Interviewed by Eric Emin Wood — August 2016
Julian Laderman loves to talk.
In fact, so much did the 67-year-old Dr. Laderman, who speaks with a thick Bronx accent, love to talk that my draft interview with him spanned eleven pages, nine of which are included here.
He chatted with me over the phone on August 3, from the home he shares with his wife, Antoinette.
You recently returned home after a two-week trip to the Nationals. How did that go?
Not that great. No big victories. Bridge playing has actually been on the back burner since I got into writing.
I actually enjoy the writing more than playing, for three reasons: One is that it’s a shared activity. You share, with the people who read your book, what you’re saying about bridge, as opposed to the table, where two of the people are opponents and only one is your partner. All readers of my books are in a type of partnership with me.
Two, I enjoy the fact that it lasts longer, in the sense that if you have a major victory at the bridge table, that major victory only lasts until the next event of that magnitude, whereas when you write a book it has a life of its own. We still talk about great bridge books written in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s – I’m thinking of Watson, S.J. Simon. Many great books have had a very long life. I don’t expect my books to lead that long a life, but it’ll be longer than the year of a bridge victory.
Third: to be honest, I think I’m actually better at writing about the game than I am at playing the game. And it’s because I combine two things – I’ve always had a significant interest in bridge and developed a fair amount of skill at it, and I was a professor of applied mathematics for almost forty years. I felt I did a good job of explaining things in a way my audience could appreciate, and I received honors – I was Teacher of the Year at my university. And so combining those two skills has worked very nicely for me, to the point where I really get great pleasure from writing and it’s become a priority.
Also, my last book and articles have been about bridge history, which almost removes me from the game. I’ve been reading about how it was played eighty to a hundred years ago, rather than reading about the latest ideas and what I should do to work on my game today.
Was that an adequate answer? Or too much more than adequate?
[laughs] It was certainly far-reaching. I’d been told that you enjoy answering at length whatever question you’re asked.
(laughs) Good. You were prepared.
Can you tell me a bit about where you live?
I live in the Bronx, specifically the Riverdale area, which has had many famous bridge players in it. The Truscotts, Alan and Dorothy, used to live about three blocks from where I do. My building is a large apartment house that I used to joke had more master points than many small countries. It used to have 50,000 master points, partly because Bobby Levin and Jill Levin used to live in the building, though they moved out to Nevada now. But there have been many other bridge players who lived in the building – it’s of well-known repute.
Were you born in New York?
In the Bronx. That accent that you hear is genuine – I didn’t develop a Bronx accent to sound sophisticated!
Can you tell me about your teaching career?
I was a professor of applied mathematics at Lehman College, part of The City University of New York.
And your bridge career?
I’ve been a member of the ACBL for over fifty years, but at times I’d go through a period of twelve or thirteen years where I never played duplicate. But it was always in the background, waiting for me. One of the nice things about the game is that it’s available for us any time we want to return to it.
By the way, are you a bridge player?
I’m familiar enough with the rules to know what you’re saying if you’re telling me about the suits in your hand or what signals mean, but I’m not a great player by any stretch of the imagination.
Right, right. Okay.
Two of your books are about squeezes, for instance, and I never figured out what those are.
Read my books!
Actually, I got into writing because only one-tenth of one percent of ACBL members end up executing ninety-nine percent of the squeezes. A very small percentage of serious players have mastered that skill.
And now you want me to get into when I first started writing, I guess?
I was going to build up to that. I wanted to ask what led to your interest in mathematics, and thought that might lead to your interest in bridge.
Well, I had a wonderful father who was a mathematician and a serious bridge player.
That explains a lot.
(chuckles) I always had a great relationship with him. We were bridge partners, and one of the nice things about the game is that two people who are one generation, two generations, even conceivably three generations apart can play together as partners. Like, when you think of a sport people peak at different ages, so often a father can’t compete as partners with his son. Certainly a grandfather can’t compete with his grandchild. But at the bridge table people can, and do, and that was part of my close relationship with my father, both mathematically and in bridge. We even wrote some articles on mathematics together!
How old were you when you started playing?
I started playing at six years old, when I could not hold the cards and see them all in my hand. So I’d have to lay my hand on the table and trust that neither my opponents nor my partner were looking at the cards that I had. (chuckles)
What appealed to you about bridge?
It’s a little hard to say. I enjoyed it, but I actually felt that I enjoyed chess much more than bridge, until the age of thirteen or fourteen. I felt I had a much more natural instinct for chess than I do for bridge. I won the New York City Junior High School Chess Championship. But socially, I found bridge very appealing, and the style of chess – you can battle over a game for four hours, whereas in bridge even if you have a poor game, over a three or four-hour period you’ll have some hands where you can look back and say, ‘That was wonderful hand. I really enjoyed that.’ It’s like you’re getting a fresh start every seven minutes, whereas in chess that fresh start doesn’t exist.
