The first in a series of personal essays about the games we play, what they mean to us, and why we so often feel compelled to justify our obsessions.
It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.
In the Beginning:
I didn’t grow up playing bridge, or even cards, really. Football, soccer, Chutes and Ladders, Sorry!—these were the games of my childhood, plus a sadistic outdoor pastime called “Spread Eagle” that gripped my fifth-grade class with religious fervor and whose unflinching denouement involved unlucky participants standing against a brick wall, execution-style, and getting pegged (often in the crotch) with a tennis ball.
The human impetus to play games is an old one. Before we used paper to print money, we used it to play cards. I imagine the games we play say a lot about us. Among other places, I’ve played bridge in Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco, Gatlinburg, Gettysburg, London, Dallas, Kansas City, Chicago, and Bermuda. Perhaps there’s something about me that can’t sit still.
An explanatory word about bridge, which would have been completely unnecessary some 70 years ago, when the game was played in 44% of American homes:
Bridge is arguably the deepest, most beautiful game humans have come up with. It is a trick-taking game, like hearts or spades, played by a pair of partners. After the deck is dealt, you and your partner bid against your opponents on whether a particular suit will be trump and how many tricks you might take. There are only fifteen legal words you can use to form exactly 38 bids, which must be used to discuss the 635,013,559,600 possible hands a player might be dealt. All this before a single card is played.
Once the play of the hand begins, each player can see the location of half the cards in the deck. Even beginners are expected to be able to count all fifty-two cards, which means—armed with such a wealth of information—you forever feel you’re on the verge of figuring out the game, but you never do. Bridge is an exercise in intuition, linguistics, math, and mystery. The name might conjure flocks of little old ladies, but the play is cutthroat, a stylized form of intellectual aggression. Bridge players are self-sufficient super-rationalists, lone wolves who might prefer to tackle the world with their wits alone, but they can’t—by design, they must rely on a partner—and therein lies the brilliance of the game. It’s about minds meeting (to crush other minds). The partnership is all. Thus, there is something innately human about bridge. While computers can humiliate us at chess, they’re miserable at bridge, partly because there are still too many unknowns (they are blinded by the field of imperfect information) and partly because playing bridge requires, among other qualities, empathy. It is a game of the brain that lives in the blood.
I stepped into my first bridge club when I lived beneath it in a rundown residential hotel on the Upper West Side. At the time, I was holed up writing a book. I took one look at the curious eccentrics and the amount of coffee they consumed and figured there was something there for me, though it was a while before I was brave enough to sit down at the table. I decided to write my next book about bridge and its enthusiasts.
Eventually, I found Tina, my octogenarian bridge partner, who was a beginner like me. We played duplicate bridge, a tournament version of the game in which the hands travel around the room in little trays and—thanks to a complicated scoring system handled by computers—you are competing against all the other pairs that will play your same cards. Duplicate bridge is an attempt to remove luck from the game. Everyone is dealt the same hand. But that’s not how life is. Luck sneaks back in. I feel very lucky to have met Tina, who became a good—if unlikely—friend. Eventually, I convinced her to travel to Chicago to compete in the national championships. In the book I called the trip Easy Rider meets Driving Miss Daisy. We finished dead last. We still keep in touch, and—now that I no longer live in New York—I worry about her from afar. Twice she has been evacuated from storm surges in lower Manhattan.
My fantasy bridge foursomes (all devotees of the game):
—Buster Keaton and Mahatma Gandhi vs. any two of the Marx Brothers
—Harold Pinter and Edgar Allen Poe (who wrote exultantly about whist, the precursor to bridge) vs. the guys from Radiohead (pick your two)
—Hugh Hefner and Somerset Maugham vs. Martina Navratilova and Clint Eastwood
—Winston Churchill and Snoopy vs. Wilt Chamberlain and Dwight D. Eisenhower
—Justices William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor vs. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (who, for a while, could be found competing together online under the handles “T-bone” and “Chalengr”)
The Lower East Side, lonely hearts:
I was not always faithful to Tina, my partner. A few months before my bridge book came out, I became involved in a pick-up game that met on the Lower East Side in a bar that had a fair amount of blogger/media/hipster cache in the mid-to-late 2000s but now is probably overrun like the rest of the neighborhood. We would order sandwiches or tacos from a deli and play past midnight. The first night I went, the game ran six and a half hours. There were no set partnerships; we were all swinging singles, rotating seats. The regulars were Paul, Nils, Alexa, Anne, and some others I have forgotten. The organizer ran a blog, where he discussed the night’s hands, posted tips for beginners, and—on a password-protected page—kept a tally of our lifetime scores. Not surprisingly, he led the top of the board. Eventually, the game moved fourteen blocks north to a bar that shared a name with the woman I married while writing the bridge book. I don’t remember how the game fell apart. I just checked the blog, which hasn’t been updated in years. According to the tally, the game ended about eight months after my last appearance. It surfaced a year later with a new bunch of singles, but flared out again. Bridge players have enough uncertainty in their lives. Their natural state is an often heartbreaking kind of serial monogamy.
