This is the unlikely tale of an unlikely type, a scholarly Texas millionaire who has, among other things, "cornered the floating supply of original Declarations of Independence." It is also a relatively uplifting story about a blooming friendship among six egotistical but affable young cardplayers, a tough but fatherly ex-Air Force colonel and a small but willing computer that has been programmed to deal slam-bid bridge hands. In this story, too, is a hint of the powers inherent in a pinch of patriotism, a ton of card sense and about one-third of a million dollars. For this is the chronicle of Ira G. Corn Jr. and the Dallas Aces and how they came together, and how the Aces have come now to represent the North American continent in play for the world championship of bridge this spring and how they expect to grow rich and famous together as the world's first and only full-time professional bridge team and charge onward, ever onward, to dominate both the tournaments and the commercial marketplace of American bridge for, oh, say, the next 20 years.
The point at which to begin this story is a view of world-class bridge, since that is the arena in which the Dallas Aces expect to thrive. It has been 16 years since an American team won a world championship. This is astonishing to contemplate, for bridge is played in the U.S. by perhaps 40 million people. Of those, some 250,000 have played in duplicate tournaments, most with at least a handful of master points to their credit. Granted, of the tournament players, only a rare few—not many more than 200—have risen to the excellence of world-class competition. Yet among those few are some of the most magnificent cardplayers ever to scowl at a jack-high hand...Tobias Stone and Alvin Roth and Edgar Kaplan and Charles Goren and B. Jay Becker and Howard Schenken.... Certainly no better individual players ever have sat at a table, yet they have all been punished and put down in play for the world title.
These annual embarrassments have come consistently at the fine Italian hands of the beautiful Blues, the widely famed and justly feared Blue Team of Italy. Belladonna and Garozzo and Forquet and Avarelli and d'Alelio and Pabis-Ticci and their foxy former coach Per-roux. Seemingly ingenious beyond mere mortality, masters of a bidding system complex as the Gordian knot, the Italian Blue Team has with a single exception (France in 1960) ruled since 1957 as champions of international bridge.
And who among us shall ever overcome? Who, indeed? In the matches of 1970 the Aces of Dallas will actually be favored to win by many experts.
March 23, 1970
Yes, it has come to pass at last, and one reason is that this American entry in the world matches is actually a team, born and bred in togetherness just as the Italian Blues have been. Until this year, the American Contract Bridge League held annual trials to pick its international team, and the brightest North American stars would all compete, often united in dazzling if short-lived partnerships for the trials alone. Clearly, the emphasis was on individual stardom; and, of course, when the North American "team" went to meet the Italians, togetherness always won. So last year, badgered by hundreds of bridge fanatics disenchanted by past failures, the ACBL changed its rules and picked its international representatives from a head-on playoff between the winners of U.S. bridge's two most prestigious team prizes, the Vanderbilt Cup and the Spin-gold Trophy. In that match in Phoenix last fall the Dallas Aces, winners of the Spingold, annihilated the Vanderbilt victors by 141 international match points.
To reach this point the six young men of the Dallas Aces have relocated their homes and sublimated their individualism to the sweetness of being together. It is true. In the world of bridge where volcanic tantrum, imperious narcissism and calculated hostility are as common as a one-club opener, the Aces have become a model of The Group Thing. They have built a bond from such clubby activities as jogging together through the suburbs of Dallas, holding endless bull sessions about the occult ways of the Orange Club or the Leghorn Diamond, obeying the same training rules of early bedtime and general abstention from strong drink and rich food and sharing the output of bridge hands from the SDS 940 computer they have been granted. They even travel to their tournaments dressed identically in orange, crimson or blue blazers, and more than once they have been mistaken for a small dance band or a squad of bellhops.
Yes, the groupish ways of the Dallas Aces are exceptional in the bitterly individualistic world of top-class bridge. Perhaps only another exception—to wit: The Scholarly Texas Millionaire—could have brought this about.
Ira G. Corn Jr. is a man of means, conglomerate class.
