Turning Tricks

Turning Tricks

The rise and fall of contract bridge.

By David Owen – The New Yorker, 2007

When I was in ninth grade, back in 1970, we finished our geometry textbook six weeks before the end of the school year and spent the final grading period studying our math teacher’s principal extracurricular passion, which was bridge. He gave us quizzes on the Goren bidding system, and we got so hooked that we often dealt quick hands in the halls, between classes. We played on weekends, too, sometimes at tables wreathed in marijuana smoke. Our teacher told us that we would love playing in college, as he (and most of our parents) had, but by the time I got there, in 1973, nobody seemed to know anything about it. I didn’t play again until five or six years ago, when, during a family vacation, I was reintroduced by my brother-in-law, who had begun taking lessons as part of his midlife crisis. Now it’s the main thing I think about when I’m not thinking about golf.

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)—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.”

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