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

Gazzola's first hand is a gem that includes three aces, a king, and six hearts. He bids one heart. Fred jumps to four hearts. Three passes later Fred, as dummy, sets down his hand. He has four hearts, but just two high cards, a king and a queen. Gazzola grimaces, the puffs of whiskery flesh near his mouth bunching. "Let's play a little 'You Shoulda,' Fred," he booms. "You like that game? Well you shoulda known better than to bid with garbage like that. For chrissake, Fred, you'll never learn dis game. Not in a million years."

"Shhhhh," says a woman at the next table.
Gazzola wins the first three tricks, then neglects to draw trumps. Spivey and King, longtime partners, win the ace of diamonds, proceed to cross-ruff two tricks, and take the king of clubs. Gazzola goes down one.

Spivey opens the traveling score sheet, which records how the other pairs have fared on the same hand. "Well I'll be damned." He drops the scrap of paper on the table. Gazzola snatches it.

"Six hearts makes?" Gazzola grumbles. "How in the hell?"
"Real pity," says Spivey, popping a toffee into his mouth and sucking contentedly.

"Hey John," Fred says. "Let's play a little 'You Shoulda.'"
"Oh damn," Spivey chuckles. "He's giving you a little back, John."
"Maybe you shoulda pulled trump," Fred suggests good-naturedly.

"Aw, whadda you know, Fred!" Gazzola howls. "You'd kick if you wasn't swimming."

"Shhhhhhhh." This time the two other tables shush Gazzola together. In a moment of apoplexy, he yields to habit, grabs his whistle and issues an ear-splitting shrill. Twelve creaky spines snap upright, the hairs on their fleshy necks sproinging vertical. The only sound in the creepy lull that follows is that of the Canadian snowbirds playing shuffleboard outside, their discs gently clacking in the winter air.

"Never in a million years," Gazzola says finally.
"I'll try to do better John," Fred whispers. "Honest I will."
Little Leo has trouble holding his cards. Sometimes his fingers don't work the way he'd like them to. Neither do his arms, which are powerful and gnarled as tree limbs. His bids are hard to pick up, too, as if his voice were wobbling through water. All this is attributable to nerve damage that was discovered at his birth, 77 years ago.

Leo comes to his favorite club every day he can, journeying from his tidy apartment nearby. Some days he can't find a ride. Others he can't afford the club's six-dollar fee. But most days he's there plugging away. "I love bridge, I love it," he chants, the words coming out loud through his nose. "I could never be a good player. But they're no fun anyway. They get mad every time you make a mistake. How you supposed to have fun when they yell at you all the time?"

Nobody needs to yell at Leo. After each game, in which he places last, Leo yells at himself. "I been playing the game since I was fourteen," he'll say, shaking his head, "and I still can't get no better."

Leo knows he will never place first. But he also knows he will get his shot at superstardom. That is the way in bridge. Despite all the money and statusmongering, the average player always gets a chance to play against the game's best. And now and again even the slowest partnership finds a brilliant contract, or, struck by a bolt of inspiration, pulls off an impossible trump coup.

Leo did it just a couple of weeks ago against the fearsome Michael Seamon; he bid and made four spades on a risky finesse and a deft run of trumps that squeezed Seamon's partner into discarding a winning trick. Afterward Leo closed his eyes, embarrassed, and laughed deep into his chest. He didn't hear when the next round was called. He was dreaming in trump.

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