The best players of America, Italy, Argentina and France Square Off in a World-Championship Card Table Encounter

by Alfred Sheinwold, Playboy Magazine, May 1964


The United States drew Argentina as its opponent for the first day of play, a stroke of luck for the Americans. South America has sent a team to the world championships ever since 1958, but bridge in South America is not up to European or North American standards. Nobody in the World Bridge Federation would be beastly enough to say so, but the fact is that the gallant South Americans clutter up the world championship.

Clutterers or not, the U.S. team welcomed them. The American rookies had a few attacks of jitters, as expected, playing some hands like the senior class of a finishing school for young ladies. Fortunately, there were other hands – not all of the U.S. players were rookies – and there were always the amiable Argentines. The first session ended with the United States leading by the slightly ridiculous score of 62 to 49 international match points. It was like winning a World Series game by a score of 20 to 15.

Meanwhile, Italy had demolished the French in the first session of their match, 49 to 5. It was a merciless exhibition, designed to put the French in their place. Many bridge journalists had predicted that the French would win at Saint Vincent, but after the first set of hands the smell of roast crow permeated the press room.

Some of the European bridge writers, out in full force at Saint Vincent, gave their readers a scoop: The Italians, despite changes in the make-up of the team, were greater than ever; the Americans were barely able to cope with Argentina; there would be a slaughter of the innocents the next day, when Italy and the United States met for a full day of play.

The rest of the first day lent color to these predictions. Italy continued to crush France, and the United States continued to stumble ungracefully against the lowly Argentine.

A crowd of some 300 bridge enthusiasts jammed the Bridge-O-Rama room at the Hotel Billia for the beginning of the match between Italy and the United States on the second day of the tournament. The spectator at a world championship watches the lights go on and off upon a large electrically operated board that dominates one wall of the room like the screen of a moving-picture theater. The board shows all of the cards of the hand currently being played, much as they would appear in the diagram of a newspaper bridge column. A loudspeaker blares out each bid and play, spoken into a microphone by a tournament official who sits beside the players on another floor of the hotel.

During pauses in bidding and play an announcer relates what happened when the hand was first played. In all team contests a hand is first dealt and played normally and then sent, with the cards restored to their original positions, to be bid and played at another table by the two other pairs from the opposing countries, with the team that held the weak cards now getting a chance to play the strong ones. In theory, the results at both tables should be the same, producing a tie score for each hand.

The crowd, scanning the cards on the electric board, buzzes excitedly about who should bid what, how good old so-and-so is sure to play the trumps right, and what the score will be if the play takes such and such a turn. The crowd includes many of the most knowledgeable players of the five continents, idle members of the competing teams, coaches and scouts, wives and girlfriends, the leading women players and their escorts, even a few children and an occasional dog. All, including the dog, are willing to sit for hours in a darkened room, speculating endlessly on how things will go or how they should have gone.

It is a situation in which every man is a world champion. Everybody in the audience can see all 52 cards of each deal; the players, looking at only 13 cards during the bidding and 26 cards during the play, must laboriously work out the location of the unseen cards. The kibitzer can select a bid or a line of play, discuss it with a neighbor and then reject it and try again from his starting point; the players, with nobody to turn to for advice or even friendly conversation, must stand or fall ion their first bids or plays – not all their piety nor wit can cancel a played card.

Sometimes the kibitzers, seeing all the cards and knowing the result at the first table, fail to understand how a player can miss the right bid or the best play – or how a player of established reputation can make a simple human mistake. On one occasion an excited rooter for the Italian teem jeered Eugenio Chiaradia in the lobby of the Hotel Billia shortly after he had fumbled a crucial contract. The equally excited Chiaradia, 52 years old and about 110 pounds ringside, drew back a menacing fist but was restrained by obliging friends. Bridge experts, whose only exercise comes from snapping down an occasional ace, are usually careful to telegraph their punches in an incident of this kind, to give bystanders every opportunity of averting violence.

When Italy scored seven points on the first hand of the match, the crowd applauded and settled back to enjoy itself. Silence greeted the next hand, as the United States took the lead, but the crowd recovered its voice on the third hand when 13 points went to Italy. An Italian audience does not attend a world championship to cheer the opponents.

The pace slackened after a few hands, and the session ended with Italy in the lead, 37 to 22. It was not a score to set the Americans to dancing in the streets, but it was reassuring. The Italians were but human, and the Americans were not pushovers. When play resumed at 5:30 the Americans sliced four points from the Italian lead. After dinner, America took the lead and ended the day 37 points ahead, giving the Blue Team the worst drubbing of its career.

Back in the press room the American journalists tried not to look smug as they hammered out stories for their newspapers. Then they sat around in the bar to has over old times with members of the international bridge set.

They harked back to 1950, the year of the first official world championship, when an American team led by Schenken won the title in a three-cornered contest against Great Britain and a mixed Sweden-Iceland team. They recalled 1951 when Schenken took much the same team over to Naples to win from an Italian team that included the youthful Forquet.

There had been no match in 1952, but they spoke of 1953, when Sweden won the European championship and sent a team to New York to take an ineffectual crack at Schenken and his playmates. Then 1954, a vintage year, when the U.S. sent three Californians and three Midwesterners to Monte Carlo to show the world that America could win without Schenken and Co. They won the championship and much attention in the French press for their Hawaiian shirts and their casual custom of wearing brown shoes and green Argyle socks with dinner jackets.

The U.S. had won four years in a row, and many American bridge players thought that the best European teams should be invited to play in the American national championships to settle the world title. It was clear that any of a dozen good American teams could beat Europe’s best, and it was a waste of good money to send six players to Europe to beat a bunch of second-raters.

Those were the days, and the memories linger on the tongues of the journalists.

They did not linger on the bad days that followed. In 1955 Great Britain sent a team over to lift the Bermuda Bowl from the United States’ apparently secure grasp. The next year the U.S. sent a team to Paris but failed to get the Bowl back. In 1957 the Blue Team made its first appearance in world championship competition; they have won ever since, except for 1960.

In recent years European experts sometimes suggested that the U.S. send its best team to play in the European championship to compete for the world title along with Iceland, Spain, Lebanon, and the like. The shoe felt horribly different, now that it was on the wrong foot.

Nobody was tactless enough to renew this suggestion at the Billia bar that night. Instead they wondered whether Schenken would have the honor of taking the Bermuda Bowl back to America after its stay abroad.

They enjoyed that night in the bar. Eight years is a long time to wait for a chance to howl.