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 schedule now called for a three-day wait before the United States could resume the match against Italy. The match with France came next – or, more accurately, the match against Pierre Ghestem and René Bacherich, the slowest bridge partnership in the world. The individual record for slow play is held by a Toronto expert (he once took three minutes by the clock to put his last card down on the table), but Ghestem and Bacherich have no rivals as a pair. In the 1954 world championship Ghestem took so long to consider a bid that young William Rosen, his American opponent, keeled over in a faint and had to be revived by the tournament director.

It would be unfair to suppose that Ghestem and Bacherich use their Fabian tactics for the sole purpose of wearing out their opponents. They need more than the normal amount of time to choose the best bid because they play the most complicated bidding system thus far presented to public view.

In the Ghestem system a bid seldom has its accepted meaning. Usually a player makes a “relay” bid, revealing nothing about his own hand but asking his partner to supply more information. Sometimes a player makes a “transfer” bid, demanding that his partner bid a suit as yet unnamed. Where ordinary bidding is a conversation in a language that everybody at the table (including the opponents) is expected to understand, bidding in the Ghestem system is a series of messages in code.

Ghestem and Bacherich would take minutes to choose each bid, looking several moves ahead, like chess players. It was not strange in the case of Ghestem, a burly fruit wholesaler who was once world champion at dames, a form of checkers widely played on the Continent. Bacherich, a diminutive textile merchant, has no reputation at chess or checkers but doubtless has some equally good reason for his inability to get past a given point.

Their American opponents would sometimes ask the meaning of a bid in the middle of the auction, but would usually wait until the end of the bidding to find out what each bid meant, using an interpreter provided for just this purpose. (All bids and plays are made in English at an international tournament, but the few words needed for this purpose are the only English words that Ghestem and Bacherich know. The American players knew no French.)

What with one thing and another, the first set of 16 hands consumed the full three-and-a-half hours allowed by the tournament regulations. (In American national championships, players are allowed about one-and-a-half hours, and those who consistently take more time are disqualified.) The second session began an hour behind schedule and dragged on for another three-and-a-half hours. The final session of the day began at 11 P.M. and ran until almost 3:30 A.M.

Penalties for slow play had not been set up, but the tournament director, Dr. Ing. Silvio Carini Mazzacara, addressed an outraged note to players and team captains, warning them not to repeat the offense. Thereafter Ghestem and Bacherich kept carefully within the three-and-a-half-hour limit.

It is interesting to note that Baron Robert de Nexon, captain of the French team, put Ghestem and Bacherich in against the United States for the first eight of the nine sessions played by the two teams, relenting only on the last session of the last day when it was obvious that nothing could affect the final standings. He played Ghestem and Bacherich in only five of the nine sessions against Italy and only four times against Argentina.

Slowpokery got the French nowhere at Saint Vincent. The United States won the first two sessions and tied in the marathon session that night, ending the day with a lead of 132 to 76.

So far, so good. The U.S. had played one full day against each of the teams, reaching the one-third mark. It was well ahead in each of the three matches, and it looked as though America had at last picked three points that could bring home the bacon.

Schenken’s partner was Peter Leventritt, with whom he had played in the 1961 world championship at Buenos Aires, taking the customary second place to Italy. They had been partners through a dozen or more American national tournaments, in many of which they had played Schenken’s new bidding system.

Robert Jordan and Arthur Robinson were the work horses of the team. Both young (Robinson celebrated his 27th birthday the day before the tournament began), they had the stamina and patience to play world-championship bridge for ten hours a day if necessary. Both played well and steadily, and Jordan was often brilliant.

G. Robert Nail and James O. Jacoby were the partnership least favored by the American captain, John Gerber. They had been playing with great success in American tournaments for more than a year, but Gerber thought that young Jacoby (son of Oswald Jacoby, leading American tournament player) needed more seasoning. This estimate was to result in the most dramatic incident of the tournament a few days later.

The second set of three days produced no change in the standings. The U.S. pulled away from the Argentines, leading by 347 to 177 at the two-thirds mark, then dropped half of its lead against Italy, but still led them 216 to 196. The Americans crawled through three more sessions against France to lead 249 to 196.

It was on the second day of the match against the United States that Forquet gambled on a grand slam for which he had only an even chance. It boiled down to finding the king of spades in one opponent’s hand rather than in the other’s. Leventritt held the king, and Forquet made his grand slam. If Schenken had held the king, Forquet would have gone down and the U.S. would have won the world championship (as it turned out) by six points.

It reminded the harassed Americans of a hand on the first day, when Forquet had bid another grand slam, this time with the odds slightly in his favor. Luck had been with him then, too. The world championship would have gone the other way if either grand slam had failed.

The Italians reached another grand slam on the second day of their match with the United States, largely because Giorgio Belladonna cannot bring himself to pass if any bid is conceivable. Perroux once marked ruefully: “Some teams have trouble with a prima donna. We have Belladonna.”

This time Belladonna’s optimistic opening bid influenced his partner, Camillo Pabis Ticci to bid a grand slam. It was a sound contract, and luck did not seem to be a factor. Still, if anybody but Belladonna had been dealt those very same cards….