One morning last fall he settled into a fine leather easy chair in his living room and crossed one bare leg over the other. He had only just arisen and he was dressed in an undershirt, undershorts and an immense wine-colored bathrobe. The robe was immense because Ira Corn is immense, well over 6 feet and sometimes upward of 300 pounds. In his chair Corn lighted up a long cigar and began to speak in firm, gentle tones that were punctuated occasionally with startling howls of laughter. The conversation dealt with a day last May when Corn bid $404,000 to buy the only available copy of the Declaration of Independence as it had been typeset and printed in Philadelphia on the very night of July 4, 1776 before the very eyes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
"I had never bought anything like that before," said Corn. "It was kind of an impulse purchase—as if I'd suddenly decided to buy a pack of gum." He howled with laughter. "I hadn't actually decided to bid when I arrived at the auction. But then I found I was the only private individual in the room; everyone else represented some library, university or some other institution. It was an extraordinary opportunity. Irresistible."
Son of a barber from Little Rock (who is a great-grandson of a Son of the American Revolution), holder of a master's degree from the University of Chicago ('48), formerly assistant professor of business administration at SMU, lately founding father and/or board member of three grand corporations—Saturn Industries, the Michigan General Corporation and Computer Complex, Inc.—with annual combined sales of $204 million and growing, Ira Corn Jr. is an imposing man. Even barefoot and bath-robed he looks formidable. Yet, Corn gives off no emanations of braggadocio or arrogance or brute corporate power. He is essentially a sunny man, with a hint of the pedantic in his conversation. His discourses run a splendid gamut—Eric Hoffer's sociological theories, the Dallas Cowboys, the politics of Vietnam, the inconvenience in getting really fine art reproductions anywhere outside of Europe (Corn's walls are cluttered with such reproductions from Watteau to George Bellows, all gorgeously framed).
Obviously a man of many bents, with a special genius for acquisition, Corn might have moved along the average, lavish ways of other rich-Texan types—constructing ever more complex conglomerates, picking up an apartment development here, a fleet of Lear Jets there, an Andy Warhol silk-screen, as whim might decide. As whim did decide, however, Corn became hooked on bridge eight years ago, an utter addict to the manic joys of the game.
"My God, I virtually quit work for a year to improve my bridge," he said. As he spoke, he rose from his easy chair and began to pace excitedly about the room, his bare feet slapping on the parquet floor. "My God, there is no way you can explain properly the intensity of top-rank bridge competition. If you're successful in a particularly challenging situation—I mean if you outwit and outbid and outthink your opponent and your card instincts are all functioning at their best in a given hand—then that is the purest kind of exhilaration I can imagine. Your adrenaline flows in waterfalls." As he continued to speak, the slap-slap of Corn's feet seemed to keep pace with his mounting excitement. "Bridge is the ultimate essence of competition. It is brutal, more brutal than football [slap-slap] because you have no way to rationalize defeat, no real excuse that your opponent is younger or stronger or better coached or had a better high school sports program. No, in bridge you have laid your intellect, your full ego [slap-slap-slap] and your complete psychological self there on the table against your opponent. And if you lose you can only admit that you have been thoroughly inferior!
"Or"—here Corn stopped slapping about and waggled a finger sternly—"or you blame your partner! And there is where the fabric of great bridge is made or ruined: in the strength of the partnership, not the individual star!"
And there, of course, lies the mother seed of Ira Corn's Dallas Aces: a constancy of partnership. But many other Corn-bred theories have gone into the building of this team. In the years that Corn was playing his own superior game of tournament bridge (he and his partner, Dorothy Moore of Dallas, won the 1963 Spring National mixed-pair title), he was also coolly assaying the entire pattern of bridge in the U.S. as if it were the annual report of a company he would like to acquire. "The whole star system was intrinsically opposed to the idea of world championship bridge, of course," he said. "But what's worse, the kind of competition our best players got into was working against them, it was softening up their games badly." Most American bridge tournaments are based on ACBL match-point awards, which simply means that one pair competes against perhaps 30 or 40 other pairs by playing the same set of duplicated hands over a period ranging anywhere from one evening to 10 days of competition. On each deal, the pairs are given match points in direct relation to how well they have scored compared with other pairs in the competition. Among rabid bridge players (which is practically a redundancy), a large bag of master points (awarded for tournament successes) represents a mark of status only slightly less valuable than an equivalent number of shares of AT&T stock. Since both members of a partnership are awarded the same number of master points for doing well in a tournament, it is common (and thoroughly acceptable) practice for an average, wealthy, run-of-the-mill, lowbrow ace-trumper to hire himself an expert as a tournament partner, assuring himself a score of master points that he would be totally incapable of achieving if he were playing with another dunce of similar ability.
