Oswald Jacoby, captain of the U.S. bridge team, stood in the lobby of the Foresta Hotel in Stockholm last week, betting he could throw his 10-krona bill farther than anyone could toss a five-krona bill. Winner gets to keep both, naturally. Nearby, members of his team, otherwise known as the Dallas Aces, dressed in their uniform of the day—light blue blazers with the gold Aces' emblem and gray slacks—were pitching coins toward a wall, closest takes all. If you value your kronor, do not play these games with Ozzie and the Aces. After you flutter your five-krona bill about two feet or so, Ozzie will roll his bill into a ball and toss it all the way over to the front desk. Sucker play. As for the Aces, they can pitch a one-krona coin half an inch from the wall all night long. Double for leaners.
Ah, yes—there was also some bridge at the Foresta last week, and those who challenged the Aces would have done better pitching kronor. Teams from Nationalist China, Italy, Brazil and Norway gathered for the Bermuda Bowl, which is the world championship, and the Aces made it look like batting practice. After a nine-day round robin in which the Aces finished far ahead of everyone else, the two top teams—the U.S. and Nationalist China—met in four final matches played over a two-day period. Except for the first match, which the U.S. lost 13-7, it was no contest. The Aces won the second by 18 to 2 victory points, the third 20 to minus 2 and the fourth 19 to 1 to give the U.S. the title for the first time since 1954.
Early in the third match on the final Thursday, Jim Jacoby, son of Ozzie, and Bobby Wolff bid and made a grand slam while the Chinese went down at six. Bam! Thereafter, the Chinese resistance fizzled out completely, and the Aces piled up the score. Before the last match, the cumulative point score was 45 to 13, and China was helpless. In the last 32 deals, Robert Hamman and Mike Lawrence actually experimented with the Roman Club, with no less an expert in that system as commentator than Giorgio Belladonna. The official margin by which the Aces brought home the Bermuda Bowl was 64-14.
What was missing from this year's championship was the Italian Blue Team, players like Belladonna, Forquet and Garozzo, who have dominated world bridge since 1957. In their places were names like Barbarisi, Morini and Cesati—Italians, yes, but not necessarily bridge players. No one in Stockholm was certain why the Blue Team had decided to stay at home. Some said it had gotten into an argument with the Italian Bridge Federation, while others pointed out that the team had thought for years about quitting, and this year just happened to be it. In either case, without the Blue Team, and with Norway representing the second European spot instead of possible strong teams from England and France, the competition, as one of the Aces put it, had "all the feel of a minor league duplicate tournament."
July 5, 1970
So the Aces are the new world champions, and what could be more natural than a head-to-head match between them and the Italian Blue Team? Anyone thinking of staging such a challenge match is just a few hundred thoughts behind Ira Corn, the 300-pound Dallas millionaire who founded the Aces, pays them and issues them daily directives that sometimes include items such as "shoes will be shined." Underlined, yet. Ira may be a little slow going up stairs, but he can think with the fastest of them, and what he is thinking now—has already set up, in fact—is a television series involving the two teams. It will take three weeks or so in the shooting, run maybe 13 weeks on television and offer $150,000 to the winning team. Bridge has been televised before with moderate success, but Corn, with typical enthusiasm, claims he will introduce a few new devices that "will make this thing more exciting than ah, er—than five football games."
And that's not all. Corn has invested a bundle in the Aces—he gave each of the six a $1,000 bonus for winning in Stockholm—and now he is anxious to turn them into a profit-making organization. On June 1, more than 30 U.S. newspapers started carrying Bridge With the Aces, a column written by Eddie Kantar but bearing Corn's byline. Now that the Aces are champions, the world can brace itself for a flood of instructional. There is no game the Aces cannot tell you how to play better—backgammon, gin rummy, poker and, of course, bridge. In fact, if Ira Corn feels there are enough krona pitchers around, the Aces will show you how they do it.
The Aces arrived in Stockholm three days before play began so they could have time to adjust to the five-hour time change and to the short summer nights. Bridge players are used to going to bed at dawn, but in Stockholm dawn was at 2:20 a.m., and by 4 the sun was hot. The trip over was noteworthy on two counts. Olof Palme, the prime minister of Sweden, was on the same plane, and so the flight was delayed an hour and a half while the baggage was searched for possible bombs. At the airport in Stockholm the Aces were greeted by students carrying a large banner on which was written: BEKAMPA U.S.A. IMPERIALISM, a Swedish version of Yankee Go Home. The sign was undoubtedly intended for the attention of the prime minister, but it served as a warning to the Aces that in Stockholm they would not be the sentimental favorites. As it turned out, the Aces not only won the title but unanimous praise for their unfailing courtesy at the table.
All five teams, as well as a large army of camp followers—wives, girl friends, rooters, bridge officials and columnists—stayed at the Foresta, a mighty fortress of a hotel equipped with a roulette wheel, a blackjack table and dozens of slot machines. Ordinarily, such toys can keep bridge players amused indefinitely, but at the Foresta, the roulette paid off at only 20 to 1, the blackjack had house rules that favored the dealer and the slot machines delivered slugs that could only be spent inside the hotel. The games were judged as having no class and were boycotted.
The Foresta also had a swimming pool, and that was most certainly not boycotted. Every morning you could find members of the Aces or their families lounging in the hot sun. Jim Jacoby would play backgammon with his mother, their jaws tense with battle. Bobby Goldman, Mike Lawrence and Billy Eisenberg, all bachelors, would make periodic visits to check out Sweden's famous blondes. Or brunettes. Or redheads. Betsy Wolff, wife of Bobby, described one day the problem of buying uniforms for the Aces, including an extra one for Coach Joe Musumeci. "Ever try finding seven identical ties?" she asked.