San Quentin’s Yard Four, early 1990s:
A Death Row foursome—made up of the Freeway Killer, the Sunset-Strip Killer, the Scorecard Killer (who murdered two victims after a bridge game), and Lawrence “Pliers” Bittaker—played daily with contraband cards. Warren Buffett has said, “Bridge is such a sensational game that I wouldn’t mind being in jail if I had three cellmates who were decent players and who were willing to keep the game going twenty-four hours a day,” but even this game couldn’t survive the execution—in 1996—of the foursome’s weakest player. I wonder if the other three regretted making fun of him once he was gone? Bridge remains popular with both scientists and serial killers.
In my life, I have had only one true nemesis: the Bridge Baron, a preternaturally handsome man in a puffy red tunic and ice-blue leggings, who—until I learned to turn the sound off—would often overstep his (lower-peerage!) rank to mock me in a Long Island accent. How I came to loathe the Baron. Battling him became an addiction. My wife soon learned to distinguish between the staccato click-clack of the composition of prose and the click-click-click-pause-click-click-click-pause of computer card play. I was a rat hitting the feeder bar—she would shout, “Leave the Baron alone!”—but by then it was too late.
By instinct, I used to wake my computer, summon the Baron, and start playing bridge as a way of mulling over what to do once my computer had started up. Our games existed outside of time. I couldn’t get down to work until I had disgraced the Baron again and again. I did not see anything strange in this behavior.
One day, a careless mistake: I upgraded my operating system and the Baron became obsolete. A spell was broken. I never got around to buying an updated version of the game, but the Baron’s blank face—now grayed-out with a slash running through it—still haunts my dock
—Playing bridge has been shown to ward off Alzheimer’s, improve standardized test scores, boost the immune system, and help you live longer.
—Diminished sense of self when brought face-to-face with an impenetrable mystery.
In my book, I wrote, “Bridge is a battle between fate and chance mediated by skill.” What I didn’t say—and what nobody knows—is how you learn to live with the results. Bridge offers a fantasy of control that is constantly crumbling. You are attempting to outwit the world’s chaos, and we all know how that ends.
Minneapolis, Charlie, Julie, and Larry:
My wife and I left Brooklyn and moved to Minneapolis, which, I tell people, is a vibrant, generous city but—in winter—resembles living on the surface of the moon. Bereft of Tina and the Baron, I colluded to start up a social game composed of two writers and a political wonk (who was married to one of the writers). My wife—having refused to learn bridge—came for the snacks and conversation.
Outside the rigors of the bridge club—all science, no talking—lawlessness reigned. My partner (who happens to be an erstwhile Tin House contributor) and I invented a bidding style we dubbed Le Système, the basics of which we scrawled onto a notecard my partner carried in his shirt pocket and consulted flagrantly during the hand. (How our foes schemed to get hold of that card!) Our opponents cheated recklessly (“Now I mean it—stop bidding and lead an ace!”), while my partner told long, befuddling jokes while they were trying to think. One summer night at our house, my shifty wife poured water-and-limes for me and my partner but double gin-and-tonics for our rivals.
The night I remember most vividly, we didn’t even play bridge. The group simply ate and drank while everyone took turns trying to calm our colicky baby, who had reduced my wife and me to a state of hallucinatory dread. With this gang, I learned nothing about cards, but I picked up a few soothing techniques for new fathers: the bear hug, the “grandfather clock,” the rock-the-kid’s-bassinette-with-your-foot-as-you-type (a feat never successfully pulled off in our house).
The grudge match stretched for four years and came brilliantly to a head on the final night, with the series all tied up. There were brief speeches by the winners and a trophy for each player (best trash-talking, best cheating, best dummy, and so on). Then my wife and I left town. I miss that game dearly. I keep meaning to put up a picture of the group in my new office.
Kansas City’s South Side, after midnight, 1929:
Perhaps the most famous social game ended when Myrtle Bennett shot her thirty-six-year-old husband, John, in front of their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Hofman, who were over for a bridge party. The ruckus started when a defeated Mr. Bennett criticized his wife’s bidding. He slapped her; she grabbed a gun. She was taken to the station in her golf clothes. She pleaded the death was accidental, despite the fact that she shot her husband twice, including once in the back as he was trying to flee out the front door. The jury deliberated for more than eight hours, during which they played bridge. Not only was Mrs. Bennett found not guilty, but she collected $30,000 in life insurance.
In bridge, the post-game analysis is called the “post-mortem,” and it can last for hours. Of course there is no post-mortem in life, not really. When you’re done, you’re done. End of discussion. How we’d all love to play our lives over again knowing all the cards.
Had I been there, I would have advised Mr. Bennett not to jump to four spades, which, as it turned out, was a matter of life and death. But perhaps that would have done nothing. There have been other bridge-fueled murders, including one in England in 2010. I want to tell these people: “It’s just a game.” But of course it isn’t.
I now live in St. Louis, 250 miles and 84 years from the scene of the Bennetts’ meltdown. In the seven months I have been here, I have not played a single game of bridge. I receive invitations, but I decline them all. I don’t know why. Like anything difficult and worthwhile, there’s a chance I won’t regularly play bridge again. It takes something out of you; it comes with a cost. Finding a good game takes skill and luck, and even then you end up saying goodbye. That’s the hard thing—the hand always ends. Partners drift away. Then you’re left with nothing but yourself and the mute, muddled world.
Edward McPherson is the author of Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat and The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Observer, Esopus, Salon, Talk, and the Paris Review Daily, among others. He teaches in the creative writing program at Washington University in St. Louis.