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

David King, a 70-year-old diamond life master from Miami Beach, is one half of the most renowned pro/client partnership in the country. His partner: Margeritte Holley, a 93-year-old spitfire from Waco, Texas, who subsists on Milky Ways and Cheez Doodles. Last year, much to the shock of the bridge establishment, the duo won two national tournaments. This past December, when Holley flew into town to play with King, they took the Normandy Isle club by storm.

King says he is grateful to clients like Holley (a life master herself) for subsidizing his devotion to bridge. But the frustration in his voice is, at times, unmistakable. "I try to allot Margeritte as much time as possible and still maintain my mental, uh, patience," he says gently. "It's not easy. If she makes a mistake on a hand and I point it out, she'll never admit I might be right. She gets offended if I refer to her as a client. People are always stopping us to talk to her, or give her a kiss, and she'll grab me, all 80 pounds of her, and turn me like I was a purse on her arm. Everybody loves Margeritte. They don't have to play bridge with her."

Michael Seamon, at 33 one of the game's rising stars, is more comfortable with the economics of bridge. He considers himself lucky to have clawed his way to the promised land of patronage. "It takes a long time to break into the top ranks," declares Seamon, who recently signed a one-year contract to play tournaments with a Las Vegas hotelier. "But once you're in, it's hard to fall out." Watching Seamon play at the club level can be deceiving, because he often appears distracted or bored. But even on autopilot, when the bidding is over he can draw a mental picture of each player's hand within the first two or three tricks. After a while, the furious computation of contingencies becomes second nature.

While few greenhorns can afford to hire a pro like Seamon, anyone who frequents the Normandy Isle club has the chance to play against him, and to bombard him with questions. No other sport, bridge advocates boast, offers this astounding level of access. (When's the last time you consulted Jim Courier about your topspin lob? Swapped putting tips with Ray Floyd?)

The heir to a long line of bridge brains, Seamon earned life-master status at age thirteen. He is among the first in a new generation of bridge cyborgs who have become top-drawer competitors before they can shave. Having grown up in the post-Aces era, these young bucks have few qualms about professionalism. They do worry, though, that one day the top sponsors will come to their senses and stop shelling out the bucks for what many consider tainted prestige.

For this reason, most, like Seamon, favor the establishment of money tournaments, a burning issue in the bridge world. The ACBL has traditionally shunned big-money events, which are common in Europe, arguing that they could invite the wrong element and promote cheating. (In fact, accusations of cheating have caused several celebrated scandals at international events and routinely arise at the club level.) But more recently the ACBL has discussed forming a for-profit corporation to sanction money play.

Billy Eisenberg is skeptical. Without public support, he argues, he doubts the sponsors will ever put up sufficient cash prizes. "Why should they?" he demands. And he's got a point. As it is now, the aristocracy can use the same money to buy their own teams A and to secure themselves a spot on the roster.

You always know where John Gazzola and his partner Fred are playing. For one thing, John's a little deaf, so he shouts a lot. For another, the "club" consists of three tables, planted like remote islands in the center of a cavernous auditorium. "You'll never learn dis game," Gazzola growls at Fred for the tenth time this afternoon. "Never in a million years." Fred, who looks a lot like Mortimer Snerd, pulls at his earlobe. He is in the midst of blowing a two-club contract.

These thrice-weekly duplicate matches played at the Soar Park community center in Little River are actually the integration of two groups, a faction of retirees from the neighborhood and the remnants of the local outpost of the American Bridge Association, an independent group for black players formed in 1933. "We see bridge as more of a social thing," observes ABA member Al Spivey. "Those folks in the ACBL can get kind of high-strung."

Miami's ABA game used to be played in a back room on NW 27th Avenue. They relocated to Soar Park a few years ago for more room. "But then a lot of our regulars took ill, and we had two or three incidents where they got their purses snatched outside," says Clisby King, Spivey's partner and the local ABA chieftain. "So we merged with John."

With Fred's hand over and lost, Gazzola checks his watch and calls in a new round by blowing the whistle hanging from around his neck. He and Fred sit down to face Spivey and King, the best players in the room.

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