At world championship level, tournament bridge players are merely names on a giant electronic board. The performers themselves compete in hidden places while their total abilities are harshly revealed by lights that flicker from the face of the Bridge-O-Rama machine to a jammed room of smokers, coffee drinkers, whoopers, groaners and whispering critics. Last week in an auditorium in the Americana Hotel in mid-town Manhattan the skills and defects of the best cardplayers from 29 nations were on display, on and off the board, in the World Bridge Olympiad. When, after 12 torturous days and nights, the Olympiad finally ended at 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, a normal working hour for bridge experts, the magnificent old Italian names—Forquet, Garozzo, Belladonna—were still the brightest of all.
Winning bridge titles is something the Italians do regularly, and the Olympiad constituted Italy's seventh world championship in the last eight years. But the difference this time, and indeed the thing that illuminated the entire tournament, was the fact that Italy had to win over more elements of chance than bridge players like to consider.
First of all, there was the problem of simply getting into the exhibition hall in the Americana, a sleek white building that rises from the fringe of Rockefeller Center like four Miami Beach motels piled on top of each other. The Americana always has a lot of conventions and wandering groups, and, along with the 281 bridge players, bridge-playing wives and bridge-playing friends, the hotel at various times during the Olympiad was host to armies of badge wearers who belonged to the Eastern Mortgage Conference, AT&T, American Airlines, the Northeast Conference of Teachers of Foreign Languages, the National Paper Box Manufacturers Association, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, General Cigar, a South American tour group, some Japanese pottery makers—and to Peggy Lee. Therefore, to most of the bridge competitors, just making the trip to the table and cards was an adventure.
Next came the problem of playing only 18 hands against each of the other 28 nations in the 10 days of qualifying. In topflight bridge, where expert reputations are at stake, 18 deals are considered about as conclusive as one inning of baseball. One wrong lead can swing the entire result of a match. Thus it was never possible for a team to relax—something the U.S. team found out the hard way. After the first six matches the U.S. had lost three, including an embarrassing shutout to unregarded Republic of China, and the team was in 15th place. No one really worried, though. John Gerber, last year's U.S. captain, observed the situation and said, "This is a young, aggressive team, a non-drinking team. Take Bob Jordan and Arthur Robinson, for instance. They're killers. They'll be all right."
May 24, 1964
Gerber was right. Slowly, as the round-robin continued, the class teams—Italy, Great Britain and the U.S.—formed a group at the top. As they did, some definite opinions were agreed upon by the imposing array of bridge insiders who always gather for such tournaments. One such opinion was that Jordan and Robinson, the Philadelphia pair who sit down at a table as if they have just decided to rub out Albert Anastasia, were playing the best bridge of the tournament, good enough perhaps to sweep the U.S. to its first title since 1954. Another opinion was that the single most impressive player was Terence Reese, the rigid, canary-faced professional from Great Britain, author of many bridge books and concocter of a bewildering system called the Little Major, which Reese devised partly out of humor to combat the highly specialized, artificial bidding system of the Italians. The final opinion among the experts was that Pietro Forquet, Italy's superplayer, a suave, handsome, cool banker from Rome, appeared to be unsharp, perhaps troubled, at least in the early stage of the tournament, and that his dark, smiling partner of four years, Benito Garozzo, was carrying the pair.
Forquet, in truth, was troubled at the start, and with good cause. The Italians were staying at an East Side hotel, and on the first day of the Olympiad Forquet's wife had $10,000 worth of uninsured jewels stolen from the room. "We tried to put them in the hotel's safety box," said Forquet, "but the managers told us there was no room. We hid them in the luggage. I was naturally upset."
Even though Forquet was upset at first, he still had plenty of time to demonstrate his true greatness. In so doing, he took care of those other hasty impressions: that Jordan and Robinson, good as they were, were a stronger pair than the kings—Forquet and Garozzo: and that Reese, Little Major or big, was a better player than Pietro Forquet.
