs returning from Vietnam described a highly regimented duplicate bridge game scored by dipping bamboo sticks into homemade ink and scrawling scores on toilet paper.

One of Sneden's favorite anecdotes, cited nearly as often as the Bennett murder, concerns the sudden cardiac arrest of a man while in the midst of a pivotal bridge hand. A doctor is summoned and attempts for several minutes to revive the victim. "It's no use," the medic announces finally. "He's dead." "Oh dear," sighs one of the three remaining players, none of whom has budged from his seat. "Do you play?"

It is not clear whether this story is true.
"When I first started playing bridge seriously," Pete Kichline says, "I was having an affair with this woman, and every time we fucked I would move thirteen times and then stop. And every time she'd say, 'What's wrong?' And I'd say, 'Oh yeah,' and go another thirteen. To me, everything was based around thirteen. Thirteen cards in a hand. Thirteen tricks per game. Where I live there are fourteen steps from the ground floor to my apartment on the second floor, and every single day I trip over that fourteenth step. My body counts to thirteen and my brain stops."

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