Eddie Kantar is on his knees in the living room playing miniature Ping-Pong with a friend. He is using one of his bridge books as a paddle and he has spotted his opponent 12 points, yet he is in no danger of losing. Naturally, he has wagered a few units on the result, just as he has bet a few more on the Rams-Vikings game on television that is competing for his attention. He has bet not only on the Rams but on which team scores first, whether more points will be scored to the right or the left of the screen and in which quarter the most points will be scored.
Kantar likes to have a few units riding on just about anything that moves, a unit being a nickel, a dime or, often, slightly more. Later, when he leaves with his visitor for the Savoy Bridge Club, there will be some action on which elevator arrives first, what the last digit of the speedometer will be when the car arrives at the club and how many people will be in the main cardroom, kibitzers included. But it is not time to go yet, and so, having won the first Ping-Pong game, Kantar is now proposing a new one. He will hold three rackets, one in his right hand, the second in his left, the third under his chin. He will hit his shots with all three, in order. How can you lose? Wait and see.
Eddie Kantar, as you have judged already, is a gamesman. In fact, he may just be the world's greatest gamesman. If someone devised a decathlon of trivial skills, one that included, say, backward running, coin pitching, judging the exact minute of any event, running hook shots from center court, flipping cards into a wastepaper basket, balancing a broom on your forehead, memorizing telephone numbers, holding your breath, playing the match game and, of course, any form of table tennis, Kantar would be a gold medalist. As it is, he must settle for being the most successful bridge teacher in California and one of the best in the country.
Kantar is 38 and a bachelor. He has been teaching bridge in Los Angeles for a dozen years, to how many thousands of people Kantar himself finds it difficult to estimate. Wherever he goes in town—the Forum, the Coliseum, restaurants or movie theaters—he is likely to run into alumni. "Hi, Eddie," says a pretty young thing at the Forum before a Laker game. She has a problem and needs a quick fix. "Eddie, I was holding ace-king five times, doubleton heart..." and they are off and running in that mysterious language of advanced bridge players, rehashing a hand. No charge.
January 11, 1971
Kantar teaches five days or evenings a week, except on those occasions when he is playing in a tournament—he has won seven national titles—or when he is representing the U.S. in the world championship, either as a player, which he did in 1969, or as a coach, which he did in 1968. He also spends a part of each day writing bridge articles or books, which invariably contain a pleasant blend of wit and instruction. The rest of his time is free to pursue his second career, gamesmanship.
It is this second career that interests me. You see, until I met Eddie in Stockholm last June, I thought I was the world's greatest gamesman. I have always enjoyed all sports in which a winner is finally declared, and there are few games I have not at least sampled, card games especially. I am a bridge addict. In the morning, while other commuters study the Times on the train to New York, I play bridge in the back car with a diamond merchant, a Wall Street lawyer and a public-relations man for Decca Records. We play going home, too. At various times in my life I have fallen in with guys who would play hearts all night, every night. Same with poker. Four of us once got so intense about cribbage that we formed a league, drew up a 154-game schedule, adopted nicknames and issued make-believe press releases. I used to play a lot of gin at a tennis club in Los Angeles, the citadel of the game, but now the only chances I get are on airplanes, if my companion is willing. Otherwise, I deal myself bridge hands. Finally, there are the endless card games I play with my children—War, Old Maid, Memory, I Doubt It, Go Fish, Dead Man's Hope and Crazy Eights.
As for other games, you can always talk me into Monopoly, Scrabble, billiards, jotto, salvo and darts. I am the only father on our block who plays kick the can on summer evenings. Last August I was crawling on my stomach through my neighbor's shrubbery while trying to retrieve an errant can when whom should I come upon in the semi-darkness but my neighbor himself, pruning his yard. It didn't matter. He already knew I was crazy.
Croquet? It is one of the great cutthroat games. Checkers? A forgotten art. Shuffleboard? A classic. I love them all.
I do not mean to belabor this, merely to drive home the point that I love action and that whatever game you name, I will play it and probably beat you. If I were to draw up my own decathlon of trivial skills, it would be a 10-mile run, tennis, cribbage, underwater swimming (for distance), foul shooting, croquet, checkers, distance throwing (rocks or balls), bridge and table tennis. In this decathlon, I would have sworn that I would have won a gold medal. But that was before Eddie Kantar came along.
We were both in Stockholm to cover the world championship of bridge. He was there with his girl, Valerie Calamaro, who is merely gorgeous. I was alone, and the three of us spent much of our time together. The hotel had a swimming pool and slot machines and a gambling hall, and there were tennis courts nearby. Finally, there were bridge people around every corner. It was a perfect atmosphere for competition.
