It was, it seemed, the Tower of Babel risen anew, although the architecture was undeniably Miami Beach Baroque. There they were, occupying the Americana Hotel, long the playground of New York garment district hedonists and AFL-CIO sun-worshippers, this polyglot mass of people drifting about among the azure plastic barstools, chattering in Polish and Arabic, French and Dutch, Swedish and German, Italian and Chinese. Even when they spoke English, their talk was often indecipherable, for they cried out excitedly over such things as "unfinessable queens" and "stiff aces" and "pseudo squeezes" and "Precision clubs."
But though the tongues in its lobby seemed twisted and the syntax at the swimming pool arcane, the Americana of Bal Harbour still finished up last week as something of a monument, not a high-rise tribute to jabberwocky but a kind of historical landmark in the world of bridge (a rather twisted and arcane place in its own right). The occasion was the fourth World Team Olympiad, a bizarre and exhausting affair which brought bridge players from 39 countries to Florida to compete. A bridge Olympiad—an arbitrary title since card games have not made the true Olympian summit as yet—is in itself not all that noteworthy. But the event at the Americana wound up featuring a final contest some called The Bridge Match of the Century: the celebrated Squadra Azzura, the marvelous Blue Team of Italy, against the world champion U.S. team, the Aces, a group more or less owned and operated by Ira G. Corn, a 300-pound Texas millionaire. In a positively mystical display of brilliant bridge, the Blues won, proving to the satisfaction of just about everybody that whether or not the Blues-Aces clash was a Match of the Century, the Italian six was indeed the greatest team the game has ever seen. Once the Olympiad was over, the Blues let it be known that here, in the Americana, they had played their swan song and would never again appear as a unit. Maybe.
This is the second time the Blues have disbanded. Beginning in 1957 they won 10 consecutive world championships and two Olympiads. In 1969 they retired and Corn's Aces won the world championship in their absence. But the Blues had promised after the '68 Olympiad in Deauville, France that they would return to defend in '72, and thus the stage was set for the great confrontation, it having been a foregone conclusion from the first card played when the Olympiad began on June 9 that these two teams would reach the finals.
A bridge Olympiad is not quite like any other sports championship extant. For one thing, there are no basic qualifying requirements to guarantee the skill of the entrants. Thus there is a truly stupefying contrast between the good teams and the poor. For certain countries, one major factor in selecting a team is to find bridge players who can afford to travel, take two or three weeks off from work and pay their hotel bills. As Corn rumbled last week, "A good four out of six of these teams don't play bridge on the same planet with the better ones. It's nothing but a big pigeon shoot for the first two weeks."
It is indeed. The first 13 days of this Olympiad were spent in a mind-boggling marathon round-robin competition to select the four teams to enter the semifinals. Each of the 39 teams had to play 20 hands against every other team. There were three sessions a day and rarely did any day's play end before 1 a.m. As the days and nights dragged on, the pigeons fluttered and grew more wan. Bridge players, as a rule, look as if they had just spent the last five years in a fluorescent-lighted air-raid shelter, but in Miami they began to look like lifetime citizens of Death Row.
Despite the tension and fatigue, disputes and protests were rare. Occasionally, there were complaints that players were doing an unconscionable lot of talking in incomprehensible languages at the bridge table, but no one was penalized. Considering some of the pairings, they hardly could have been. Although each team is assembled by a national federation, there is no hard rule about the actual nationality of the players. Thus, a Swede played for Germany, a Hungarian for Australia, an Egyptian for England and the Nationalist Chinese team from Taiwan boasted a professor from Purdue and an engineer from Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. The Philippines team had two Chinese, two Spaniards and a Portuguese with a Canadian passport, but Switzerland had the highest polyphyletic rating of all with a Bolivian, two Italians, a Greek and a chap from Chicago.
The strategy in playing the round robin was for the good teams to perform an all-out blitz against the poor ones whenever possible, the four finalists being selected on the basis of total points accumulated. Nevertheless, a few of the truly puny teams rose up and smote the giants. Bermuda defeated the Aces and Peru belted the Blues.
But when the eliminations were at last over, the Blues were on top and the Aces were second. No one had ever doubted that they would finish there, if for no other reason than that each had three partnerships of world-class caliber while most teams struggled through with only one or possibly two sterling pairs. The other two semifinalists were France and Canada. The Blues quickly crushed the French, winning 178 IMPs to 88, and the Aces were even more merciless in eliminating Canada 203 to 85.
Then came the Match of the Century, a head-to-head clash over 88 boards. The Blues—Walter Avarelli, Giorgio Belladonna, Pietro Forquet, Benito Garozzo, Mimmo d'Alelio and Camillo Pabis Ticci—are a relatively elderly team. Their average age is 52. The Aces—Jim Jacoby, Bobby Wolff, Paul Soloway, Bob Hamman, Bobby Goldman, Mike Lawrence—average 35. For years, opponents have tried all manner of tactics and tricks to defeat the Blues. During one world championship, the U.S. captain assigned a sexy American woman full time to keep a key Italian player from getting any sleep. Years ago, Belladonna was known to loathe cigar smoke, so team captains usually had their heaviest cigar smokers play against him. Belladonna outfoxed them by forcing himself to smoke cigars and now he is one of the heaviest smokers in bridge.
The Aces had no such foolery in mind. "We will try to do things that are not in our ordinary pattern of play," said Ira Corn. "Other than that, we will just hope we're confident." Unfortunately, confident was exactly what the Americans were not. They had lost to the Blues in an exhibition in Las Vegas last winter, they had lost to them badly during the round robin and they simply seemed overwhelmed from the start.
Doom was written on their game as early as the sixth board. Wolff and Jacoby were playing a four-spade contract against Forquet and Garozzo, and the normally conservative Forquet had doubled. A rich total of 12 IMPs lay ahead for the Aces if they made the contract, but they would lose 8 IMPs if they did not. It was a most important moment, for the Blues had leaped into a quick 18-0 lead. In order to make the hand, Jacoby had to take an early, daring finesse through Garozzo toward Forquet. Had it been anyone but Forquet, Jacoby probably would have tried it. Against the stony-faced Neapolitan he backed off, choosing not to take the gamble. The Aces went down, the Blues soared. The Aces rallied mightily later on but never could gain any momentum against the magnificent Squadra Azzura. The final score was 203-138.
Whether the Blues are really retired for all time—or only until next year, when the Aces defend their Bermuda Bowl world championship—remains to be seen. If, as Benito Garozzo said, they will play "never again," then the fourth Olympiad in the plastic land of Miami was indeed an event to remember.