Not According To Hoyle

I have just finished reading an article by an expert in auction bridge, and it has left me in a cold sweat.

As near as I can make out, it presupposes that every one who plays bridge knows what he is doing before he does it, which simply means that I have been going along all this time working on exactly the wrong theory. It may incidentally explain why I have never been voted the most popular bridge player in Wimblehurst or presented with a loving cup by admiring members of the Neighborhood Club.

Diametrically opposed to the system of “think-before-you-play,” advocated by this expert, my game has been built up purely on intuition. I rely almost entirely on the inner promptings of the moment in playing a card. I don’t claim that there is anything spiritualistic about it, for it does not work out with consistent enough success to be in any way uncanny. As a matter of fact, it causes me a lot of trouble. When one relies on instinct to remind one of what the trumps are, or how many of them have been played, there is bound to be a slip-up every so often.

But what chagrins me, after reading the expert’s article, is the thought that all this while I may have been playing with people who were actually thinking the thing out beforehand in a sordid sort of way, counting the trumps played and figuring on who had the queen or where the ten-spot lay. I didn’t think there were such people in the world.

Here I have been going ahead, in an honest, hail-fellow-well-met mood, sometimes following suit, sometimes trumping my partner’s trick, always taking it for granted that the idea was to get the hand played as quickly as possible in order to talk it over and tell each other how it might have been done differently.

It is true that, now and again, I have noticed sharp looks directed at me by my various partners, but I have usually attributed them to a little mannerism I have of humming softly while playing, and I have always stopped humming whenever my partner showed signs of displeasure, being perfectly willing to meet any one halfway in an effort to make the evening a pleasant one for all concerned. But now I am afraid that perhaps the humming was only a minor offense. I am appalled at the thought of what really was the trouble.

I should never have allowed myself to be dragged into it at all. My first big mistake was made when, in a moment of weakness, I consented to learn the game; for a man who can frankly say “I do not play bridge” is allowed to go over in the corner and run the pianola by himself, while the poor neophyte, no matter how much he may protest that he isn’t “at all a good player, in fact, I’m perfectly rotten,” is never believed, but dragged into a game where it is discovered, too late, that he spoke the truth.

But it was a family affair at first. Dora belonged to a whist club which met every Friday afternoon on strictly partizan lines, except for once a year, when they asked the men in. My experience with this organization had been necessarily limited, as it held its sessions during my working hours. Once in a while, however, I would get home in time to meet in the front hall the stragglers who were just leaving, amid a general searching for furs and over-shoes, and for some unaccountable reason I usually felt very foolish on such occasions. Certainly I had a right, under the Common Law, to be coming in my own front door, but I always had a sneaking feeling, there in the midst of the departing guests, that the laugh was on me.

One Friday, when I was confined to my room with a touch of neuralgia (it was in my face, if you are interested, and the whole right side swelled up until it was twice its normal size—I’d like to tell you more about it some time), I could hear the sounds of carnival going on downstairs. The noises made by women playing bridge are distinctive. At first the listener is aware of a sort of preliminary conversational murmur, with a running accompaniment of shuffling pasteboards. Then follows an unnatural quiet, punctuated by the thud of jeweled knuckles or the clank of bracelets as the cards are played against the baize, with now and then little squeals of dismay or delight from some of the more demonstrative and an occasional “Good for you, partner!” from an appreciative dummy. Gradually, as the hand draws toward its close, there begins a low sound, like the murmurings of the stage mob in the wings, which rapidly increases, until the room is filled with a shrill chatter, resembling that in the Bird House in Central Park, from which there is distinguishable merely a wild medley:

“If you had led me your queen—was so afraid she might trump in with—my dear, I didn’t have a face card in my—threw away just the wrong—had the jack, 10, 9, and 7—thought Alice had the king—ace and three little ones—how about honors?—my dear, simply frightful—if you had returned my lead—my dear!”

This listening in at bridge, however, was the nearest I had ever been to the front, until it came time for the Friday Afternoon Club to let down the bars and have a Men’s Night. I had no illusions about this “Men’s Night,” but it was a case of my learning to play bridge and accompanying Dora, or of her getting some man in from off the sidewalk to take my place, and I figured that it would cause less talk if I were there to play myself. As I think it over now, I feel that the strange-man scheme might have worked out with less comment being made than my playing drew down.

But it was for this purpose that I allowed myself to be instructed in the rudiments of bridge. I had nothing permanent in mind in absorbing these principles, fully expecting to forget them again the day after the party. I miscalculated by about one day, it now seems.

The expert, whose article has been such an inspiration to me, had some neat little diagrams drawn for him, showing just where the cards lay in the four hands, and with the players indicated as A, B, Y, and Z; apparently the same people, come up in the world, who, in our algebras some years ago, used to buy and sell apples to each other with feverish commercialism and to run races with all sorts of unfair handicaps. What a small world it is, after all!

It seems to me, therefore, that, since this is a pretty fairly technical article, it might be well if I were to utilize the same diagrammatic device and terse method of description, to show the exact course of the first hand in which I participated at the party.