When Ira Corn put his analytical mind to dissecting this arrangement of standard U.S. bridge competition, he was appalled. "Look, it's well and good enough for an expert to make some money winning points for someone else—but what the hell does that kind of bridge have to do with world-class bridge?" said Corn. "Any expert coming into your average regional or sectional tournament or even the early rounds of the nationals knows very well that he can simply overwhelm any opponents he'll meet. He's playing what I call Kill-the-Palooka. He's knocking off the palookas in, maybe, 90% of the tournaments he plays in, because even in your top tournaments you don't hit really expert competition until the last couple of sessions.
"You'll never hear a top player admit that killing palookas will hurt his game, and you'll never hear him admit that playing match-point partnerships with funny women and rich gynecologists is making any difference to his game," said Corn. "But, dammit, I say it pollutes his capacities. I say that killing palookas despoils an expert's abilities. And this is what we've been doing that's wrong—we're sending in too many palooka-killers to play the Italian Blues. There aren't but 5,000 or 6,000 tournament bridge players in all of Italy, so the Blues don't have even the temptation to spend their time playing with Mrs. Jones' mother-in-law."
Corn's feet were going slap-slap all over the living room as he unleashed the blast of fact and opinion. Of course, it is one thing to diagnose the dangers of palooka-pollution and despoliation at the hands of funny women; it is quite another to know what to do about them. Ah, but while those of us poorer in imagination or material wealth might have floundered in doubt, Corn did not. To him, the answer was obvious.
He simply scoured the North American continent for half a dozen men with a genius for bridge and an aptitude for civil temperament. Then he persuaded them to drop their careers, leave their homes and move to Dallas, where they would do nothing each livelong day but play bridge, talk bridge, bid bridge and dream bridge. For this, Corn would pay each man a starting salary of $800 a month if he were single, $950 a month if he were married, plus all expenses to major tournaments. No one would get even a little bit rich for the first couple of years, said Corn, but he was almost certain that rigidly enforced insulation from palookas and a constancy of partnerships would eventually lead to a world title, fame, goodwill, trophies, lots of invitations to dinner and, yes, an unlimited amount of money from little side operations like best-selling books and personal appearances and endorsements and bridge excursions and TV programs.
Corn thinks several hundred thousand dollars a year could be made from such sideline gimmickery. But not until the Aces bring home a world championship. Even if they do it as early as this spring in Stockholm, Corn's expenses for creating and caring for the team will have risen to well over $300,000.
It was Feb. 15, 1968 when the team was first put together. At the time, Corn named them the U.S. Aces, but many people in the bridge world, including the ACBL, resented the implication that the team was a national unit when it had not even played together in one tournament, and they persisted in calling it the Dallas Aces—which most everyone still does.
The men Corn found to put flesh on his theories are a rather variegated yet strangely representative group. Indeed, it almost seems that Corn had gone to some Central Casting Department (Card-Table Division) and asked for a bridge-world version of one of those stereotyped, Hollywood World War II movie platoons—you know, that all-American platoon consisting of an ectomorph and an endomorph, a Jew, a Catholic, a farmboy, a violinist and a tout from Aqueduct. When the sergeant calls the roster it sounds like this—Kowalski...! Adams...! O'Flaherty...! Feinberg! Corn has assembled a similar range of characters in his cast:
Steady Philosophical One—Bob Wolff, 37, of San Antonio is a plump, bespectacled, balding fellow with the look of a jolly cantor; he was one step away from becoming a lawyer some years ago, but, like the great majority of America's top-rank players, he dropped his studies to play bridge before he finished. A bridge teacher and insurance man, he was one of Corn's first draftees and helped select the other Aces. "We're all egomaniacs or we'd be doing something besides playing bridge for a living," said Wolff. "But there is a discipline we've gained as a team that has made us all much better than if we were still playing alone. I think Ira's theories will be proved absolutely true."
