The first reason to go to London, in April 1968, was graduate study. That would be in
mathematics. The first reason to stay was the draft. It was the Vietnam War and I was in an
evasive frame of mind. I managed to stay on student papers by virtue of taking violin lessons after
my enthusiasm for mathematics waned.
But a student visa won't let you work. I arrived in England with $3000 and obtained a windfall
inheritance of a similar amount. I had had a keen interest in the card game of bridge between the
ages of 16 and 20, and I have continued to play tournament bridge occasionally ever since. The
English are fond of gambling, and London included at that time at least half a dozen clubs where
bridge was played for money. At half these the stakes were sufficient to earn a living. At the age
of 23 I thought I played a pretty fair game and probably I did, but still it took a year or two of
time (during which I learned nothing that I was aware of) at the rubber bridge player before I was
able to make a profit.
The timing was ok. Just about the same time that my money would have run out I jacked up my
bridge stakes and it started to pay off. I could net £100-£300 per month. My rent was £10 a
week. Dinner cost me £5 if I ate at the club, which was therefore quite expensive and
unnecessary, but even so I often did because it was convenient. Besides, the food was good,
thanks to the Australian hippie who took his profession as chef very seriously, even to the extent
of throwing chef-like temper tantrums when he thought it would enhance the ambience. Another
attraction was the waitresses, some of whom I got to know well, others I was too shy to ask.
Anyway, I figure by eating at the club dinner counted as expenses, just like table fees. I made
enough money, but it's very hard to live within your means when you never know, in advance,
what your means will be each month. There is a theory of money management for such situations
and I applied it as best I could, but always worried about money.
I remember a time when I consciously thought: "Probably I will never fly on an airplane again in
my life." But a year or so later I took a month vacation in Mexico, and the next year, South
Africa. I came back broke of course. Under those circumstances when you return to action at the
club it's very important to start winning immediately!
I made a few friends at the bridge clubs who are people that I still see. For example, Munir later
came to play on the Pakistani national team, and when the World Championships were held in
Seattle I went up to visit. The Pakistanis had one big-time star, a fellow named Zia who had also
sometimes been my opponent in those London days. I went to Zia and I asked, "So Munir must
have improved since the days he and I used to play. I guess he doesn't bid those crazy slams any
more." whereupon Zia of course said, "Are you kidding? He's gotten worse!"
It's not surprising that the best bridge players have very sharp
minds, though usually untrained ones. A most extreme example is Martin Hoffman. When I first met him, in the
fall of 1968, I assumed he was a mathematics professor, judging from
the speed, accuracy, and certainty of his play and analysis combined
with a slightly rumpled suit and friendly but jittery manner. "I used
to be a diamond cutter but I can't work any more," he explained "It's
my nerves. I'm on disability."
Once I showed him a hand that had taken me two days to figure out. It took Martin four seconds,
which was the longest I ever saw him think. I never asked Martin how far he got in school but I
know he was orphaned in the concentration camps and was 14 when he was released at the end
of the war. So it wasn't much. He lives in the United States now and is fully respected by the best
players for his card play, though his reputation is not so good at the bidding.
I have tried to learn from Martin. Of course you can't become brilliant simply by observing
brilliance. Probably I will never play as fast or take as many tricks as he does. But there are a few
things that I've noticed. One is that when he plays he always envisions very specific holdings for
the opponents we lesser players sometimes make a play on "general principles" or "feel" that,
on analysis, depends for its success on someone holding 14 cards. A mistake like that doesn't
happen if you have high standards for clarity of thought.
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