Robert Hamman showed up one day to report on his trip to an art museum. An art museum? Tell us later, Robert. But wait. It seems Robert's wife Barbara had insisted on the trip, and Robert sort of tagged along and was at least holding his own when they turned the corner into a room and—bingo—let's hear it for modern Swedish art. Which of course had everyone by the pool anxious to make a trip to that museum as soon as possible.
The poolside contingent enjoyed a private joke one day during the final match. A six-club contract was being played on the viewing screen, and the commentator was Denmark's multilingual expert Alexander Koltscheff. When the declarer laid down the ace of trumps instead of taking a finesse, Koltscheff remarked, "In Sweden, the king of clubs is often bare." This time it wasn't; in fact, the player behind the ace was void of clubs. But part of the titter from the audience came from those who knew what had happened that morning at the pool. Eddie Kantar had been giving free bridge lessons to three of the girls in the American party, and for this session they rang in one of those decks with naughty pictures. When Kantar picked up his first hand he nearly fell off the chair.
The most regular visitor to the pool was Ozzie Jacoby. Every morning Ozzie would appear in his blue bathing suit, look for someone—anyone—he knew and then launch into a series of stories. "Yes," he would say, "bridge players have always been great gamesters. I remember the time P. Hal Sims and Willard Karn went to dinner. After a few minutes they decided to guess how many sugar cubes were in the bowl before them. 'No, wait,' said Sims. 'Let's have the waiter bring us a new bowl.' When the new bowl arrived, Sims guessed 33, Karn 37. They counted the cubes and there were exactly 37.
" 'Curious,' said Sims, 'I paid that waiter $5 to put 33 cubes in the bowl.'
" 'And I,' said Karn, 'paid him $10 to put in 37.' "
Jacoby has always had one of the most amazing minds in bridge. At poolside he demonstrated that he can still take a deck of cards, remove one without looking at it, go through the rest of the deck at lightning speed and then name the missing card. He likes to tell the story of the time someone bet him he couldn't drink five quick zombies and then multiply two six-figure numbers in his head. They went to a bar, where Ozzie drank the zombies, correctly multiplied his numbers and, when he started to leave, found he was too drunk to walk.
There was some speculation before the tournament began that Ozzie would not be a good captain—O.K., perhaps, when all was going well, but a disaster if the team fell behind. Because the team won so easily, the theory was never tested. There was a moment on the second day when the U.S. fell behind Nationalist China after half a match. During the intermission, Lawrence, a pleasant but curiously detached young man, said one thing, Ozzie another, and suddenly there was Ozzie chasing Lawrence down the hall. But nothing damaging was said.
On the eve of the tournament, the Swedish Bridge League made a determined effort to have its own national team included in the championship. Upset at not having the Italian Blue Team on hand to draw bridge crowds to the Foresta, the Swedes felt that only the presence of their own team would insure a financial success. But the motion was voted down. The chairman of the organizing committee, Eric Jannersten, then made a move to have bidding boxes used in the championship, so that players would not speak their bids but pull them from a box. Bidding in international competition is in English, and while the bidding-box motion was being debated, one of the U.S. party was told, "You Americans have had things your way for too long." The bidding box was finally voted down, which must have disappointed Jannersten, who happens to have the local concession.
The night of the first match, everyone was invited to Corn's suite for a light training-type meal. The Aces are not a big drinking team, but they can eat like giants, and Corn wanted his boys in shape. It was a procedure he was to follow throughout the tournament whenever the U. S. team had an evening match. The wives scurried about like Red Cross ladies, making sandwiches, pouring Cokes and trying not to look as tense as they obviously felt.
The players were far more relaxed as they reviewed their bidding systems, Jacoby with Wolff, Hamman with Lawrence, Goldman with Eisenberg. Listening to bridge players talk bridge is a little like tuning in on a foreign language for the first time. In Ira's suite and the lobby of the Foresta all week, this is the sort of thing you heard:
"Get this. I hold ace-jack fifth, 10 third, king-queen third and two small clubs. One heart from my partner, two clubs on my right. What do I bid?"
At moments such as these, all you have to do is nod and smile. There is no point in guessing the bid because you are about to be told the answer. As a matter of fact, the bridge player doesn't want you to say anything. He just wants someone to talk at.
When the first match began, the championship ended, although it took 11 more days to make it official. During those periods when the U.S. fell behind, Corn would develop a headache, and he would twist and turn his massive body in his chair in the Foresta ballroom where the hands were shown on the screen. Invariably, the Aces would rally. The wives and other U.S. rooters would stare anxiously as the play of the hand was phoned in and the cards were crossed out on the screen. A critical moment. Will Wolff make the right play? Tension. Come on, Bobby, play the jack. He did! A squeal from the wives. Wolff and Jacoby set the contract that Goldman and Eisenberg made in the other room. A big 13 IMPs to the Aces. They're ahead.... It happened almost every time.
And then the Aces would emerge from their card-playing rooms, smiling, trying not to snicker. But it was hard. There were a few good players among the other teams, like the lively Gabriel Chagas of Brazil, but not enough. The consensus was that any one of five or six U.S. teams could have won this year.
After every session it was up to Ozzie's room for a team meeting, but to get to Ozzie's meant going through the lobby. And that meant pausing for a few moments to pitch a few kronor. Just a few. The Aces will be right there, Ozzie, but right now they feel the need for a little competition.