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


When the United States began its last day against Argentina, Gerber broke up the partnerships, pairing Schenken with Nail and Leventritt with Jacoby, ostensibly to let the players relax in a match they couldn’t lose. Actually, the American captain had another project in mind: If conditions seemed to warrant it, he could play Nail with Schenken against Italy in the crucial match scheduled for the next day.

By this time the scores made it clear that the world championship could be won only by Italy or the United States. The winner of their match was sure to win the title, and with 48 hands to be played, the U.S. had a lead of 20 points.

The first of the three final sessions against Italy brought to mind the story of the crapshooter who ran a two-dollar bet up to a million dollars and then lost it all on the next roll of the dice. “How did you make out?” a friend asked.

“Nothing much happened,” the gambler replied. “I lost two dollars.”

America gained only one point in that set of hands, but quite a bit happened. The hands shown in the Bridge-O-Rama room told only part of the story. Much of the drama took place behind locked doors.

The two teams seesawed for the first 13 hands. On the next, hand 110, Chiaradia decided against bidding a slam with Forquet. As it turned out, the slam was there for the taking. Forquet silently lit a cigarette and hurled the match savagely against the opposite wall. Chiaradia kept his eyes carefully away from his partner.

When Forquet began to play in international tournaments in his mid-20s, Chiaradia was Italy’s greatest player. When Forquet became the great star of the Blue Team he avoided playing with the older man. Now Forquet plays by choice with Garozzo, a 36-year-old Naples businessman.

Of the tension behind locked doors the audience in the Bridge-O-Rama knew nothing. They maintained a tense silence when Italy missed the slam, but roared with delight on the next hand, the turning point of the match. The announcer had told them the result in the first room: Jordan and Robinson had gone down one trick at six hearts. The audience cheered when Forquet and Chiaradia stopped at a comfortable four hearts. The word buzzed round the audience: Italy would pick up ten international match points by staying out of trouble on this hand.

But the bidding wasn’t over. Leventritt doubled the “unbeatable” contract of four hearts. “Redouble,” Forquet barked. The cheering was loud enough to start an avalanche on the slopes of the Matterhorn, 16 miles away.

Gerber strode out of the hall and beckoned to Sam Kehela, a young Canadian expert who was serving as team coach. “Get hold of Nail,” Gerber snapped. “He’s going in with Schenken for the next session.”

The decision brought to mind the switch Gerber had made in the 1962 world championship when he had put Nail in with Mathe in a desperate attempt to stop an Italian victory. Then also he had broken up two partnerships, but the situations were not exactly alike. Nail had no bidding problems with Mathe, whose bidding methods are very natural; it was asking a lot of him to use Schenken’s new system with so little practice with it. In 1962 the Americans were behind when the switch was made; this time they were leading, with only 32 hands left to be played.

Gerber thought that Leventritt had made a bad double and that perhaps he was cracking under the strain. Gerber was right about the strain, but wrong about who was cracking.

Chiaradia, five times a world champion, was trembling with excitement and nervousness. He had dropped his cards several times, he had bid out of turn once, and was upset over missing the slam on the previous hand. Leventritt doubled not because he was sure he could beat four hearts, but because he was sure he could beat Chiaradia.

Leventritt was right. Chiaradia, shaking violently, adopted a strained line of play, miscounted the hand at the tenth trick, and found a way to go down.

It was a deplorable performance and may well mark the end of Chiaradia’s great career as a member of the Blue Team. The day after the tournament ended, Perroux paid tribute to “dear old Chiaradia, who has done so much for us all,” at the banquet that was supposed to bind up all wounds; but Chiaradia was significantly absent from the feast.

If Leventritt had passed, the U.S. would have lost ten points on this crucial hand. His double, and Chiaradia’s lapse, turned the loss into a four-point gain. This brilliance earned Leventritt only a rest on the bench for the second session of the day.

The switch was disastrous. The Blue Team scored 44 to the Americans’ 5, taking an 18-point lead. Time was running out, for only 16 hands remained to be played.

It was clear that Gerber cared nothing for the factor of partnership. The Europeans, successful in world championships since 1955, make up their best teams of pairs who have played hundreds of sessions together. Gerber, a tough-minded man who has won several national championships in the United States and knows the game thoroughly, may not mind the fact that few experts would agree with him.

With the horses well away, Gerber locked the stable door for the final session, putting Leventritt back in with Schenken. Italy won the session by one point, ending the match with a final score of 313 to 294 international match points. The margin of 19 points in a match of 144 hands was a clear victory for Italy, since even one point would have been enough, but experts agreed that it was barely more than a tie.

As play began in the last hand, and it became clear that Italy could not lose the match no matter how the hand turned out, Perroux assembled his ragazzi outside the locked playing room to greet Forquet and Garozzo when they emerged. There were embraces, tears, exclamations, and flashes of light from a photographer. Forquet brushed the embraces aside impatiently. It was the sixth time for him: what was all the excitement about? The result of the match had not been announced, but Jacoby and Nail, watching silently from the open doorway, did not need to be told what the excitement was about.

Perroux and his squadra italiana gathered at the head of the stairs and walked slowly down the wide marble staircase to the lobby. It was past one in the morning, but almost all of the spectators had stayed. They stood silently at the foot of the stairs until the Italian team appeared; then they applauded with hands held high in the air as their champions made the slow descent. It was a very moving, if slightly theatrical, scene.

Ernst Heldring, secretary of the European Bridge League, commented on the sportsmanship of the Americans. “They were full of praise for the Italian players,” he said. “What graceful losers they are!”

It remained for the Italians to show how gracefully they can win. After the cups had been presented to the winners at the banquet on the final Monday night, Perroux called Gerber to the dais and presented his precious cup to “the greatest captain of the greatest team that Italy has ever met.” One by one, each Italian player called to an American player and presented his cup with a smile and a handshake.

Forquet found a few significant words as he gave his cup to Schenken. “If I had played against four Schenkens,” he said quietly, “I could not have won.”