When the grueling 10-day round robin was over, the first four teams met in the semifinals. Italy drew the tough British team, which had finished first, while the U.S. played Canada. The Canadians had barely made it, finishing a shade ahead of a haggard Swiss team, which had gone through the entire tournament with only four players—two less than the usual number.
The U.S. started fast against Canada. Both American pairs—Jordan and Robinson and Stayman and Mitchell—played superbly, and when the first session was over, the U.S. had an imposing 52-IMP lead, apparently enough for an easy victory. Robinson was exhausted, so he and Jordan were replaced for the third session by the "third string," Don Krauss and Bob Hamman.
Hamman and Krauss played well, but the U.S. lead dwindled anyway, slowly during the second session, more quickly during the third. With only one board left to play, the U.S. lead had shrunk to 16 IMPs.
It was at this point that Stayman and Mitchell, having finished their boards in the closed room, joined a small crowd watching Hamman and Krauss on a Vu-Graph. It was Krauss's turn to bid and, to the spectators who could see all 52 cards, it was clear that Krauss would have to pass, else he would be beyond his depth, and the U.S. would lose still more points.
Mitchell, a nervous man anyway, paced the floor, jerked at his tie and commanded the Krauss on the machine to pass. "Just hit the table," said Mitchell, looking starkly at the Vu-Graph. Silence, while Krauss, sitting in some distant room, considered. "Pass, for God's sake," said Mitchell to the machine. "Look, if you bid, you're off the team." More silence. Finally, Krauss passed, the crowd mumbled relief, and Mitchell walked triumphantly away.
For a while the finals between the U.S. and Italy offered the great drama that the 1,000 spectators had anticipated. Jordan and Robinson, who had easily bettered Forquet and Garozzo on the last day of round-robin play (the only time Italy was blanked), went into the match with supreme confidence. In the round robin Forquet had made a few minor blunders, which prompted Co-Captain Edgar Kaplan to remark to Jordan and Robinson, "Forquet is just another bridge player." The idea that Forquet might—just might—have been trying to con the Americans in the unimportant match did not occur to anyone.
What did occur to some members of the Swiss team is that Forquet may have played poorly to hinder Switzerland from making the semifinals. Italy, the Swiss players argued, has had difficulty playing Switzerland in the past. By losing its round-robin match to the U.S., Italy would allow the Americans to secure a place in the semifinals. That done, the U.S. would probably let down in its match against Canada, the last of the round robin. And if the Canadians beat the U.S., they, not the Swiss, would qualify for the semifinals. Planned or not, it worked out just that way.
Even if all this were true, the U.S. players would not have believed it. They had whipped the Italians in the round robin, and they would do it again in the finals. Eager and cocky, almost as if the finals were a weekly duplicate, the Americans jumped to a surprising lead, 42-11, as Jordan played eight of the first 13 hands with instinctive sharpness, and Stayman and Mitchell made two good doubles.
"Now we have to be careful," said John Gerber. "When some of our boys start smelling the roses, they get too ambitious. And our bidding won't prevent it like the Italian system does, especially if the hands run wild."
The hands ran wild, all right, and so did the Americans. Everything went wrong. Stayman and Mitchell overbid six spades, down one. Mitchell went down at four spades, doubled. Robinson lost a makable three no trump. Stayman went down, doubled, at two diamonds on a hand where the pudgy, exuberant Giorgio Belladonna made one spade. Suddenly Italy was ahead.
Although the U.S. regained the lead briefly on the 29th hand, the crusher was soon to come. On the 32nd hand Garozzo made six spades with a logical play in hearts, while Stayman failed. The result was a 17-point swing from which the U.S. never recovered. Then, in the final session, Forquet and Garozzo fascinated a group of mistake-charting experts and won continued applause by going the entire 20 hands without making a single bidding or playing error.
"I'll tell you one thing," said a dazed Arthur Robinson. "I wouldn't want to play those guys for a living."
"Nice boys," said Pietro Forquet, pointing to Jordan and Robinson and walking away with his pretty, jewelless wife. "They play well." It sounded as if Forquet was already setting them up for next year.