Someone told me the teamwork aspect appealed to them as well. Did it feel that way to you?
Certainly, particularly since I was sharing it with my father – that you’re competing not individually, but with a partner, and share both the good experiences and bad experiences. There’s a wonderful short essay by Charles Lamb… It was a description of whist rather than bridge, but… let me see if I can quickly find a reference to it… (looks it up)
Here it is. It was written in 1823, and its name is, “Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist.” It appeared in his collection Essays of Elia, and the lead character is “Sarah Battle”. It’s quoted in a number of books: “You win for two. You triumph for two. Two are exalted. Two again are mortified, which divides their disgrace as the conjunction doubles your glories.” Basically, you’re either two winners or two losers, and that’s one of the appeals of the game.
Another feature of the partnership that is actually nice is that both players have to hold their own. Like I mentioned to somebody recently, if I were to play basketball with Magic Johnson as my partner, he would have the ball. I would be standing there and watching. In bridge, each member of a partnership has to hold up the ball, so to speak… It’s not only a ‘partnership.’ They really have to share work at the table. (chuckles)
Does mathematics play a role in how you approach the game?
Not really. In one of my books I describe the mathematics of bridge, but basically the most useful aspect is knowing the probability of suit splits. Like if you’re missing six cards, how likely it is to split 3-3, 4-2, 5-1. My mathematics background enables me to know how to figure out those values, but one need only remember about a dozen numerical values, and it’s useless at the table, because it isn’t as if I can take out a calculator and start figuring it out.
Mentally, I know by heart the twelve values that I recommended in A Bridge to Inspired Declarer Play. In that book I have two appendices, because Ray Lee didn’t want quite as much probability as I wanted to include, and felt readers would be turned off by all the mathematics, so we agreed to put it all in the appendix, which I then split into two.
The first appendix is Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Probability. And then the harder stuff I put into a second appendix, which I called Much More Than You Ever Wanted to Know about Probability. So in that book I explain how different probabilities are figured out.
But do I feel these calculations actually help me at the bridge table? Not much – bridge is really not a game of mathematics. You’ll find many great bridge players who may not have enjoyed mathematics, but it hasn’t prevented them from becoming great bridge players.
That gives me hope, because I was never great at mathematics.
(chuckles) Believe me, we wouldn’t have 170,000 members of the ACBL if it really required significant mathematical skill.
So how did your writing career begin?
Well, I started writing a column for a small local paper based at my university, and I still remember exactly when it happened, because I knew the people who were producing the paper at Lehman College. They were aiming for multi-lingual journalism. It wasn’t just for the university; it would be distributed throughout the Bronx. The Bronx is very multi-cultural, with people who read Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, and so on. So this was a paper that would be in ten or twelve different languages. I still remember making a comment that this was the only paper that no human being could ever read cover to cover, because they’d have to know twelve languages to do it. And it was nicely funded by grant money. So I said, why don’t you have a bridge column in it?
Now I wasn’t thinking of writing it myself, but the person who produced it knew I was a serious bridge player, so he said, “Great – we’ll do it, you write it.” And suddenly I found myself, as a result of my talking and giving advice, pushed into the spot of doing the job. Of course, it was a paper that only came out once a month, and only for nine months out of the year, not July or August or January. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll do it for two or three months, then figure a polite way out of it.”
But actually, having the month afforded me quite a bit of time to figure out how I wanted to present what I was writing – space was not a limitation for this paper. Since it was basically funded and did not rely on selling commercial space, I could write as much as I wanted. And the paper started receiving very nice feedback about how much people enjoyed reading the column – there were a lot of senior citizen centers in the Bronx who would pick up the paper and go over the column before playing bridge. I’m weak in the face of compliments, so I ended up doing it for several years, and enjoying it very much.
I realized that it was not enough to describe and give an example of how to execute a play. What I found very special was to think, what would make somebody consider a play? What feature of the hand would make declarer think, “This calls for an endplay”? What feature would make declarer feel, “I should look for a squeeze play on this hand”? And that became an innovative feature behind all of my writing.
And so with A Bridge to Simple Squeezes, you explored the reasons someone would make that choice.
