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

With his mop of blond hair, deep tan, and wiry physique, Kichline looks more like a Marlboro man than a bridge whiz. In fifteen years teaching, the 45-year-old University of Miami grad has become a sensation -- not to mention a heartthrob -- within the nerdy community of bridge instructors.

Kichline is liable to grab his crotch during class, the better to convey fear of an especially costly error. He issues edicts that would make a Coral Gables housewife blanch. "You and partner have to outbid the other guys if you've got better cards," he'll command. "Don't just lie back and get raped." His most provocative lesson concerns why women -- who outnumber men by more than two to one at the club level -- are barely represented among the world's best players. His theory: Men are socialized to be more competitive and have better math skills and mental stamina. "Bridge is a game of concentration," Kichline says between swigs of Tab. "If Julia Roberts came into the room and sat on my face during the middle of a hand, I wouldn't notice. My girlfriend, on the other hand, is over there getting recipes from the dummy for fuckin' mashed potatoes."

This knack for stripping bridge of its technical jargon is all the more refreshing, given the direction the game has taken in the past decade. "Bridge has barely hit puberty as a game," observes Kichline, author of the book Bridging the Gap. "Right now, as we speak, somebody is out there devising a better bidding system. If any of the old masters played today's top guys, they'd get killed. The 'equipment' is just getting so much better."

The best example, Kichline says, is the growing craze for "artificial" bids, in which partners make symbolic bids to send each other signals about their hands. Using such "conventions," players can discern everything from the best trump fit to how many kings partner holds A and of which suits. Kichline foresees the day when 90 percent of all bids will be artificial. In a way, it's a lot like advertising. Just as a car crash is used to sell life insurance, the skilled player bids five hearts to inform his partner his hand contains two aces.

"Madness," Kichline concludes.
Despite his unorthodox style, the ACBL is desperate for teachers like Kichline. In the past five years the group has trained and accredited more than 2000 instructors in the hopes of restoring membership.

ACBL officials have also sought to boost the number of private bridge clubs. These are a relatively new development in bridge; a decade ago most games were held in private homes, churches, or community centers. But as bridge has grown more cutthroat, clubs have come to dominate. The big lure for serious players is that club matches offer the chance to win master points, the official marker of status in the bridge world. Unfortunately, clubs are not prime investments.

"It's like the old joke," says Kichline, who ran a club for several years. "'How do you make a small fortune owning a bridge club? Start with a large fortune.'"

The reasons are simple. Proprietors start out with a limited clientele, and they generally can't charge more than five or six dollars per session, which typically covers lunch, unlimited coffee, a three-hour game, plus additional overhead such as rent and electricity. This explains why most clubs are tucked away in rundown strip malls.

There are the occasional success stories. Membership in the Fort Lauderdale Bridge Club has doubled in six years, thanks to an aggressive effort to position the club as a kind of day-care center for seniors. But most clubs barely make ends meet, and some, like North Miami Beach's spiffy new Ace of Trump, go under before they have a chance to get established.

Mickey Friedman worries that his swank Canyon Bridge Club in Delray Beach faces the same fate. "I've got the most gorgeous club in the world, with no people in it," says Friedman, a fast-talking Brooklynite who favors heavy jewelry and wears his hair in a ponytail.

There is no arguing either point. His interior decorating is, by bridge-club standards, breathtaking, from the pastel cows' skulls and Indian headdresses that decorate the walls to the shiny marbleized tables. The equipment is top of the line. Even his spread -- gourmet pastries, strawberries, fresh shrimp -- is a cut above.

But, as Friedman has learned over eight disappointing months, "Bridge players are like sheep. They go wherever the game is. It doesn't matter if the place is a dump." This is because, from many players' perspective, the only prize of any value in the bridge world is the blessed master point.

Ira Corn was a patriot in the way only a bred Texan can be. The Dallas financier took it as a personal affront that a bunch of Italians had, for ten years straight, whupped everyone in the Bermuda Bowl, the Super Bowl of bridge sanctioned by the World Bridge Federation (which is to the planet what the ACBL is to the U.S.). In 1968 Corn handpicked six of this nation's prodigies, offered them handsome salaries, moved them to Dallas, and hired former air force colonel Joe Musumeci to meld them into a team. In January 1970, after months of mind-numbing training sessions, "The Aces" brought the Bermuda Bowl back to the States for the first time since 1954. Bridge has never been the same since.

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