Friendly Veteran Mercenary—Jim Jacoby, 36, of Richardson, Texas is the son of that mercurial old card-table wizard Oswald Jacoby (who will be the non-playing captain of the North American team in Stockholm). A graduate of Notre Dame, Jim won his first national title at 21. Neatly groomed, with a businesslike mien, Jacoby has been a professional at bridge all of his adult life. He and Wolff are partners; in October 1968 they felt their game had gone stale and they switched to the infinitely difficult Italian system of bidding, although most experts predicted it would take them at least six months even to work comfortably with the system.
Stoic, Silent Loner—Mike Lawrence, 29, of Berkeley, Calif. had completed five years of college before he dropped out to be a bridge pro. Tall, pale, with heavily lidded eyes and full lips, Mike at times is so distant as to appear morose. He is renowned for an almost supernatural table presence, a sense of undercurrents beyond actual bidding and play. His memory is phenomenal; when the Aces tried to practice bidding hands that had been played in world championships of yore, they had to give it up because as soon as Lawrence glanced at a hand he could recite the major holdings in every other hand at the table and say, "This was played by the Italians against the French in Turin in 1960."
Wry Whimsical Cynic—Bob Hamman, 31, of Pasadena, Calif. is a bear of a man, with a dry wit and slow manner of speech. A sometime insurance salesman, he was also a bridge gambler and teacher. "There is a clear contradiction of motives there," he said. "You can't teach the game well and still expect to make money gambling. People just don't go down six tricks when they've had lessons." Hamman estimates he has played 100,000 hands of bridge in his life, yet if you read to him the cards held by one of his opponents in any significant tournament hand he has played in recent years, Hamman can reel off the location of each card and the order of play on the board. Last of the Aces to sign up (in January 1969), Hamman arrived after the others had already developed a rather bruising critical rapport in discussing each other's standard of play. "Naturally, I assumed I was one of the two or three best bridge players on earth," recalled Hamman, "so it was a jolt to step into a room and be called a moron and an escapee from a padded cell for the way I had bid a hand. But I have a thick skin; I have played with most of the better known beasts of bridge." Hamman has been a loser in world competition three times with three different partners. He is now paired with Lawrence, and there are knowledgeable bridge people who say Ham man-Lawrence may be the best pair now playing on the planet.
Groovy Guy From Broadway Lights—Billy Eisenberg, 32, out of the Bronx, usually has a great-looking dolly on his arm when he is not at the bridge table. Quick-talking, intelligent and good-looking, Billy was a pre-law student at Hofstra University, quit school, had his own card den on Long Island and later worked as a black-tie host at the elite Cavendish Club in Manhattan. "I was about to give up bridge when Ira contacted me," said Eisenberg. "I didn't dig the game much then, and it was a pivotal time in my life. I was even thinking of selling municipal bonds full-time, but then the Aces seemed like something concrete.... I wasn't worried about personality conflicts because I'd already played with all the lunatics in the game. Now it's a groove—except I do not dig Dallas. God, the politics are Neanderthal, and I don't relate to the stewardess mentality in most of the chicks you find down here. The young swingers in Dallas are the type who walk around at a party with a glass of beer telling all their friends how they're going to have another glass of beer...."
Irrepressible Inquisitive Kid—Bobby Goldman, 31, once the high school tennis champion of Philadelphia, blond and blue-eyed, is a dropout physics major from Drexel Institute who engaged in some diverse careers before joining the Aces—including being a dealer in rare coins, trainee in a steel-company management program and partner in a business to import domestics from Jamaica. An intense and serious young man, Bobby has always shown an amazing affinity for cards: when he was 4 he taught an aunt to play gin rummy, and as a 7-year-old schoolboy he often played poker or blackjack for bus tokens. Bobby is the computer programmer for the team. "I'm by far the least interested in playing cards of all of us," he said. "The peripheral things appeal to me—the financial prospects, the computer programming, the gimmicks for merchandising ourselves. And the psychological aspects of the group are fascinating. We have constantly opened huge mental wounds in each other; but they've healed and it's been like psychotherapy. We're much stronger for it." Bobby and Billy Eisenberg are a tough and imaginative pair; in 1968 they won the national Life Masters Pairs, and last year after competing in the old-fashioned ACBL trials, they played on the North American team which lost to the Italians in Rio.
