For days the banana-republic torpor of Miami Beach in June seemed to have enveloped the 15th World Bridge Championship. Nobody got wildly drunk, nobody was pushed into a pool, nobody visited the pawnshop after a clandestine detour to a casino. There were no late nights on the town, no fist fights, no cheating scandals, none of the excitement that has spiced the event at various sites around the world in the past. Then came the climactic Sunday, with Italy's Blue Team—the winners of eight straight World Championships—besieged unexpectedly by the North Americans. An era of invincibility suddenly seemed to be at stake in the ballroom of the Hotel Americana, and the general languor vanished. But it only turned out to be, banana-republic style, an abortive coup. The Italians—yawn—were still the dictators of world bridge. Back to torpor.
Perhaps because it should be harder for a dynasty to sustain itself each time it is challenged, the Italians seemed more serious than ever about winning this year. They were, in fact, even a little out of character. Relaxing at poolside midway through the tournament, handsome Pietro Forquet, a direct, pleasant-mannered Neapolitan who is thought by many to be the best bridge player in the world, was distinctly subdued.
Mildly incensed that some had labeled him a playboy and suggested that his relatively poor bridge last year had reflected a certain diversion of interest, Forquet was defensive. "After our win against the French yesterday we have two bottles of champagne, no more," he said, with the help of a comely interpreter. "People like to gossip. If I relax before a match, that only helps me play better. I have a lot of responsibility here, and I know that everyone is watching every discard. Do you think that I am not serious, for example, just because you see me here by the pool?"
Mollified by assurances that such an assumption would be unreasonable, Forquet resumed: "It is true that victory is no longer so exciting, after so many, and that I have considered retiring. It is hard to find time for enough practice with my partner, Garozzo. With my work at the bank, my time is not entirely free. It is always a pleasure to fight these tournaments, but when you take all your vacations to play bridge, that is not a rest. Still, I do think that if some other team should win the World Championship without having a chance to beat our Blue Team, it would not be very proud."
Giorgio Belladonna and Benito Garozzo, two more members of the Italian team, happened by just then. "Do you know the secret of their success?" Forquet asked, pointing to the large, friendly Belladonna and small, self-conscious Garozzo. "Forquet!" said Forquet. He grinned broadly. Belladonna and Garozzo smiled tolerantly.
"What makes a good team is several factors," Forquet had said earlier. "Friendliness of partners is the most important." At this the Italians excel. They are, for example, godparents to each other's children. And when one of them makes a mistake with a hand, his partner seeks to convince him that he would have played it exactly the same way.
"The Italian bidding system has nothing to do with their success," said Venezuelan Johannes Hammerich, a World Bridge Federation officer, as the final sessions neared. "The Italians are better partners. They do not waste time quarreling—which means they have extra mental and physical resources left for the final sessions.
"The French, now, are very good players, but they don't have stamina. Your Norman Kay and Edgar Kaplan, they were the best in the tournament until now, but they are getting exhausted. They don't have a chance in the finals.
"Why should North America, where there are 2,000 very good bridge players, lose to Italy, which has 200? The U.S. can't get good partnerships partly because of the dissension and politics of your qualification trials and partly because of the distances separating your players, but mostly because you have too many prima donnas. They are all professional players, they have all invented systems, they have all written books—and some of them play for their public more than for their team. They try to make a show. They try to get even on the next hand when they have just played one badly. Eighty percent of the hands should be played automatically by experts, with the effort being saved for the others. The Italians do that."
Back at poolside North American Coach ("It's a nothing job") Eddie Kantar essentially agreed: "Americans love their own system. They refuse to believe it loses, because it is hard to throw away something you have been perfecting [and, one might add, publishing] for five or 10 years."
Alvin Roth, who was contending through the week that the Italians were lucky, probably would not have appreciated overhearing such irreverence, because he was being specifically mentioned as an American who was overreacting to previous hands. Besides, like teammates Sammy Kehela, Eric Murray and Kaplan, he is most intent about bridge.