We parried with each other for a while, showing off our stuff. Kantar would sit out by the pool in the morning, fiddling with a deck of cards. Take one, he would say. I would—the 9 of hearts. Eddie would then look through the rest of the deck at lightning speed and tell me when he was through that I held a 9. How did he know? A deck of cards has 364 pips. A four is four pips, a jack 11, a king 13, etc. Total, 364. Eddie can add any string of numbers as fast as he can see them. For that matter, he can also multiply any two three-digit numbers almost as soon as you give them to him. He would add the pips as he raced through the deck of cards, get 355 and know a 9 was missing.
I tried to hustle him on an underwater-swimming bet. It is one of my decathlon events, you may have noticed. Arriving at poolside early the first morning, I did the length of the pool easily, a distance of some 60 feet. Later, when Eddie and Valerie had arrived, I wondered aloud if it were possible to, oh say, swim the length of the pool underwater. He didn't bite. Probably my bathing suit was still wet.
What we did do in Stockholm when we finally got down to business was pitch coins against a wall (the closer man wins); bet on the number of points the Dallas Aces would be leading by when we got back from dinner; play tennis; guess the number of sugar cubes in the bowls at our breakfast table; throw a ball in the air, turn around twice, and try to catch it; and predict when Oswald Jacoby would arrive at the pool every morning. With Valerie holding the watch, we took turns trying to call the exact minute. Eddie found a table-tennis hall in downtown Stockholm, so of course we had to try that out, even though I knew that 13 years before, in Stockholm of all places, Kantar had played in the world championship. That's table tennis, not bridge. He spotted me 10 points and won 21-18, so he spotted me 13 points and won 21-18 again. Finally he gave me 15 points, and you already know the score. I quit when he offered to play me sitting down in a chair, so he took on a local hotshot, some kid who had been watching us play, and he beat him 21-5.
Our major confrontation occurred one evening when we were having dinner in the Grand Hotel. That's right, the Greta Garbo place. I happened to mention what a shame it was that there were so many forward running races and no backward races. A guy could grow old never realizing that he was the fastest backward racer in the world. Eddie replied that this was unlikely in my case since I probably couldn't even beat him. Bet, I said. I figured I probably had pretty close to a sure thing because for years, while running along the beach on Cape Cod, I have always done a stretch backward. Don't ask me why. Maybe I knew this moment would come.
We finished dessert and strolled out into the lovely twilight of the Swedish midsummer night. Although it was 10:30, you could see clearly and the sidewalk and street were crowded. We decided to try it anyway. Valerie walked down to the corner, about 50 yards away, while Eddie and I turned our backs on her and got set. When there was a lull in the sidewalk traffic, Valerie yelled go and we were off.
Thinking it over now, I realize I blew the race because I was too anxious to get off to a fast start. The secret of backward running is to maintain your balance and an even stride. It's something like a three-legged race. Striding back fast, I lugged badly toward the curb, and for an instant I was sure I was about to fall into the street. I had to slow down to regain my balance, and that put Eddie some five yards ahead. I never made up the distance. He didn't tell me until much later that in the part of Minneapolis where he grew up, there used to be a backward running event in the Fourth of July fair. He won it three years in a row.
Kantar was born in Minneapolis, the son of a bootblack who now, at 74, shares Eddie's apartment in Los Angeles. As a child Eddie used to play a lot of pitch, poker and blackjack, but one day when he was 11 the father of a friend taught his son and Eddie bridge. He gave them a copy of Culbertson's Self-Teacher, which the boys memorized. By the time he was 14 Eddie was playing in duplicate tournaments, and three years later he was teaching the game in a local community center.
Eddie worked his way through the University of Minnesota, teaching bridge, hustling at bridge and clearing tables in a fraternity-house dining room. But Eddie and the fraternity life didn't mix. First, he was made to join even though he really didn't want to. Then the brothers demanded that he play table tennis for the fraternity. He refused, because he didn't have time, so they kicked him out.
Eddie majored in foreign languages. When he had graduated and served a hitch in the Army, he went to Los Angeles, where his parents had moved, and became a Spanish teacher at Emerson Junior High. He also became a frequent visitor at the Los Angeles Bridge Club. His career as language teacher did not last long. "When someone in Spanish-I asked me a question and I couldn't answer it, I knew I was in the wrong business," he says.
And so he turned to bridge for a living, losing a fiancée in the process. "She couldn't bear saying she was engaged to a bridge pro," he says. At first he taught in places like the YMCA and in park playgrounds, but it was not long before his reputation as a teacher and a player got him the jobs in clubs and private homes he has now.
