Aces of Clubs

There were four shots in all, the first two of which missed, the next two of which whizzed past a hastily shut bathroom door and into the goosebumped flesh of one John G. Bennett, well-to-do perfume salesman, veteran of the Great War, and within minutes, a fresh corpse. The year was 1929. Babe Ruth was swatting for the Yanks. Wall Street was dancing toward doom. And in Kansas City, Missouri, the former Myrtle Adkins, Bennett's wife of eleven years, was charged in the case heralded on three continents as the Bridge-Table Murder.

The final Sunday of Bennett's life commenced innocently, on a golf course, where he and Myrtle joined their friends Charles and Mayme Hofman in a foursome. The couples reconvened at the Bennett manse, where a planned expedition to the cinema dissolved when the men declined to don appropriate attire. The quartet dined on leftovers instead, and after dusk they settled in for what would be described in court as a "fun stakes" match of contract bridge.

Though played in nascent forms since the Sixteenth Century, bridge as such had been formalized only four years earlier, by the millionaire Harold S. Vanderbilt, who had drawn up rules during an ocean cruise from Los Angeles to Havana. Almost at once, the card game had become the darling of a swelling leisure class, a pastime that bluntly gratified the American drive to acquire and conquer.

The fateful night began well for the Bennetts, but after two hours the tide shifted. Affectionate patter gave way to questioning glances across the table, then surly remarks. Just before midnight Bennett dealt the fatal hand and opened the bidding with one spade. His wife jumped directly to four spades, a contract that required her husband to win ten of the thirteen possible tricks. He fell short by two and chided his bride for overbidding. She replied in kind. He issued four brisk smacks, she a spate of lung-draining sobs. The Hofmans' futile efforts to intercede ended when Myrtle fled, reappeared in the den with a revolver, and shot the man she had just unflinchingly referred to as a "bum bridge player."

At the trial, her lawyer, retired U.S. Sen. Jim Reed, went to great pains to obscure the bridge squabble. He cast the gunplay as a freak accident: Mrs. Bennett had tripped, the pistol had gone off. Four times. As a measure of the tragedy, and to the utter disgust of the prosecutor, Myrtle wept inconsolably throughout the proceedings, as did Reed. The Hofmans, however, defended Mrs. Bennett on more practical grounds — as a bridge player. They testified that Mr. Bennett had, in fact, overbid his hand and played incompetently. "Myrtle put down a good hand," Mayme Hofman maintained. "It was a perfectly beautiful hand."

The jury deliberated just long enough to allow the three members who were unfamiliar with bridge to learn the rudiments, then acquitted Myrtle Bennett of murder, a ruling that later allowed her to collect the $30,000 insurance policy purchased by her late husband.

Bridge aficionados love to recount the Bridge-Table Murder. They find the irony of Bennett's foolish play, the karmic deservedness of his demise, as smoothly intoxicating as cognac. Alexander Woollcott preserved the events in print (the article appears in his collection While Rome Burns). Along with its summary of the incident, The Official Encyclopedia of Bridge offers a step-by-step analysis of how Bennett, through more astute play, might have made the contract — and, presumably, spared his life.

The other reason players retell this story, and so often, has to do with self-concept. Modern bridge nuts, it seems, share an unspoken fear that, were they ever to stand trial, most juries would find them guilty of aggravated irrelevance. "You play bridge?" the judge might ask before swearing in the first witness. "You mean that game for little old ladies?" The Bennett murder goes a long way toward conveying the notion that bridge is not a game for grandmas, but for lovers, for killers, for the raging passions of the elite.

Throughout the middle of this century, bridge was considered a terrifically fashionable pursuit. During the glum Thirties, Ely Culbertson, the game's first showman, held the world captive. His grudge match against twelve fellow experts, the so-called Bridge Battle of the Century, was front-page news for two months running. Bridge became the unofficial stress-reliever of the Allied troops in World War II. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower is said to have soothed his own nerves at the bridge table during his daring invasions of Normandy and Casablanca. After the war, with Ike in the White House, the game won mass appeal. Humphrey Bogart, Groucho Marx, even the Brooklyn Dodgers played. By 1958, the year a Time magazine cover story anointed bridge the nation's "number one card game," it was the pastime of 40 million Americans.

But with the advent of television and computers, the general acceleration of the cultural vibe, and the splintering of leisure time, bridge got nudged aside. People considered it too complex, and too sedentary. Club memberships dwindled. Knowledge of the game fell off precipitously. Loyalists muttered grimly of extinction.

