Bridge Player 1968-1973 London leave career
humor thinking
Terence Reese anecdote Stumping Hoffman
Generalizing "8 ever 9 never"

I leave America

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.

I start my career

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!

Cruel humor

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!"

On thinking

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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