When I left Stockholm I knew that someday I would have to visit Los Angeles and engage Kantar in an all-out battle of games, even though it would mean giving him the home-court advantage. Not long ago my chance came.
"I'm flying out this weekend," I told him over the phone. "Any game you name."
"I'm ready," he said.
I arrived late in the afternoon, checked in at my hotel and went directly to his apartment in Century City, a tall modern building on part of the old 20th Century-Fox lot. Kantar lives on the 17th floor. A note taped to the door told me to make myself at home; he would be back soon.
Inside, right in the middle of the living room, was the mini table-tennis set. In a corner were three putters and two tennis rackets, and on the dining table were a couple of decks of cards. I was obviously in the right apartment.
Beyond the living room was a tiny balcony from which you could see the Hollywood Hills and all of downtown Los Angeles in the distance. Directly below were a putting green, several tennis courts and a swimming pool. Just beyond them was the Beverly Hills High School football field with a running track around it, and next to that was a park with more tennis courts, a Softball diamond and a lawn-bowling field. I may never leave, I thought.
I was sitting at the dining table dealing bridge hands when Eddie and Valerie walked in. He looked at me, then reached in his pocket and paid her a dime. "I bet you'd be sitting on the couch," he explained.
Before I could greet them, Kantar had put a paddle in my outstretched hand. He gave me 10 points for five units. (I'm not going to say what our units were because my wife is very excitable.) He won easily. Then he beat me for another five, this time holding three rackets in his right hand. That was enough table tennis for me.
The Lakers were playing that night, so of course we went. Eddie never misses a Laker game, even if it means rescheduling a bridge class. We made dozens of bets on such things as Wilt Chamberlain's foul shooting—I lost that badly because Wilt has a new shooting style this year and is making 50%—Jerry West's point total, and on such far-out things as the number of times the ball would hit the floor between baskets. Later, we went to the Savoy Bridge Club for a few rubbers, then to an all-night restaurant for scrambled eggs. I got five units back by coming the closest to guessing the total check.
The next day Kantar introduced me to Rancho Park, a delightful playground near his apartment where he goes every day, as soon as he can leave his bridge ladies. The park has a dozen tennis courts, acres of open grassy fields for Softball and touch football, a basketball court, an archery area, an artificial lake and a natural outdoor amphitheater where kids with guitars have rock sessions while dozens more sit and watch.
From the trunk of his car Kantar produced two tennis rackets, a football, a basketball, a can of tennis balls, a pillow and, of course, a deck of cards. Kantar would sooner be without his wallet than the cards. (At halftime of a Laker game, Eddie will take them out, remove the deuces, 3's and 4's and deal two hands which he and Valerie—or anyone else with him—will bid, trying to reach the best contract.) At Rancho Park there is always a waiting line for courts. House rules state that a group can hold a court for only half an hour or one set, yet there are often as many as three groups waiting. So Kantar will sit on the wooden bleachers beside his favorite court, the pillow behind his back, and play bridge with the young crowd, bid hands with Valerie or read a paperback. When the court is his, he will play with anyone who happens to be around, then go back to the bridge game or his book. Since the courts are lighted, he will often stay at Rancho until well after dark.
The day he took me there, the courts were crowded as usual. We signed up for one, which at Rancho you do verbally, then went over to the basketball court. First we shot fouls, a decathlon event for me. In the West Side YMCA in New York I can average seven out of 10 using the old-fashioned set shot. Once I made 13 in a row. But on the outdoor court at Rancho, with a slight right-to-left breeze blowing, I began with two out of 10. Kantar, using a one-hand push shot, made six. On the next round I made five, but he came back with eight. To rub it in, he made a running hook shot from center court, the kind of thing I thought only Jerry West could do.
He also destroyed me at tennis, another of my events. When the court opened up, he beat me 6-2 in singles. Later we played mixed doubles with two high school girls, Stacey and Patti, who are Rancho regulars, and he won twice, one set with each. He also won most of the bets we made. Watching others play, we bet on the number of times the ball would cross the net, or on how many times someone would bounce the ball before serving. Again I lost. It was like playing Notre Dame at South Bend.
It was dark when we left and drove back to Kantar's apartment. There would be a football game on television that night, and some friends had gathered to watch and later play bridge. Already dozens of oddball bets were being made. But not by me. It was time for me to catch my plane.
"One last game," Kantar said, motioning to the mini Ping-Pong. "Double or nothing. I'll play with my shoe."
It was tempting, but there was really no time. I said goodby to Eddie and Valerie and went down the hallway to the elevator. While I waited, I made a mental bet that the one on the right would arrive first. I lost.