Rugged Sergeant-Uncle—Joe Musumeci, 48, of Brooklyn, N.Y. is a wiry devotee of the cobweb-clearing, muscle-hardening Aerobics exercise program. Following his retirement as a lieutenant colonel after 21 years in the Air Force, Joe became a bridge professional in San Antonio (in a teaching partnership with Bob Wolff). He came on as nonplaying coach of the Aces several months after the group had begun to function. "It was touchy because they're all highly charged people," said Musumeci. "You're not looking for someone who's been nice all his life when you go out to find a superior bridge player. They gave me some lip at first, but things settled down. Now we have a system for hashing over every hand we play. It's really patterned a lot like the debriefing session after a bombing mission...."
So the cast is assembled and the Aces are poised for their assault on the world championship. Headquarters is a win-dowless suite of offices in a shopping-center building in North Dallas. A doorway set between Lit'l Audrey's Coffee Shop and the Sherry Lane Animal Hospital leads one past a sign that says OFFICE SPACE FOR RENT and up a dim wooden stairway to the place the Aces hope will soon become the seat of expert bridge in North America. It is furnished with all the verve of a struggling cemetery-lot salesman's office. A steel desk or two, a blackboard, a couch, some filing cabinets, a couple of card tables. Here, in barely two years, the Aces have come an unbelievable distance. "When we started," said Corn, "there was no book, no pattern, nothing from the past to give us a clue about how we should train." In the early months, the Aces bickered constantly over who should be the leader, over what schedules to keep, when to take coffee breaks, which pair had the best system. There were frequent grievance conferences with Corn and with Dorothy Moore, his executive assistant, bridge partner and unofficial den mother for the team. Hours were devoured weekly grousing about disturbing noises around Corn's home where early practice sessions were held—the snarl of a bulldozer digging a backyard pool for the Aces was troublesome, the phone rang too often, Bob Wolff's 3-year-old daughter hummed and skipped past the table too often. Dorothy Moore complained about the class of girl friends some of the bachelor Aces selected. The Aces complained that there was too much steak to eat and too few delicatessen-style snacks. Corn complained that the Aces complained too much, and the neighbors complained because every time the Aces played an exhibition match at Ira's house the parked cars of eager kibitzers blocked the streets throughout the area....
But things have turned brighter. Not only did the Aces finally begin to win as a team last summer (after almost 18 months of relative mediocrity), but some concrete methods of training have evolved to supplement their skill with cards. The arrival of Joe Musumeci in the fall of '68 brought a no-nonsense mentality to bear on the situation. He somehow managed to superimpose a kind of bomb-wing efficiency on the laissez-faire chaos the Aces had created. Soon there were mile-long jogging sessions, fierce golf, Ping-Pong and tennis competitions, plus some fairly rigid training rules that called for fines—$50 for drinking heavily during a tournament, $15 for turning up tardy at meetings, $25 for eating heavily before a match. During tournament trips, there were even mimeographed orders dictating which colored blazer and which pair of slacks the Aces should wear each day.
And eventually Joe created a workable system of merits and demerits emphasizing the discipline necessary to make the Aces kings. It involves a list of seven bridge-table sins (too esoteric to set down here) which an expert player is apt to commit. Thus every hand played by the Aces in every match is subjected to an acid post-tournament test against those seven sins. Fines up to $5 are assessed for grievous errors (as voted by the Aces themselves), and, on occasion, bonuses up to $25 are awarded for brilliance beyond the call of duty (decided by Joe and Ira).
Perhaps as important as the intellectual discipline inherent in such a program is the emotional reaction it generates. "There is a subconscious fear of being embarrassed in front of your peers," said Bob Wolff. "So you never let down when you're playing for fear that you'll be called for sloppiness in front of the whole team. It's like continuing to throw your blocks even though you're leading 35-0 because you know if you don't you'll catch hell from the coach when he sees the movies."
