Fatal End to the Fun Stakes

The betting was only nominal at the Bennetts' card table that night, but the host had to pay up with his life
November 20, 1967

The game of contract bridge is not nearly as dangerous as it is sometimes painted. Many people have played for years without serious injury to either body or spirit. At least once, however, a bridge player suffered the ultimate penalty for bad bidding and worse play.

John G. Bennett, 36, a $35,000-a-year perfume agent, spent some time studying the 13 cards he had dealt himself one September evening in 1929 in his comfortable home in Kansas City, Mo. Holding five spades to the king-knave, four hearts to the king, a doubleton diamond and the king-10 of clubs, he deemed it proper to open with one spade. His partner raised him to four. Bennett failed to make the contract; and within minutes his body was lying bleeding on the floor, while a wisp of smoke curled from the barrel of the automatic in the fist of his wife and partner.

Myrtle Bennett was arrested and jailed; two weeks later she was released on bail. In the leisurely way of the law, it took 17 months for her to be brought to trial, where she was defended by Senator Jim Reed, a silver-tongued attorney of the old school, who frequently broke into tears at the thought of the injustice the people of Missouri were perpetrating on his righteous client. To counter Reed's display of emotion, the people, in the person of their prosecuting attorney, adduced impeccably factual testimony from the Bennetts' old friends, Mayme and Charles Hofman, who had sat East and West at the fatal table. As they told it, the bidding was one spade by Bennett, two diamonds by Charles Hofman, four spades by Myrtle, after which she put down "a perfectly beautiful hand." As Bennett played it, according to the Hofmans, Myrtle popped out to the kitchen to lay his breakfast. He was leaving early next morning for St. Joseph. When she came back to find the contract broken, she called her husband "a bum bridge player." He thereupon leaned across the table and slapped her hard on the face four or five times.

The Hofmans tried to calm things down by suggesting that they get on with the next deal, but Bennett announced that he had decided to leave immediately for St. Joe and went to pack his suitcase.

As he did so, Myrtle went to her mother's room and fetched a gun. Charles Hofman, seeing her with gun in hand, cried, "My God, Myrtle, what are you going to do?" In answer Mrs. Bennett fired four shots, the last two of which lodged in her husband.

What might at first seem a straightforward sequence of events became less so when Senator Reed explained them. Myrtle Bennett had merely fetched the gun because she knew that her husband always carried it on his trips. While bringing the gun to him, she stumbled against a chair, causing two shots to be fired into a door, and when Bennett tried to take the dangerous thing from her, two more bullets were fired, unhappily lodging in him. The all-male jury had no difficulty in accepting this interpretation of the story. At the end of the 13-day trial, they found Myrtle Bennett not guilty.

Although both prosecution and defense had minimized the importance of the game, millions of bridge players all over the world wondered what the vital cards had been. If they had been the Bennetts, they asked themselves, how would they have fared? To aid them in making up their minds The Bridge World published the relevant hands:

South dealer

NORTH

[Ace of Spades]
[10 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[10 of Hearts]
[8 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[4 of Diamonds]
[Ace of Clubs]
[9 of Clubs]
[8 of Clubs]
[4 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]

WEST

[Queen of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[Jack of Hearts]
[3 of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[10 of Diamonds]
[9 of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]
[Jack of Clubs]
[6 of Clubs]

SOUTH

[King of Spades]
[Jack of Spades]
[9 of Spades]
[8 of Spades]
[5 of Spades]
[King of Hearts]
[7 of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[2 of Hearts]
[8 of Diamonds]
[5 of Diamonds]
[King of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]

EAST

[4 of Spades]
[Queen of Hearts]
[9 of Hearts]
[4 of Hearts]
[King of Diamonds]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[7 of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]
[3 of Diamonds]
[Queen of Clubs]
[7 of Clubs]
[5 of Clubs]
[3 of Clubs]

The unhappy play went as follows: Mr. Hofman (West) opened the ace of diamonds and, when dummy showed only a singleton, switched to the jack of clubs. Mr. Bennett, the declarer, won in his hand with the king and led the spade jack, hoping that West would cover with the queen. But when Mr. Hofman immediately played low, Mr. Bennett went up with dummy's ace rather than risk a losing finesse if East held the queen instead. When Mrs. Hofman discarded a diamond on the second spade lead, Mr. Bennett took his king, trumped his last diamond in dummy and cashed dummy's ace of clubs. A low club was then trumped and was overtrumped by West's queen. Mr. Hofman cashed the heart ace and returned the heart 3 to the queen and king Regardless of what he did then, Mr. Bennett was destined to lose the setting trick to West's heart jack.

Ever since then, experts have analyzed and reanalyzed the hand to decide if capital punishment was justified. Ely Culbertson was sternly critical of Bennett's bidding, since the Culbertson rule of a minimum of 2½ honor tricks for an opening bid had been flouted. He also pointed out that Mrs. Bennett might have been better off to bid only three spades, leaving her husband the option of making the game call.

Sidney S. Lenz, Culbertson's rival bridge pro, was equally critical of Bennett's opening bid as well as of his play. The London Times saw no logical reason why Bennett should have finessed against the queen of spades; with four cards in the suit out against him, the queen would drop 62 times out of 100.

None of the experts pointed out that if Bennett had elected to finesse the jack of spades, or had Hofman covered the jack, Bennett would have had only one hurdle remaining to bring in his contract. After drawing the opposing trumps in two more rounds, Bennett could have cashed dummy's ace of clubs and led the 9 of clubs for a ruffing finesse against East's queen. Whether East covered or not would have made no difference—declarer would have been able to return to dummy with a diamond ruff and discard two hearts on the good clubs, leaving him with only two heart losers plus the diamond he had lost at the start.

But this is wisdom after the event. Who can tell what he might have done with the fatal cards had he been John Bennett?

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)