Six debonair Italians, age 44 to 59, threaded their way past the 756 slot machines in the lobby of the Las Vegas Hilton, bound for what was described as 1) the bridge Match of the Century and 2) the most ambitious attempt thus far to make bridge a popular spectator sport in the U.S. As for the first item: anybody who mentions Italians and bridge in the same sentence automatically refers to the Blue Team, Squadra Azzura, winner of 12 world bridge championships and the best bridge-playing lineup of all time. They looked the part—six suave cardsharps, six masters seeking new worlds to conquer, six characters in search of an audience.
If anybody could make a bridge match something that people would pay money to see, these legendary stars were the ones to do it. Not as much could be said for their opponents, the Aces, formerly the Dallas Aces, twice world champions since the Blue Team retired undefeated in 1969. Introduced from the stage of a small theater off the cavernous Hilton lobby, the Aces appeared to be a handsome group of earnest young intellectuals—they range in age from 30 to 39—rather than professional card-players. Whereas any of the Italians could have taken a place behind a Las Vegas gaming table without arousing questions from anyone, you could imagine the Aces teaching freshman English easier than dealing blackjack. This was the first meeting of the Blue Team and the Aces, the Italians coming out of retirement for a chance at $30,000 in prize money, and the Aces determined to refute the suggestion that their two world championships were achieved only because the Blue Team was not playing when they won them.
Hence the Match of the Century notion, a small overstatement but permissible. It began at 8:30 on a cold December night and, as to its promise as a spectator sport, the beginning was rather inauspicious. Four Italians and four Americans disappeared down a hundred yards of hotel hallway to Conference Room G (marked CLOSED ROOM) and Conference Room E (OPEN ROOM) in the hotel's Convention Center. (The two remaining pairs waited restlessly in the theater for their turns to play.) Between Rooms E and G was another marked NO ADMISSION. It was the control room. Inside, although you could not see her, a young woman named Marion Shane dealt decks of cards into hands of 13 cards each. These she placed in four small receptacles, labeled North, East, South and West, to be played in the closed room, and then placed identical cards in similar boards to be played in the open room after each closed-room hand had been completed.
In the first hand in the closed room, Pietro Forquet of the Blue Team, sitting North, held the queen, 6, 5 and deuce of spades; the 10, 4 and 3 of hearts; the jack of diamonds; the ace, 10, 9, 5 and 4 of clubs. He passed. (One of the satisfactions of watching great bridge players is that sometimes they do what you would do.) Forquet is 46, one of the original members of the Blue Team when it began its astounding record in 1956. Now he is a banker in Naples and enjoys leisurely working hours. He has a distant amiability, as though contemplating with pleasure something he sees just over the heads of the people around him. You do not have to be an expert to know you should never play cards with him.
On Forquet's left, sitting East, was the Aces' James Jacoby, son of the pioneer bridge and poker expert. He held the ace, king and 3 of spades; the king of hearts; the queen, 9, 6, 5, 4 and deuce of diamonds; the jack, 6 and deuce of clubs. He bid one diamond. Jacoby is a direct, candid individual who lives with his wife and daughter in a Dallas suburb. He was an English major at Notre Dame, taught high school briefly and studied law before becoming a bridge player by trade.
South was Benito Garozzo, 42, now a prosperous jeweler with a shop across the street from the American Embassy in Rome, where he advertises discounts to bridge players. He has bushy black hair, large, thick-rimmed spectacles that conceal any facial expression and he plays cards with an intense concentration that a spectator might consider out of proportion to the issues involved, if it were not that Garozzo is considered by many to be the best bridge player on earth. He held the jack, 10 and 4 of spades; the ace, 9, 8, 6, 5 and deuce of hearts; the 10, 7 and 3 of diamonds; the 8 of clubs. He bid one heart.
West was Robert Wolff, a tall, calm, round-faced, articulate gentleman, a former teacher of English, married, one child, and capable of facing with detachment the odds against the Aces, which were quoted in Las Vegas at 8 to 5. Both Wolff and Jacoby are without vanity about their records. They relate with amusement how they were once beaten by a pair of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED editors, Jack Olsen and Ray Cave (SI, Nov. 14, 1966) in a $20,000 rubber bridge tournament. Well, with some amusement. They were not cavalier about the outcome of the Match of the Century, but they were not in a frenzy about it, either. In the past the Aces always put in two weeks of intensive training before a match, but this time—because they already had won the right to represent the U.S. at the World Team Olympiad next spring—Ira Corn, the organizer of the Aces, decided this would not be necessary. Also in the past, the Aces had lived on salaries paid by Corn, an astute and ambitious Dallas industrialist, but last summer Corn decided that they had progressed in skill and reputation to the point where they could finance themselves with exhibitions, teaching, writing, bridge cruises and the other expedients by which bridge masters make their livings. Now in the closed room on the first hand, Wolff held the 9, 8 and 7 of spades; the queen, jack and 7 of hearts; the ace, king and 8 of diamonds; the king, queen, 7 and 3 of clubs. He bid two clubs, and the second time around won the contract with three no trump. The Aces made five, for a score of 460.
It was now 8:55. In the theater a large screen on one side of the stage lit up in shimmering reds, yellows and blacks, showing the distribution of the cards, what the sequence of bidding had been in the closed room and the result there. Simultaneously, on the other side of the stage, a big, closed-circuit TV screen came to life, revealing the players in the open room pondering their cards. At this point there was no doubt about spectator interest: the game looked good. On the TV screen Robert Goldman of the Aces was North, playing the hand that Forquet had played in the closed room. Goldman is 32, a computer expert from Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. On his left was the masterful actor of the Blue Team, Giorgio Belladonna, a natural comedian with round, beaming features, a small mustache and an engagingly sincere courtliness. You felt that Belladonna could make the open room interesting even if he had not been playing cards, what with his wide range of shoulder-lifting, hands-spreading gestures that added a picturesque effect to his flawless broken English.