Bridge survives today in large part thanks to a stubborn subset of adherents who have converted what was once a brainy amusement into a blood sport. Slavishly addicted, eager for attention, players have taken on the shadings of a benign cult. Nowhere is this more apparent than in South Florida, a celebrated storehouse of bridge lore where world champions flock and thousands of hopefuls tussle for scraps of recognition in the area's dozen clubs. Together they have constructed for themselves a precious cabal, founded on the alleviation of loneliness and the vain pursuit of perfection, endowed with its own elaborate systems of patronage, marred by avarice and egotism.

It might look silly. But then, who's to argue against the redemptive graces of a four-spade contract, bid and made?

Kim Hall lays his business card on the table. "BRIDGE," it reads. "Group and Private Lessons/Learn to Play/Play to Win." He flips the card. "YOGA," says the other side. "Group and Private Lessons/Feel Better/Peace through Relaxation."

Hall pulls his legs into the lotus position and attempts to explain. "In the first chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, entitled 'The Sorrow of Argina,' we are told of the heartache Argina feels as he is about to go out on the battlefield to fight his cousins. Krishna, the god of love, but also the fiercest fighter in the universe, has agreed to drive his chariot. Argina tells Krishna he is very sad because he will either have to kill his cousins or be killed by them. But Krishna explains that since his cousins want him to fight, the only way for Argina to preserve the essence of his being is to do battle. In a sense," Hall concludes, "this translates to bridge."

All around him, fellow members of the South Miami Bridge Club have begun arriving for the 1:00 p.m. game of duplicate bridge. By far the sport's prevalent form, duplicate allows partnerships to compete directly with one another by playing identical hands at different tables and comparing scores. Unlike "rubber" bridge, which is more informal, duplicate matches are scrupulously scored and require supervision by a director, a duty that today has befallen Hall. Before game time, club members are happy to gab and to nibble on the fixings set out at one side of the room. But with play under pay, the tense murmur of bidding predominates.

Pass. One no-trump. Pass.

"Now, some might say that the competitive nature of bridge contradicts yogic thinking, that its frenetic or anti-peacemaking qualities are not holistic," Hall says softly, conspiratorially. "But the more I play bridge, the more I draw on Krishna's words. I think less about my score and more about whether I was fulfilling the nature of my being." Hall smiles, revealing a set of teeth specked with the remnants of a homemade rum ball.

Two hearts. Pass. Three hearts.

"In other words, was I playing bridge in a yogic fashion, or was I being somebody I wasn't?" he continues. "In a way, the people sitting here right now are doing yoga."

Pass. Four hearts. Pass. Pass. Pass.

"When you meet at a bridge table, there are four little hearts going lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. And you have some cards and some kinds of vibrations are taking place. And those vibrations have to be in sync with the om, or the original sound of the universe." Hall flicks the amulet dangling from his neck, on which that Sanskrit letter is etched. "Because when you're out of kilter with the vibrations of the cosmos, that's when upset takes place that is not easily reversible."


Hall turns to look at the feuding couple, his slightly bulbous eyes sizing up two more souls out of kilter.

Hall believes anything can be done in a yogic fashion. He has even seen a man who became one with the cigar he was smoking — a generous assessment, considering that secondhand smoke drove Hall from bridge for five years. "I never meant to get back in," he says dreamily. "I was painting houses. But one day I wandered in here looking for clients. I figured if I played a little bridge with them, they would find me more trustworthy." He discovered that most clubs ban smoking. He teaches three classes a week now, and ekes out a living by offering individual lessons and pulling in directing fees. The yoga lessons, he notes, are often free.

The round ends. Hall dashes to the director's table and picks up a portable microphone. "All right, let's move on for round two. Remember, this is a jackpot game. Twenty dollars to the winner, ten dollars for second. So the bottom line is, take no prisoners."

Leon Kass is too disgusted with his partner's play to find the proper word in any of the seven languages he knows. So rather than speaking, the Russian immigrant slowly picks up the cards lying before him as dummy and turns them over. To the opponents on either side, the message is clear: His partner, a fading socialite, has played so poorly that he is signaling surrender. Had she been counting cards (as Kass has), she would have realized that her spades and clubs in dummy were winners. Instead she has led a diamond and is on her way to a drubbing. Another drubbing.

"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."

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.

"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 (0-5 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.

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.

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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Steven Almond