Exactly. Most books on squeezes will do a very simple example of a squeeze and then progress to a harder example, then progress to an even harder example. And the examples will be clear – the reader will understand them – but they won’t find squeezes at the bridge table. When people would tell me they’d read a lot of books on squeezes but cannot find them at the bridge table, I’d ask, “How many hands do you even think about whether there’s a squeeze or not?” I realized that, particularly with squeezes, people needed something to trigger them to look for a squeeze.
That’s why if you look at A Bridge to Simple Squeezes, you don’t see a squeeze in the whole first chapter, but you see a variety of exercises to identify what I called strong threat cards. Then in Chapter 2 I introduce one squeeze and analyze it a lot, and then from Chapter 3 on I begin to go into squeezes, so by the time one gets to Chapter 3, which is on page 37, readers have only seen one complete squeeze example. I never try to convince the reader that squeezes are easy, but I try to indicate how to recognize that a hand has the potential for a squeeze.
On the back cover, I show one suit – AKQ2 – and ask, “What do you see?” Just that one suit should make you think about executing a squeeze on the hand. So my approach in trying to get people to figure out what type of play to try executing on a hand was helping them see what I call triggers for a particular type of play. In another book I call them ‘inspirational features’ – what inspires you to think about a particular type of play?
I must say that this technique somewhat came out of my mathematics teaching. Did you ever take calculus in mathematics?
No. I took a course called “Business Math”, which was the bare minimum you needed to graduate. I got a 93 in it, but I was never very good at advanced concepts. The joke in journalism school was that we were all there because we had failed math.
(chuckles) Right, right. What happens is – I had a lot of students who would come to me telling me they couldn’t solve a problem, and the reason was they would be familiar with four potential techniques for attacking that problem, but they wouldn’t know which to use on a particular problem. I found that if I said, “Just use such-and-such technique,” they would be able to do the problem. So I gave them a hint, which caused me to realize that whenever I showed my students a technique, it would help if I told them what feature of the problem should cause them to think of that technique. In the same way declarer must choose between several techniques when dummy appears on the table, like discovery play, a strip and endplay, squeeze, dummy reversal. He must recognize what technique should be applied on that particular hand. My mathematics lessons taught me to approach writing about bridge the same way. Eventually I consciously realized that I was doing something very similar to what I did in my role as a university professor for all those years – emphasizing what makes one think of using a particular technique.
My third book, Still Not Finding Squeezes?, was actually created as an exercise manual for A Bridge to Simple Squeezes, but since my exercise manual was as long as that book, Master Point Press issued it as a separate book. Which is fine – the only regret that I have about it is that anybody who reads Still Not Finding Squeezes? should have read A Bridge to Simple Squeezes. On the back cover of Still Not Finding Squeezes?, I think I indicate that you should only be reading it if you’ve already read A Bridge to Simple Squeezes.
What made you want to work with MPP?
I actually first wrote A Bridge to Simple Squeezes with a very small publisher. It happened that the head of that small publishing company was a very close friend of my regular bridge partner, who was my closest friend, so I met him at social functions, and my regular bridge partner said, “You really gotta publish my partner’s book.” So he knew me personally, we met a few times, and he liked the idea, so eventually, due to the compliments he heard, he figured, “Okay, I’ll do something new.” It’s funny – he had done some chess books, but his background was Russian and he did a lot of publishing in Russian. But on my regular partner’s recommendation, he published a bridge book, even though he didn’t really know anything about the game of bridge and had never played it.
And then I owe a great deal of thanks to the American Bridge Teachers’ Association (ABTA), because my book became their Book of the Year in 2006, and then I actually think I called Master Point Press to see if they had any labels that I could purchase to put on my book, indicating that it was the Book of the Year.
Of course, I knew of Master Point Press as the biggest and best bridge publisher to work with, and when I spoke to [MPP co-founder] Ray Lee, I think he ventured that my publisher did not have the normal distribution of a bridge publisher. My original publisher didn’t expect there to be the demand that there was for my book, and he didn’t want to cope with those problems, whereas Master Point Press was much better suited to deal with them. So he was happy for me to release the second edition through Master Point Press.
Of course, the second edition is actually extremely different from the first edition, because I added several more chapters, and Ray did a lot of editing and really greatly improved it.
So they came out with the second edition, and it was a win-win-win for everybody. My first publisher was happy that he didn’t have to send orders to customers he had no information about, since he didn’t know anybody involved in the bridge book world, Master Point Press was happy to have a book that had already won the Book of the Year, and I was very happy to have a publisher that could greatly improve my books. They’ve been excellent partners for all of mine. I know that if Master Point Press stopped publishing my books, I would stop writing them, because I’m too spoiled from having them pick out things that I might have done incorrectly.