South for the Aces was Michael Lawrence, aged 30, tall, thin, pale, reserved, a writer, the son of a Forest Service lawyer whose duties include prosecution of despoilers of the national domain. On his left, as West, was another accomplished Italian scene stealer, Walter Avarelli, a judge, square-jawed and stocky, a tireless sightseer and visitor to monuments (Caesars Palace?) on the Blue Team's travels.
The bidding followed that of the closed room, except that Avarelli jumped to three no trump the first time around. On the TV screen you could see Goldman play his opening lead, though you could not see what it was, and an announcer said, "Heart three." The shadow of an invisible hand reached across the screen on the other side of the stage and drew a line through the 3 of hearts in the diagram of North's hand. Avarelli called for the king from dummy. "Heart king," said the voice, and a black line went through the king. "This is going to be an easy 11 tricks," said one of the two commentators seated in the darkness of the stage, but it was an easy 12, Avarelli and Belladonna scoring 490 in the open room for a margin of 30 points. Translated into international match points, commonly referred to as IMPs, that gave the Blue Team a one-IMP lead on the first hand.
And what about spectator interest, with 20 hands like that for each session in a seven-session match? Through five days, 28 hours of play and a total of 140 boards? "Bridge is the greatest game in the world," says Ira Corn in his role of drumbeater. "It is the subtlest, the most intellectual, the fastest, and it makes the greatest demands on its players. It can be a fascinating game to watch, as fascinating to the 40 million bridge players in the country as golf is to the millions who watch it on television."
For the splendor of the Match of the Century, Corn packed his massive frame into evening clothes, the lacy pleats of his dress shirt giving him something of the appearance of a ruddy-cheeked Elizabethan nobleman wearing a ruff. Everybody present was familiar with the story of Corn and the Aces: how he put the team together with the aid of a computer, a lot of money—about $500,000, plus an annual budget, until this year, of $100,000—and a love of bridge, for the specific purpose of bringing the world title to the U.S. But no one could anticipate his zeal as a salesman of bridge as a spectator sport. Corn grew up in a Baptist community where cardplaying was forbidden, except for rook—"I was in college," he says, "before I discovered rook and bridge were the same"—and he feels that people are being unjustly deprived of a natural pleasure if they cannot see bridge masters practicing their art. "Millions of people once played golf," he roars, "but there were no spectators to speak of. Today the millions who watch golf on TV do not care about the right way to play, the proper stance, anything like that. They watch someone putt, and they know that he wins thousands of dollars if he makes it. That creates popular interest!"
For at least half the Match of the Century, Corn's belief in spectator interest seemed justified. A bridge tournament is engrossing when it is close. The Aces finished the first session leading by six IMPs, 35 to 29. That earned them the $1,000 awarded the winning team each session. In the second session the Italians picked up the $1,000 with a score of 46 to 29. When the third session ended that night just before midnight, the Aces came back, but narrowly, to win by a score of 34 to 28, the overall score now standing at 103 for the Blues to 98 for the Aces, a margin of only five points after 60 boards.
The players seen on the TV screen (or in the audience when their alternates were playing) began to seem like characters in one episode after another of a continuing series. The two Aces and the two Italians who joined the action later on contributed further to the impression that there was involved a battle of types, as well as of teams, young scientists vs. old gamblers. The Aces were Robert Hamman, 32, once a high-ranked chess player, and Paul Soloway, 30, the newest member of the Aces, the son of a Los Angeles real estate dealer who likewise gave up chess for bridge. The opposite numbers were Camillo Pabis Ticci, a slight, bald, inconspicuous civil engineer from Florence, the least theatrical figure among the Italians and, as it turned out, one of the most effective in this match, and Mimmo d'Alelio, aged 51, square-jawed, handsome, with the air of the disillusioned man of the world that Adolphe Menjou used to portray in the movies. He is so self-contained that he never batted an eye when Ann-Margret singled him out to sing to in the Hilton's supper club after one of the Italian victories. Pitting the Aces against such worldly figures as these made the match a good show—so long as the score was close.
But a one-sided bridge match can be excruciatingly dull. And after the fourth session, when the Blue Team picked up 53 IMPs to make the score 156 to 124, the Match of the Century became a prolonged demonstration of the Blue Team's mastery.
It ended that night, to all practical purposes, with the Blue lead steadily mounting, and the open-room scene beginning to seem like an episode from a TV serial repeated over and over: the same robust and happy gamblers winning points and the same pale young English professors interminably giving them up. The Aces played so slowly a spectator remarked to Ira Corn that they did not really seem to be in a card game. "They look like jurors in a jury room trying to decide whether or not to sentence somebody to death," he said.
"Maybe they are," said Corn.
The final score for the match was 338 for the Blue Team, 254 for the Aces. The victory was worth $12,000 to the Italians, plus something far more valuable—reassertion of who ruled the bridge roost.
And yet another Aces' humiliation followed. In a knockout tournament the next week, the Aces were eliminated by Charles Goren's team, while the Italian masters collected $15,000 for winning.
"We've got to start over and go back to hard work on partnerships," said Jacoby calmly.
Said Commentator Michael Ledeen, "The Aces were playing against a legend. It affects everybody who plays against the Blues."