And then there is the handy-dandy little $1.5 million pal that has come to deal hands for the Aces—the SDS 940 computer that belongs to one of Corn's companies. When the Aces first assembled, Corn said casually, "We have this little toy at the office and if any of you want to fool around...." Bobby Goldman could not resist the challenge, and for something like 300 hours he sweated over the instruction manual until he mastered the technique and technology of the machine and managed to manipulate its electronic innards so that it would produce bridge hands of several specific types on command. For example, if the Aces want to practice bidding slam-range hands, the computer dutifully clacks away for half an hour or so and reels out a roll of paper with no fewer than 100 combinations of two hands with at least 28 honor points between them. The Italian Blues are renowned for their superiority in slam bidding; the Aces have now practiced with at least 2,000 slam hands from the computer. Does someone need work on weak two bids? Preemptive bidding? Hands with a five-card major suit opposite a no-trump opener? Well, the computer can produce those precise hands by the hundreds—as if they had been randomly dealt over tens of thousands of bridge games. "In a lifetime, you might not get 200 hands calling for weak two bids," said Goldman, "and then you would never get them in a way you could concentrate on them specifically. With the computer we get to operate with or against 100 weak two bids in a few days."
The method the Aces have developed for practicing the subtle innuendos of bidding is utterly original. Each partnership splits into separate rooms and bids its hands over a squawk-box intercom. The reason is twofold. First, such separation eliminates any subconscious tics or inflections beyond the mere expression of words that could affect a partner's reaction to a bid. (Any wigwagging, undue hesitation, cigarette-smoke signals or the like are unethical in bridge anyway; the Aces feel that they will be even less likely to fall unknowingly into dubious habits if they practice bidding in separate rooms.) Secondly, bidding in bridge is one of the most intricate yet limited forms of communication known to man. As Goldman says, "There is a vocabulary of exactly 15 words that you can use in no more than 38 combinations to express to your partner the content of a hand which is just one of (35 billion possible combinations you can be dealt." Thus, when one pair of Aces practices bidding in different rooms, other members of the team and Joe Musumeci can grill a player in mid-auction about what he means by a certain bid and what he expects his partner to reply.
Of course, all of the Aces' hours are not spent sitting around above Lit'l Audrey's, scanning computer readouts and shouting "two no trump" into a squawk box. Another thing that Corn and his money have seen to is that the Aces do not go wanting for expert competition. In line with his detestation of the palooka-killer syndrome, Corn has arranged and paid for the numerous visits to Dallas of dozens of super bridge sharks, who then play marathon weekend matches against the Aces. So far, the team has played at least 1,000 hands with visiting teams which have included 31 former world competitors. In the winter of '69, on a three-week tour with the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus, the Aces played 256 hands against Sharif and the nucleus of the Italian Blue Team (losing by 19 IMPs), and this year, on a similar seven-week, 840-hand tour with Sharif's show, which included three of the Italians—Garozzo, Belladonna, Forquet—they won by 101 IMPs.
Now Ira Corn was slap-slapping around his living room, pondering a final question. "I suppose I could say I am a patriotic man," said Corn, "and that I would like to see the bridge championship in this country. And that would be a little bit true [slap-slap]. But I am not a man who believes in the arrogance of the U.S., and I wouldn't spend this kind of time or money simply to provide something for Americans to crow about. In fact, I never considered for a moment that I was going into this thing only to be constructive or only to test some ideas I've had."
He pulled his bathrobe belt tighter about his great waist. "I've taken a chance that this will be constructive but not profitable," he said. "We don't have enough momentum yet to produce profits, and we won't until we win the world championship...[slap-slap]. We have status now, sure, but in terms of converting that to cash, we aren't there yet. But that is our goal. We're looking for the 40 million bridge players, not just the 250,000 who play in tournaments.... Yes, we need the momentum of a world championship and then we'll have the opportunity to accomplish something really successful [slap-slap]...something really profitable."
He paused in his walking, winked and showed his wide, boyish smile. "When a man pays more than $400,000 to corner the floating supply of Declarations of Independence, you don't think he is entirely unaware of the value of having it in his possession during the vintage year of 1976, do you?"