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Going down the old tube—in spades

May 08, 1978
May 08, 1978

Table of Contents
May 8, 1978

NBA Playoffs
Race Walker
Disaster
Baseball
Bridge
Boxing
Rodeo
  • By Douglas S. Looney

    Perhaps unhinged by the largest purses in the sport, favorites in all events came up losers in the Copenhagen/Skoal rodeo at Fort Worth

Track & Field
Hockey
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Going down the old tube—in spades

This wasn't a commuters' game on the Long Island Rail Road. This was big time on the big eye. And this was disaster

Before I tell you about my big play, the one that had them howling in the control room, I ought to explain how I came to be sitting at a bridge table with one television camera staring over my shoulder, another pointed at a mirror directly overhead and so many bright lights beaming down that the room felt like Saudi Arabia. My friend Edwin Kantar, a bridge teacher, writer and a member of the U.S. team that won the 1977 World Championship, had been signed to host a series of half-hour television shows, each one a lesson involving a hand to be bid and played by four guests. To help sell the show to potential sponsors, the producers had lined up a smattering of celebrities—Jim Backus, Carol Lawrence and Lee Meriwether were three—few of whom, as it developed, knew bridge from crazy eights.

This is an article from the May 8, 1978 issue Original Layout

It was left to Kantar to recruit a small army of players to fill the other three seats at the table for each show. He began by asking fellow experts, then the wives of fellow experts, his girl friend, a few ex-girl friends and finally the guy he goes to Laker basketball games with. When he still didn't have enough, he asked me.

The shows were being filmed in Los Angeles, and I showed up a few days before my scheduled appearance so I could observe what I was getting into. The studio was inside a rather dingy one-story building that looked more like a World War II barracks than MGM. There seemed to be a variety of businesses inside, but at the rear of the building was a door with a red light bulb above it and a written warning not to enter when the bulb was lit.

Inside was the television studio, a large room in the corner of which was a living room set-up—two couches at right angles, a coffee table and some artificial flowers. Several yards away was a card table with an elegant brown cloth top and four high-backed chairs. The rest of the room was a clutter of cables, cameras, lights and milling technicians.

The format of the show was simple enough. Kantar and his four guests were assembled on the couches for introductions. Eddie would stare into a camera with a cue card just off to one side and say, "Welcome to Master Bridge. I'm here to help you with your game. Today's lesson deals with setting up a side suit. We'll be back in a moment to meet our guests and guest celebrity."

Simple enough, but, as we were all to learn, nothing in television is easy. Kantar, for instance, is a bridge pro, not Alistair Cooke, and sometimes he managed to botch even those four sentences. And sometimes when he did get it perfectly, it would develop that the audio was too loud (or soft) or that some cable had become detached.

Returning after the hoped-for commercial, Kantar introduced his guests. Eddie would feed each a more or less prearranged question and the guest was expected to answer for about a minute. I learned a curious thing about television from one of these sessions. Three of the guests had spoken briefly about themselves, and then Kantar introduced Carol Lawrence, his guest celebrity. Lawrence came on as if she were putting on a show—excessive arm waving, dramatic intonations of the voice. I was embarrassed for her. And yet later, when I saw the tape, she seemed perfectly normal—lively but not unnatural—while the other three were like zombies.

When all the Johnny Carson guest business was finally over, the four players adjourned to the nearby bridge table while Kantar disappeared into a soundproof room with a monitor to do a voice-over, commenting on the bidding and play. He had arranged the hand in advance, of course, but everything else—as I was to prove—was totally unrehearsed.

Certain television rules had to be observed during the bidding and play that made it difficult for the players to function normally. Besides the hot lights, the cameras and the mirror overhead to distract you, you were required to wait 10 seconds after the last bid before making your own. Even if you held a bummer of a hand, nothing to think about by normal standards, you had to count to 10 in your head before passing. But again, as it was with Carol Lawrence's emoting, it looked perfectly natural on tape. What you saw was a close-up of the player studying his hand. In the corner of the screen was a diagram of the cards he was holding, and the viewer needed the 10 seconds to focus in on the hand and to listen to Kantar explain the possible bids.

The play of the hand also seemed artificial. Each card to a trick had to be placed ceremoniously at the precise middle of the table so the camera focusing on the mirror above could pick up all four. Whoever won the trick had to count three seconds before removing the cards, again so the viewer could focus in on what had been played.

