W. Somerset Maugham
I am not at all the
proper person to write an article on bridge, for I am an indifferent player and
my chief asset as a partner is that I never have thought myself anything else.
Nor would it ever have occurred to me to embark on such an undertaking if Charles Goren hadn't asked me to write an introduction to a book on bidding that he was about to publish.
Everyone knows that Charles Goren is one of the greatest bridge players in the world, and I accepted his suggestion with alacrity. It was a great compliment he paid me, and I felt proud as a lieutenant might feel if he were bidden by his admiral to lead the flagship into battle.
But having a practical side to an otherwise idealistic nature, I told him I thought I should let him know at once what my terms were. He paled. They were that he should dine and play bridge with me. He heaved a sip of relief and accepted.
Of course I knew I should lose my money, but I was certain that the fun it would be must make whatever it cost well worth it.
I have played only half a dozen times with life masters and it is rash to generalize on such slight experience, but it has seemed to me that they are easier to play with than players of the second or third class, for you know they have a good reason for doing what they do, and when they make a bid, mean what they say.
Bridge is a much more difficult game when one has to deal with players who trust their hunches rather than their common sense and allow their wishes to warp their judgment.
My story has a happy ending. On that momentous evening, I held all the aces and kings and rose from the table the only winner.
When, then, I came to read Charles Goren's standard Book on Bidding in order to write my introduction, I felt I could never hope to remember all the rules it gave and that to try to do so would only confuse me. But presently it dawned upon me that very few of them, not more than half a dozen perhaps, are obligatory rules which must be followed as you follow those of any game − and that the rest depended on horse sense, so that if you had that and were prepared to abide by it, you need not clutter up your brain with any great number of precepts. The moral was clear: if you have a cool head, the ability to put two and two together and get the right answer, and if you will tell the exact truth about your hand, you will be a useful partner and a formidable opponent.
But having finished my pieces, I found that I had various things
to say about bridge which I had not had occasion to say.
I am going to say them now.
The first thing I want to do is to remonstrate with the people
who don't play bridge. They are apt to be hoity-toity
with those of us who do and tell us they can't understand how
presumably intelligent persons can waste their time on such an idle pastime.
That is stuff and nonsense. Everyone has a certain amount of leisure and
everyone needs distraction, and when you come to inquire of these supercilious
folk how they prefer to occupy their leisure and in what they seek their
distraction, the chances are that they will say in conversation.
The conversationalist needs an audience, and it is true that the bridge table robs him of it. No wonder he is bitter. But the fact is that few people can talk entertainingly for three or four hours at a time. It needs gifts that few of us possess, and even the most brilliant talker grows tedious if he goes on too long; and when, as he is apt to do, he monopolizes the conversation, he is intolerable.
I dare say it profits the soul more to read great literature than to play bridge, but not many of us are prepared to spend our leisure in that improving pursuit. When we can't get a game of bridge, we are more likely to take up a detective story. I have read hundreds of them myself, − but I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I am conscious of receiving more spiritual benefit from reading the latest whodunit than from playing half a dozen hard fought rubbers.
No, let the carping carp, they don't know what they miss. If I had my way, I would have children taught bridge as a matter of course, just as they are taught dancing. In the end, it will be more useful to them for you cannot with seemliness continue to dance when you are bald and pot-bellied; nor, for the matter of that, can you with satisfaction to yourself or pleasure to your partners continue to play tennis or golf when you are past middle age; but you can play bridge as long as you can sit up at a table and tell one card from another. In fact, when all else fails sport, love, ambition, bridge remains a solace and an entertainment.
But though I think everybody should learn bridge, I do not think everybody should play it. Not lessons, books, or practice will make players of those who have no card sense. These unfortunate creatures must look upon it as a defect of nature, like tone deafness or colour blindness, and resign themselves to solitaire, crossword puzzles, or what not.
Bridge is the most entertaining and intelligent card game the wit of man has so far devised, and I
deplore the fact that so many people go cut of their way to make it a bore.
There are the people who, after a hand has been played, will tell you all the thirteen cards they held. Well, you'd seen them played, so you know; but even if you didn't, why should they suppose you care ?
Then there are the people who during the deal or when you're sorting your cards start to tell you about Aunt Annie's operation or the trouble they're having with decorators in their new apartment. There is no stopping them:
"One heart," you say.
They take no notice.
"My dear, I've had three cooks in the last two weeks and not one of them could boil an egg."
"One heart," you repeat. "Well I'll tell you what happened to me," says your partner. "I got a couple. They drove up in their car, looked at the house, and didn't even come in. They just drove away, …, and I was expecting eight people to lunch on Sunday."
"One heart," you say.
"You know that Betty's got a new beau ?", the player on your right puts in.
"Oh, you mean Harry," replies the player on your left. "I've known that for months. She always has liked heels."
Just to get a little attention, you have a mind to say, "Seven no trumps," but of course it might be expensive and your partner wouldn't be sympathetic, so you meekly repeat, "One heart."
But this is nothing
compared with the post-mortem.
It is the commonest nuisance that besets the game. It is not only boring, but useless, for if you cannot see a mistake when you have made it, no argument will convince you of your error; and if you do see it, the probability is that your vanity will prevent you from acknowledging it; so the critic may just as well hold his piece and deal the next hand.
It is a very good rule, when your partner points out a mistake you have made, to agree with him promptly and when on the next hand he lets you down fourteen hundred by grossly overcalling, to tell him cheerfully not to give it another thought. Of such, you will say, is the Kingdom of Heaven, and I heartily agree.
From time to time, I have read books on bridge, profiting
by them as much as it was in my sinful
nature to do and I have been surprised that they lay no more
stress than they do on the advantage it is to you to find out
as quickly as you can something of the nature of the
persons you are playing with.
I had a friend once who held the opinion that you could tell the character of people by the way they played. I think he was generalizing, on the single instance of himself. He played a bold. generous, and dashing game, and he liked to think of himself as a dashing, generous and bold fellow. He was a picture dealer and by the proper exercise of qualities on which he prided himself, succeeded for many years in selling many second-rate old masters to the rich at fantastic prices.
Well, I sdon't know whether there was truth in this notion but I'm pretty sure it is a distinct help if you can guess the peculiarities of your partners and opponents with accuracy. There is the diffident player who consistently undercalls, the aggressive player who as consistently overcalls; there is the cautious player who follows the rule when it is obvious that the ride doesn't apply; there is the sly player who thinks you are such a fool he can fox you every time. All these you can size up pretty quickly and deal with according to their idiosyncrasies.
But there is one player whom I have never learned how to cope with and that is the player who never stops to consider that you also hold thirteen cards; he will ignore your bids, he will pay no attention to your warnings, come hell or high water he will take command of the hand and when he has been doubled and gone down several tricks, he'll ascribe it to nothing but bad luck. You are fortunate if he doesn't smile blandly and say, "Well, I think it was worth it, partner." I am still looking for the book that will show me how to deal with him. Shooting is too quick and too painless, and besides, there might not be another fourth available.
As I look now at what I have written, it seems to me that the essentials for playing a good game of bridge are to be truthful, clearheaded, and considerate, prudent but not, averse to taking a risk, and not to cry over spilt milk. And incidentally those are perhaps also the essentials for playing the more important game of life.