"This game requires more courage than any other in the world." Roth said, peering sharply through his hexagonal sunglasses. "I'm probably the only one in the world who treats bridge exactly like a sport. It takes courage, it takes heart, guts, timing—like any sport. The best players have to have a sensation of what to do. Fortunately, I always had a natural flair for cards. I'm not bragging. I'm just telling you exact facts."
"You have to be very serious, very tough to play championship bridge," said Murray, a broad-featured Toronto lawyer. "A killer instinct is necessary. The best players always have it. That doesn't mean they aren't nice people."
"I have to play very intensely," says Kehela, son of an Iraqi scrap dealer, who came to Toronto via India, California, Jamaica, England and a million card tables. "I have to pursue bridge with dedication."
Assuming that the Italians and Americans could beat out the other three teams, France, Venezuela and Thailand, as they ultimately did, it seemed obvious that the championship would develop into something of a showdown between two different philosophies of the game. The question would be whether or not there was enough tiger in the American team this year to overwhelm the terribly efficient Italians.
For a while the tiger had trouble even growling. After only four of the 15 qualification rounds, the North Americans had lost badly to both Italy and France and had to face those two teams again in the sixth and seventh rounds. At this point they rallied as Kay and Kaplan, and Kehela and Murray, played well against the French, winning 17-3. (Winning and losing teams divided a total of 20 victory points.) Against the Italians, amiable Bill Root, who did well through most of the tournament, and Roth, who had been in trouble earlier, were very steady in a 16-4 win.
The Americans continued to improve, finally passing the French and getting close to the Italians, who play only about as well as is necessary. At one point Forquet took 26 minutes with a hand and went down on it by botching the play of two small cards. "This hand has a message and a moral." the announcer told the crowd of 400, which was watching on Bridge-O-Rama. "If one of the world's greatest players—who is now sitting there absolutely miserable—can do this, there is hope for us all."
By Friday night the final round-robin standings were Italy 170, North America 161, France 132, Thailand 73, Venezuela 64. Now the World Championship was down to two teams, 128 hands, head-to-head, losers weepers.
The first 16 hands of the finals set a breathtaking pace. Nothing was simple. Only one hand of the group did not involve a point swing. After consistently trailing, the Americans reached a tie at the 13th hand. On the 14th Kaplan went to six clubs when four would have been a difficult contract. But the Americans recouped on the next board, when they stole a contract of three diamonds from Camillo Pabis Ticci and Mimmo d'Alelio, while in the other room the Italians were lured into taking an unnecessary sacrifice.
After the afternoon coffee break, Belladonna found the only chance to beat Roth on the 18th board, but the Americans then ran off 26 points in eight hands, taking an 80-75 lead. "Terrible bridge!" said a former American team member. "As I say in my book...."
In the evening session North America stretched its lead to 22 I MPs, but the Blue Team immediately cut it back to a steady five. The pressure and fatigue increased, and so did the mistakes. Then came the 45th hand (page 37), the one that turned the tide, as Italy defeated an American no-trump contract by four tricks for a big swing that gave the Blue Team the lead, 111-109. The Americans were never ahead again. When play stopped at 2:02 a.m. the teams were nearly dead even, 162-159, but World Championship veterans who had seen the Italians in this situation before said the Americans weren't dead even, they were dead.
Indeed they were. On Sunday the Italians, those infuriating Italians, did just what they always do in the clutch. They played flawless bridge. In the first 16 hands they did not make anything that resembled a mistake. By midafternoon the score was 198-173. By dinnertime it was 229-184, and the desperate Americans shifted to a strategy of looking for big gains—or losses. They got losses; the Italian victory margin mounted inexorably to a final score of 338-227, and the Blue Team had its ninth straight title.
As the long night was ending, most of the Americans were snarling. Kaplan, asked if the outcome was familiar, said, "Not for me." And nice guy Norman Kay quietly observed, "Bridge players are bad losers."
"The trouble with American bridge," an official commentator announced right into the microphone as Italy went 100 points ahead, "is that the ego reigns supreme."
But the Italians had a problem, too. Forquet, asked early in the week how the Blue Team reacts to a defeat, stumbled for an answer, then finally confessed he could not remember. He may never find out.