A Motto to Live By

By Joan ScheppsArticle picture

Originally published in Clear the Decks

Many playing card collectors are also card players, and like to play card games whether it be poker, bridge, casino, solitaire or anything else. I’d venture a guess they may even like to gamble at casinos! There are some expert bridge players among the ranks of the 52+Joker roster. Judy and Tom Dawson of Canada, David Galt, Bob Hawes, John Lafler of the USA, Michael Goodall of the UK, Bruno Sacerdotti of Milan, Italy, Sary and Gerard Hilte of The Netherlands to name but a few I have played with or kibitzed at the bridge table. I know there are more. As trump indicators were first introduced into the game world as an aid for the game of Whist and later early forms of bridge, it seems relevant to include an article about bridge, and the major impact it had on the manufacture of playing cards.

Examples of Trump Indicators

The first, light-colored proverb is engraved on a wooden trump indicator 4 inches long and 3-½ high with a diamond shaped wooden insert that rotates at the top to indicate the trump suit (see image at top right).

Article picture

The second is a wooden souvenir from Sandown, I.W. This one has a round disc at the top to indicate the suits. At 3 by 3-½ inches it is smaller with a slightly different motto engraved on the front which says: “Life isn’t a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well!”

Article picture

And a final one: “If you can’t play the game – Don’t!”

The Game of Bridge

I have played bridge my whole life. I played when I was a child with my family on Sundays. I played around the clock when I was in college and I play competitive bridge now as a Senior Citizen. It is said, if you don’t play bridge you “flunk” retirement. For those of you who do not play Bridge you may think Bridge is just another card game, but for those of you who do it can be an all consuming passion, an addiction, a mental challenge, a pleasant escape from daily life or just plain fun. BUT it is never referred to as just a game. This is serious business.

Over the last 100 years this game had major impact on the lifestyles of the times. Playing cards arrived in England in the 15th century and it was here that the ancestor of Bridge was born. This early game was known by many names: Triumph, Trump, Whisk, Ruff and Honors, and Whist. About 1700, a barrister of good family and education, Edmond Hoyle, arrived on the scene. He wrote the first book devoted to the game of Whist and it rapidly became a best seller. As a result the popularity of the game grew by leaps and bounds, particularly among the ladies and gentlemen of Society, and Whist became a highly respected intellectual pursuit. Hoyle established the tradition of law and order in early play, and the expression “according to Hoyle” became part of the English language.

Whist led to Bridge-Whist, which led to Auction Bridge, which led to Contract Bridge which led to murder, divorce, suicide, mayhem and social evils.

Harold Vanderbilt is known as the Father of Bridge and in 1925, while on a cruise, added a new scoring system and changed the course of the game forever. He turned Auction Bridge into Contract Bridge and the United States took up the game with alarming enthusiasm. His version is the game we play today.

In the late 1920’s and 30’s newspapers reported Bridge divorces, assault and battery cases and even Bridge deaths, THIS IS ALL TRUE.

The most famous case of them all is THE BENNETT MURDER CASE. In Kansas City in 1929, a housewife, Myrtle Bennett, committed one of the decade’s most headlined homicides by shooting her husband. His crime? He “butchered” the play of a hand and went down in a very makeable 4 Spade contract. After a bitter quarrel and according to testimony at the trial, Mrs. Bennett grabbed a revolver and shot her husband dead. Not only was Mrs. Bennett acquitted, but she also collected his $30,000 life insurance.

From that time to the present, any book written about the history of bridge includes reference to this case, as well as a diagramed deal of the hand that cost John Bennet his life, and the proper way it should have been played. The popularity of the game made the bridge expert indispensable for the masses of living room social bridge players. This opened the way for the wars between the bridge experts. There was a great deal of money to be made in the bridge world and everyone wanted to become “King of the Hill”.

Enter Ely Culbertson. In the scramble for the experts to cash in, the man who emerged on top was Russian born Ely Culbertson, gifted with a real talent for cards and an absolute genius for personal publicity. In 1931 his bridge book was a best seller and sold over 1 million copies! Bridge became a new industry, and fifty-two million packs of playing card were manufactured each year. A new profession of Bridge instructor sprung up employing 1200 bridge teachers, including former society matrons, school principals and retired army officers. Ely Culbertson and his bridge bidding system reigned supreme from 1932 until the late 40’s when he was pushed off the throne by a new man with a new system.

Enter Charles Goren – His system: Point Count bidding. The day his book, “Winning Bridge Made Easy” was published, Charles Goren gave up the practice of Law. In 1958, Goren appeared on the cover of TIME magazine and bridge was proclaimed the Number One card game in the United States. It reached the height of its popularity in the 50’s and 60’s with over 35,000,000 bridge players in the United States alone.

Bridge is the only organized card game. It has a parent organization called the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) which was formed in 1937. Today, with National Headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, the ACBL is the governing body for all organized Bridge activities on the North American continent. It boasts a membership of 160,000 bridge players, and publishes a highly respected monthly bulletin. To give you an idea of the scope, each National tournament lasts 10 days and an average of 6000 different people play 11,000 tables of bridge. The ACBL is one of the largest users of hotel space.

You may ask what attracts all these bridge players. There are NO money prizes. The attraction is MASTER POINTS: the award given by the ACBL for winning or placing in a bridge tournament or game at a bridge club. MASTER POINTS rank a bridge player for achievement. Bridge players hold them in the highest esteem, and enter into a frenzied chase to amass large numbers of them. The rank of Life Master equates to 300 Master Points; Bronze Life Master – 500 MASTER POINTS, and Silver Life Master-1000 points; as well as Gold Life Master, Diamond Life Master and Grand Life Master for higher totals.

The game of bridge has universal appeal and attracts people from all economic levels and occupations. As a result, the bridge world has its share of celebrities. Omar Sharif, the actor admitted a preference for playing bridge to acting and was instrumental in arranging the first competition between the Israeli and Egyptian bridge teams. George Burns played bridge daily at his club. Alfred Gruenther, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe 1953-56 was called the best non-professional by Goren himself and Dwight Eisenhower was the first good Bridge player among U.S. Presidents.

But most importantly, bridge is a game that ALL people can play regardless of age, physical stamina or sex, and a bridge club is a place where a single man or woman can go alone and feel completely comfortable. I know many people are reticent about going to bridge clubs because they are intimidated by the serious players who play for “blood”. Many times a person may not greet you immediately because he is still preoccupied with the last hand. On occasion is it not uncommon that normal social behavior fades before bridge’s mighty power. Don’t hold it against them.

All I can add is that bridge players are utterly and eternally addicted to the most exasperating, satisfying, confounding and exciting form of intellectual recreation known to man. It is an international fraternity and I love being a part of it. It has enriched my life immeasurably and I have met some of the most wonderful people through the world of bridge.

Joan Schepps holds the rank of Silver Life Master. She founded the Holyoke Bridge Club in Holyoke MA, and wrote a bridge column for a local paper. Her collection of Trump Indicators is the foremost in the United States. This collection was on exhibition at the World Bridge Olympiad and is written up in the Official Encyclopedia of Bridge, as well as the American Contract Bridge League Bulletin and other bridge publications.