Following the play of the hand, Kantar would spend perhaps eight minutes in front of a magnetized board with the hand re-created on it, analyzing what had gone wrong, if anything, and what might have been bid and what to remember if a similar situation should come up. In short, the lesson. Since Kantar teaches bridge for a living, he handled it well, and this part of the show always went smoothly.

Not so the final segment. Kantar and all four guests would reassemble on the couches for a final word—how long depending on what had come before it. Sometimes it was four minutes, sometimes a minute 12 seconds, and the cutoff had to be precise. During the early shows guests were often entangled in some comment about the cards just played when furious hand signals off-camera indicated shut up. Kantar, not unnaturally, would be looking at his guest. Retakes often numbered five, or even more, before a keeper was shot—and the freshness of the conversation became lost. Eventually Eddie learned the knack of cutting the conversation with as many as 15 seconds remaining and starting a slow winddown, "And now this is Eddie Kantar saying goodby and reminding you not to draw trumps until...." Using this technique he could sign off on the button every time.

The first day I kibitzed, Eddie had an expert group headed by bridge columnist Alfred Sheinwold and Don Krauss, a stock analyst who has represented North America in World Championship play. The conversation was lively and funny, even without Carol Lawrence. Sheinwold told a bridge joke. A player at a tournament went up to an expert and asked him where he had gone wrong in playing a hand. The expert explained. Two days later the player got a bill for $100 from the expert. Irate, the player phoned his lawyer.

"I don't have to pay it, do I?" he asked.

"I'm afraid you do," answered the lawyer. "He's a professional and you sought his counsel."

Two days later the player got a bill for $100 from the lawyer.

Krauss told a story about the legendary Oswald Jacoby. Jacoby was playing a hand in which the opponents held seven diamonds, including the queen. "Of the seven missing diamonds," said Ozzie, "I knew that five were on my left, two on my right, so I calculated that the odds were precisely 5-2 that the queen was on my left. Just then the player on my right dropped a card. It was the queen of diamonds. I immediately revised my estimate."

Sheinwold and Krauss bid and played the three hands Kantar set up for them without a flaw, as might be expected. I say three hands because while there was only one to a show, three shows could generally be filmed in one day so that most guests appeared that many times, slightly altering their costumes—sweater on, sweater off—to give the appearance of a whole new day. Perhaps Eddie should have saved the experts for last. The show's director, its producers, the whole crew knew nothing about bridge. They probably assumed that everything would always go as flawlessly as it did with Sheinwold and Krauss. I set them straight in a hurry.

It was the very next day, as a matter of fact. I had returned to kibitz again when word buzzed around the studio that Lee Meriwether had been detained. No one knew for how long. The producers, Barbara and Jack Warner, fretted. The three other guests were on hand: Gene Mako, the former Wimbledon doubles champion and now a leading builder of tennis courts; Barbara Hamman, former wife of Robert Hamman, one of the world's best players (Hamman would wonder who the other guys are); and Don Steele, the friend of Kantar's who watches the Lakers with him. There was a brief huddle among the Warners and Kantar and then all three came over to me saying guess what, I was a substitute guest celebrity. The make-up man started putting brown stuff on my face, a technician clipped a small microphone to my collar, I said a few words for audio control and..."Welcome to Master Bridge...."

The interview was easy. Eddie asked me about commuter-train bridge and I told the great outside world about those weird but exciting games on the Long Island Rail Road in which the cards are dealt in sixes and sevens, no shuffling, so that the hands are wild and slams are frequent. Then the four of us went over to the table for our hand.

What Kantar had devised was a defensive problem for Gene Mako, an excellent player. Mako, it was hoped, would find the right line of play to destroy what seemed like an ironclad contract for the hapless declarer. I was the declarer.

To give you the same problem Mako had, only the dummy (Barbara Hamman) and Mako's hand are shown at first:

NORTH
(Hamman)

[10 of Spades]
[4 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[King of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[8 of Diamonds]
[3 of Diamonds]
[Ace of Clubs]
[King of Clubs]
[Queen of Clubs]
[4 of Clubs]

EAST
(Mako)

[King of Spades]
[Jack of Spades]
[9 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[2 of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[7 of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]
[7 of Clubs]
[6 of Clubs]
[5 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]

SOUTH
3 [Heart]

WEST
PASS

NORTH
4 [Heart]

EAST
ALL PASS

I, South, preempted three hearts and Barbara took me to four. Don Steele led the queen of diamonds and Mako won the trick with the ace. Now what?

