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Friday, February 23, 2018

Crossing that Bridge

I WON’T BE WATCHING THE OSCARS, but I usually don’t. A long-ago trauma put me off the show, which is really a case of blaming a blameless entity for my own shortcomings. That the incident took place in 1975 only proves how pathetically long I hang onto such things. I was in my first (and final) year of college, an arts school near White Plains, and had been persuaded by a new-found friend named Rick to join him in Manhattan for an Oscars-viewing party during which I'd also be able to show off my bridge-playing prowess, he said.

Ely Culbertson
My parents played bridge. It was a ritual I witnessed from earliest childhood, when they’d click down the legs of the table thus intended and sit with another couple – the cast changed over time – to commence the bidding and playing and smoking and drinking. It seemed to be a very dull game, the most attractive feature of which was the fan of cards each player held, arranged by suit and rank (the cards, not the players, although now that I think of it I can’t be sure).

Although my mother tried to teach me the game, it wasn’t until late in high school that a few of us discovered the shift from poker to bridge, bringing a lot more skill into play. Now it became something filled with high emotion and attendant swearing, which made it much more appealing. And so I sought to pursue this interest in college, and ended up meeting those players in Manhattan.

As I was introduced around to the people crowding the apartment, I became immediately smitten by a young woman whose name I've long since blanked. I was at that point an ungainly, inarticulate wretch whose weak capacity for conversation was completely eradicated when sexual attraction kicked in, so I hoped I'd be able to impress her enough with my card-playing skill to set her fawning over me, possibly leading to a frenzy of ravishment.

The Oscars broadcast began, and the watchers jammed into a couch and onto whatever chairs were available. I was stuck with the floor ... but a seat opened at the bridge table just then.

I gathered and arranged my hand. As I counted my high-card points, not forgetting the singletons and doubletons that also might have been there, I was somewhat surprised to hear the dealer, to my left, issue an opening bid. It came a little too quickly, a little too confidently. My assigned partner responded just as quickly, as did the player to my right. My study of the Charles Goren Point-Count Bidding System was okay as far as opening bids were concerned, although I was weak on some of the conventions meant to take you to a slam. But I was weaker still on the response. I croaked out something that seemed plausible. My partner glared at me.

The other team made the contract. Play began. My partner led – something. The first few tricks are fairly straightforward, unless others at the table are skillful finessers. This they were. At some point I took a trick and led a card that prompted my partner to exclaim, “Why didn't you play that before?” The other team won that hand. My partner shuffled and dealt. When I proved to be even more inept as that hand progressed, someone at the table declared, with no little disgust, “I thought you could play bridge!”

Now the rest of the room was aware of the card-table conflict, and I dared not sneak a glance at my inamorata. I struggled to summon a witty comeback. My interlocutor pushed the knife further, asking, “Do you even know how to play bridge?”

“Ah!” I responded. “Are you playing Goren? I play Culbertson.” (A footnote: Ely Culbertson was America's bridge monarch during the Depression, creator of a bidding system about which I actually knew nothing. I really only knew of him because he'd owned a lavish home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where I grew up.)

“Well, why didn't you say so,” the fellow said. “Okay. We'll play Culbertson.”

I couldn't take any more humiliation, and excused myself. The deal was that Rick and I would be overnighting at this place, so I found out where I was supposed to sleep, which was a small but acceptable bedroom I'd have to myself. And that's where I spent the rest of the party, reading whatever emergency paperback I'd carried (I believe I was on a Dostoyevsky kick back then, and hope it was “The Idiot” I'd brought) until far into the night as the party raged in the outside room.

I've not been able to watch that telecast since.

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