Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Another obsession (currently latent): contract bridge

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How we forget… I was obsessed with contract bridge for quite a while, and spent one trimester of my first year of graduate school playing more or less constantly, until I switched to Go. I even played some in high school and as an undergraduate. However, I’ve never played in a bridge club or at a bridge tournament. Still, it’s a mesmerizing game—from a recent article:

A passion for bridge is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t share it. One attraction is the sense of endlessly unfolding complexity: the more you learn, the less you feel you know. Computers have been able to beat the world’s best chess players for a decade, but—as Edward McPherson writes in a lively, somewhat haphazard new book, The Backwash Squeeze & Other Improbable Feats: A Newcomer’s Journey Into the World of Bridge (HarperCollins; $23.95 [$16.29 on Amazon – LG])—they “still stink at bridge.” There are 635,013,559,600 possible bridge hands, and a vast catalogue of approaches and techniques and stratagems for playing them. (A backwash squeeze, by the way, is an obscure offensive tactic whereby a player, facing a certain arrangement of cards, forces an opponent to make a certain kind of self-defeating discard.) The best players are able to visualize their opponents’ hands after just a few cards have been played and to imagine strategies that would never occur to the less skillful, yet even they find the game inexhaustible. One player told McPherson, “For people who enjoy puzzles, this is one they will never solve.”

Also from the article:

Edgar Allan Poe, the great ratiocinator, viewed a passion for whist as a sign of mental acumen; the opening pages of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” are almost a stand-alone essay on the game’s superiority to chess:

Whist has long been known for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it, while eschewing chess as frivolous. . . . The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies a capacity for success in all those more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind.

And it rouses the passions:

Bridge differs from basic whist primarily in that each hand begins with an auction to determine the number of tricks that the highest bidder in the auction must take and which suit, if any, will be trump; also, one of the four hands, called the dummy, is turned face up after the first card has been played. The modern version, contract bridge, was created in 1925 by the railroad heir and master yachtsman Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, who had been annoyed by what he felt were deficiencies in the previous version, auction bridge. Vanderbilt was a passenger on a ship that was travelling from Los Angeles to Havana by way of the Panama Canal, and on the evening of October 31st, while playing with three friends, he introduced several improvements that he’d been mulling over, including a method of scoring that required players to more accurately assess, during the bidding, the number of tricks they would take, a prediction known as a contract. Vanderbilt shared his ideas with a few other friends in Newport and New York, and his game spread across the country and around the world at almost unbelievable speed. “Half a year after Vanderbilt’s voyage,” McPherson writes, “a notice appeared in the Los Angeles Times announcing that a Chicago woman was suing her husband for divorce on the inexcusable grounds that he trumped her ace.” Four years later, in Kansas City, another aggrieved bridge-playing wife, Myrtle Bennett, shot her husband to death shortly after he failed in his attempt to make a contract of four spades. At her trial, Myrtle was represented by James A. Reed, a former Kansas City mayor and United States senator. Remarkably, she was acquitted, and is said to have collected on her husband’s thirty-thousand-dollar life insurance policy. After reconstructing the final deal, the bridge expert Ely Culbertson concluded that Mr. Bennett could have made the fateful four-spade contract after all.

Read the whole article (which includes an explanation of the book’s title). Fascinating game.

Written by Leisureguy

13 September 2007 at 12:37 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Games

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