Where did A Bridge to Inspired Declarer play come from? And please – try to keep it brief. You took seven minutes to answer my last question. (chuckles)
Right, yeah. (chuckles) Okay. A Bridge to Inspired Declarer Play was somewhat based on the articles that I had written for the newspaper, which had the same theme of figuring out how to recognize which approach to use on a problem. And that’s why, in A Bridge to Inspired Declarer Play, after every hand I indicate what inspired that particular line of play.
So it’s a series of hands?
Right. It’s thirty-eight separate hands. And after them, I have two themes that I always discuss. One of them is what inspired declarer to the correct line of play. Another feature often involves losing particular tricks or purposefully not trying to win tricks. I feel that goes against the intuition of bridge players. But if you see excellent players, after five tricks of a hand they probably will have lost more tricks than the average bridge player. But then they’ll more than make up for it later in the hand. Because the average bridge player’s instinct is to win tricks, but very often, the correct line of play involves losing a trick or not trying to win a trick. In some hands it isn’t appropriate, but that theme appears in all thirty-eight of the hands in A Bridge to Inspired Declarer Play.
And where did your latest release, Bumblepuppy Days, come from?
That basically comes from me always including some history in my books. I enjoy reading about history. After the Memphis ABTA convention in 2012, I gave a little talk about the museum we had gone to, and mentioned some things about the history of the game in an entertaining fashion, and the following day Ray and Linda [MPP co-founder] said, “We’d love for you to write a whole book on history.” So then I started doing it, and found it was great, because with the other books I felt I had to be new and innovative. Turns out it’s much easier to write about the old and forgotten. (chuckles)
Where did the term “bumblepuppy” come from?
It’s actually a term that used to be very popular between 1880 and 1920, that referred to an inexperienced whist or bridge player, or someone who really doesn’t want to go on and study the game. Its definition actually appears in all seven editions of the ACBL Encyclopedia.
Interesting. So what else do you have up your sleeve?
Well, I’ve been writing a book that can function as a stepping stone to bridge. It’s intended for complete beginners. I truly feel that our version of bridge is very complicated for beginners to play, so that as the game has become progressively more complicated, we’ve lost our ability to pull people in. Its most unattractive feature is that beginners need to take ten lessons to be able to play the game at all. People want to feel rewarded by being able to play a game sooner.
Of course, throughout the history of bridge, every form of the game has had some simple features and some complicated features, so I’ve combined the simple features to create a form of bridge that people can learn in 30 to 40 minutes. It’s basically very similar to the first form of bridge in 1900, where people could sit down and play very quickly. The card play is identical to modern contract bridge, but the bidding is extremely simple – no levels and so on – and the scoring is extremely simple. This enables people to play very quickly.
I gave it the name, “Bumblepuppy bridge.”
Master Point Press is going to release it in what they call their Honors Book line.
When do you think we can expect that book?
Probably early in the New Year (2017).
I was actually in Durham, North Carolina, recently, where I have a friend who runs and manages a club. He filmed three hands of bumblepuppy bridge because it’s much easier to witness it being played than to read my, at times, long-winded text on what makes a trick and how to lay down dummy. Three examples will be available for free on YouTube. And they won’t make any sense on their own, but the book will refer people to them. The video will supplement the book and allow the readers to see these hands played from beginning to end.
Are there any authors who have inspired you as a writer?
Going way back, [Louis] Watson’s The Play of the Hand at Bridge was always one of my favorites, even though it was a very old book that originally came out in 1934. I read it in the 1970s and said, “Boy, this is still a great book on declarer play.” It certainly inspired me to write more on declarer play than on bidding or defense. Also because declarer play evolves much more slowly than bidding systems, books on declarer play have a longer shelf life.
I’ve always enjoyed reading bridge books. Due to my strong interest in history, most of the books I’ve read recently describe completely out-of-date forms of bridge. Our guest room, to my wife’s regret, is now more of a bridge/whist library/museum, where I have old books and objects from the 1800s and even 1700s. I don’t know if you ever heard the expression “According to Hoyle” –
Edmond Hoyle was a real person who wrote the first book on the rules of Whist. I have several of his early books from the 1740s and 1750s – some are even signed by him – and have just started collecting old whist and bridge objects. Unfortunately, since I got into the history I’ve spent more time reading books that are completely out of date than the more modern books in order to improve my game. It’s almost a distraction – when I read a modern book on bridge, I think about how it’s presented and what I like about how it’s presented. I read it more like a critic than someone working on my bridge game. (Chuckles) Anyway.
This review has been lightly condensed and edited.
You can visit ebooksbridge.com to see Julian’s ebooks and more.