A and B are our opponents, X my partner, and I (oddly enough) myself. A is Ralph Thibbets, one of those cool devils who think they know all about a game, and usually do. He has an irritating way of laying down his cards, when the hand is about half played, and saying: “Well, the rest are mine,” and the most irritating part of it all is that, when you have insisted on figuring it out for yourself, he is found to be right. I disliked him from the first.

B is Mrs. Lucas, who breathes hard and says nothing, but clanks her cards down with finality, seeming to say: “That for you!” She got me nervous.

X, my partner, used to be a good friend of mine. And, so far as I am concerned, I would be perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones and be on friendly terms again.

In utilizing the expert’s method of description, I shall improve on it slightly by also indicating the conversation accompanying each play, a feature which is of considerable importance in a game.

B deals, and finally makes it three diamonds, after X has tried to bid hearts without encouragement from me. I pass as a matter of principle, not being at all sure of this bidding proposition.

I lead, with a clear field and no particular object in view, the 8 of diamonds. It looks as uncompromising as any card in my hand. “Leading trumps,” says X with a raising of the eyebrows. “What do you know about that!” I exclaim. “I had forgotten that they were trumps. I must be asleep. Like the old Irishman when St. Peter asked him where he came from, and he said: ‘Begorra—'” A cuts this story short by playing the 3 of diamonds; X, with some asperity, discards the 3 of spades, and B takes the trick with the 10-spot. Silence.

“That story of the Irishman and St. Peter,” I continue, “was told to me by a fellow in Buffalo last week who had just come from France. He said that while he was in a place called ‘Mousong,’ or ‘Mousang,’ he actually saw—”

“Your play,” says X. “Oh, I beg your pardon,” I say, “whose jack of spades is that?” “Mine,” says B, drumming on the table with her finger nails and looking about the room at the pictures. Having more poor diamonds than anything else in my hand, and aiming to get them out of the way as soon as possible to give the good cards a chance, I play the 5 of diamonds.

“What, trumping it? Have you no spades?” shouts A. I can see that I have him rattled; so, although, as a matter of fact, I have got plenty of spades, I smile knowingly and sit tight. These smart Alecs make me sick, telling me what I should play and what I should not play. A accepts the inevitable and plays his 2-spot. X, considerably cheered up, plays the 4 and says: “Our trick, partner.” I pick up the cards and mix them with those already in my hand, reverting, for the time, to poker tactics. This error, alone among all that I make during the game, is unobserved.

“Well, I suppose that you people are all excited over that new baby up at your house,” I say pleasantly to A, just to show him that I can be gracious in victory as well as in defeat. “Let’s see, is it a boy or a girl?”

“It’s your lead!” he replies shortly.

“I beg your pardon,” I say; “I certainly must be asleep to-night.” And, as my thumb is on the 5 of diamonds, I lead it.

“Here, here!” says A, “wasn’t it the 5 of diamonds that you trumped in with just a minute ago?” That man has second-sight. As a matter of fact, I suspect that there is something crooked about him. “Yes, it is,” corroborates B in her longest speech of the evening. X says: “Where is that trick that we took?” And then it is discovered that it has found its way into my hand, from which it is disentangled with considerable trouble and segregated. As for me, I pass the whole thing off as a joke.

“I saw in the paper this morning,” I began when the situation has become a little less complicated, “where a woman in Perth Amboy found a hundred dollars in the lining of an old lounge in—”

“It’s your lead, if you don’t mind,” says A very distinctly. “You have made only one false start out of a possible three. Try again.” I pretend not to hear this sarcasm, and, just to show him that there is life in the old dog yet, I lead my ace of spades.

“Look here, my dear sir!” says A, quite upset by now. “Only one hand ago you refused spades and trumped them. That revoking on your part gives us three tricks and we throw up the hand.”

“Fair enough,” I retort cheerfully, “three is just what you bid, isn’t it? Quite a coincidence, I call it,” and with that I throw my cards on the table with considerable relief. Nothing good could have come of this hand, even if we had played until midnight.

From all sides now arose the familiar sounds of the post-mortem: “I had the jack, 10, 9, and 7, all good, but I just couldn’t get in with them…. If you had only led me your king, we could have set them at least two…. I knew that Grace had the queen, but I didn’t dare try to finesse…. We had simple honors…. As soon as I saw you leading spades, I knew that there was nothing in it,” etc., etc.

But at our table there was no post-mortem. Not because there had been no death, but there seemed to be nothing to say about it. So we sat, marking down our scores, until Dora came up behind me and said: “Well, dear, how is your game coming on?”

As no one else seemed about to speak, I said: “Oh, finely, I’m getting the hang of it in no time.”

My partner muttered something about hanging being too good, which seemed a bit uncalled for.

And so I went through the evening, meeting new people and making new friends. And, owing to Dora’s having neglected to teach me the details of score keeping, I had to make a system up for myself, with the result that I finished the evening with a total of 15,000 points on my card and won the first prize.

“Beginner’s luck,” I called it with modest good nature.


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