As Kantar explained it later, this should have been Gene's line of reasoning: to open three hearts, I surely held seven of them and Barbara's heart holding surely must make the suit solid. I also must have the king of diamonds or Don would have led it. And with dummy's three top clubs staring him in the face, Mako knew I must have 11 quick tricks as soon as I could get the lead. Obviously the only chance Mako and Steele have to set the contract lies in grabbing three quick spade tricks.

And what does South (me) have in spades? Well, if he holds the ace, there's no hope at all, so you must presume the ace is with West. There is also no hope if I hold only two spades, so in order for the hand to be set, South must have at least three spades minus the ace. But what about the queen? If West has the queen as well as the ace, any spade lead by Mako will do, since defense has the top four. But if South (still me) has three spades to the queen, the lead of only one card will set the hand. You must lead the jack. Here is the full hand:

NORTH
(Hamman)

[10 of Spades]
[4 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[King of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[8 of Diamonds]
[3 of Diamonds]
[Ace of Clubs]
[King of Clubs]
[Queen of Clubs]
[4 of Clubs]

WEST
(Steele)

[Ace of Spades]
[8 of Spades]
[7 of Spades]
[7 of Hearts]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[10 of Diamonds]
[9 of Diamonds]
[5 of Diamonds]
[Jack of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]
[9 of Clubs]
[3 of Clubs]

SOUTH
(Bingham)

[Queen of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[5 of Spades]
[Queen of Hearts]
[Jack of Hearts]
[10 of Hearts]
[9 of Hearts]
[8 of Hearts]
[4 of Hearts]
[3 of Hearts]
[King of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]
[8 of Clubs]

EAST
(Mako)

[King of Spades]
[Jack of Spades]
[9 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[2 of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[7 of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]
[7 of Clubs]
[6 of Clubs]
[5 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]

What can I do? If I cover, Don takes the trick with his ace and returns the suit through dummy's 10. Mako, holding the king-nine, makes both. If I do not cover the jack with the queen, the jack takes the trick, quickly followed by the ace and king. Either way I'm set.

Alas, Mako led the two, not the jack. No way to set the hand now because by playing low in my hand, dummy's 10 will force Steele to play his ace and now my queen is sitting behind the king and will take a trick.

But as I said, nothing in television is easy and if Mako could not set the hand, I could. Trying to recall my thought process (obviously minimal), I was hoping Mako would continue diamonds so I could grab my 11 tricks. Forget that such a hand would not offer the viewer much in the way of an education. I was playing four hearts and I didn't care how I made the hand. So when I saw that Mako had led something black—and worse, a spade not a club—my mind left the table. I was aware of the heat from the lights and could almost feel the camera over my shoulder. I made the right play, low from my hand, and then saw Steele raking in the trick with the...with what? The jack, I thought. Almost assuredly the jack.

I was a little angry with Eddie. Big deal of a hand. Brings me all the way out to California and then gives my opponents an easy hand to defend. The spade switch was so obvious.

Steele returned a spade and in that instant I devised my great plan. No one's going to set me without a struggle, I thought. So when Mako produced the king of spades, I very slowly pulled the queen from my hand and placed it carefully at the center of the table with the other three cards.

It was at that moment that I heard a noise, a sort of shout, coming from somewhere, and I now judge it came from the earplugs of one of the technicians nearby who was listening to Kantar's commentary. And with the noise I realized that something was wrong, dreadfully wrong.

I had hoped, of course, that Mako would assume I was out of spades—no one in his right mind plays a queen under a king unless he has to—and that he would switch to another suit. Mako took his time but probably only because of the television format. I watched him carefully out of the corner of my right eye. Out came a card from his hand and onto the brown cloth it went—the jack of spades. The hand had to be down one anyway, but not quite the way Kantar had expected.

The worst part of the ordeal was that I then had to continue for nine more tricks. And slowly. There was nothing left to the play, of course, but the director, who was a snippy fellow, had insisted every hand be played out to the final trick, even if all you held were trumps and the opponents had none. So there I was on public display for another three minutes, mechanically leading out all my hearts while everyone in the control room was laughing.

Actually it made an exciting show. At least that's what the Warners said. They thought a little comic relief would be welcome. They also thought there might be a demand for another series, and if so I was welcome, but don't call them, they'll call me. I'm still waiting.

ILLUSTRATIONI made the right play, low from my hand, then saw Steele take the trick with the...what?