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

"What Ira did was legitimize bridge as a professional endeavor," observes Billy Eisenberg, an original member of the Aces. "Previous to that, it had been frowned upon. The ACBL wanted everything amateur."

After the Aces, American bridge essentially became a self-sustaining ecosystem. At the high end of the food chain, two species quickly evolved: the high rollers and the top pros. Sometimes corporations, such as Fiat or R.J. Reynolds, sponsored a team, usually one that was competing in an international event. But more often the high rollers were wealthy denizens of the game who bestowed their largess in exchange for the honor of playing opposite the world's best. Today the top pros sign multiyear contracts guaranteed to make them millionaires. No one will say exactly how much money is laid down; it is considered crass to discuss sums, and dangerous -- much of the money is off the books when tax time comes.

"People outside bridge can't understand it," says Eisenberg, who went on to become what many consider to have been the world's best player during the 1970s, and is probably the only one ever to be profiled in Sports Illustrated. "They say, 'How could someone spend thousands of dollars just to play with you? What motivates them?' What motivates them? Ego, ego, ego! They all want to win! They want to appear better than other people. They want the illusion of expertise, so they're willing to pay for it."

Somebody has to pay for it, because bridge has never had much spectator appeal, especially in this country. (Okay, none.) The ACBL doles out a pittance in prizes at the more than 1000 regional and national bridge tournaments sanctioned annually. But sponsors have filled the void, advancing the game at its highest level by allowing pros to play full-time.

One rung down in the caste are regional or local pros like Pete Kichline, who split time between classes and more informal agreements to play with "clients." A member of this professional managerial class earns anywhere from $40 to $200 per session depending on reputation, a sliding scale that fuels the already vicious cycle of one-upmanship among players.

"The less-established pros are under enormous pressure to succeed," Eisenberg says. "Because if they don't win with people, they may not get another phone call. It's impossible to be in this kind of an environment and to be able to do the best you can and not worry about it. So most players lie to themselves, or to each other. They cheat a little bit."

For some clients, the reward of playing with a master is the learning experience. Others, as Eisenberg tiredly acknowledges, "are playing to buy master points." Because players are awarded master points only when they finish in the top few spots at an event (and because a master point, once accumulated, is never subtracted), coupling with a pro can boost a tyro into contention. It's akin to hiring a pro to play on your two-man team in a golf tournament.

By acting as keeper of these master points, the ACBL, once a ragtag committee, has grown into a sprawling and prosperous bureaucracy. At headquarters in Memphis, more than 100 full-time employees tabulate the master points chalked up by their 200,000 members. These figures determine players' status assignments, which range from rookie (O-5 points) to diamond life master (10,000 points).

Given that a player might earn just a fraction of a point by winning a club game, the pursuit of the coveted life master title (300 points) can take years, especially since the ACBL added the requirement that a certain number of points be won at larger tournaments. The only material benefit this title bestows is the reduction, by five bucks, of one's $28 ACBL membership dues. Otherwise, master points are a Ponzi scheme founded squarely on ego.

One recent Saturday, for example, Eisenberg teamed with a cranky woman from West Palm Beach who seemed more interested in ordering him around than in learning the game. "Billy, get me some water," she snapped, her mouth puckered into a peach pit of disgust. "Billy, you're not giving me a lesson." Or, most infuriating of all, "Okay, Billy, that's enough."

"The biggest problem bridge has today is that they use master points as the hook. There's very little love of the game involved when you're chasing master points," Eisenberg sighs after the woman totters off to order someone else around. "Rewarding winning is an okay idea. But the main idea of bridge is bonding. Lemme tell you a story. When I was twenty years old, I lost my driver's license and had to drive to Philly with my cousin to get a new one. Along the way we stopped at a HoJo's, saw a couple guys our age, and ended up playing bridge with them for three hours. No money. No points. Just for the joy of it. That's when bridge is best. When it becomes universal."

Of course, second opinions are readily available in South Florida, which has been a bridge hot spot since the Fifties, when the late Charles Goren dispatched his newspaper column from his home on Alton Road. In more recent years, dozens of pros have moved here to lap at the brimming pool of monied clients. Benito Garozzo, an Italian great whose epic battles against Eisenberg and the Aces are legendary, now plays from time to time with his old nemesis at Canyon. Russ Arnold, a former world champ, works at a Miami appliance store and cultivates his image as a notorious recluse.

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