Last night my wife and I played bridge with a couple of old Romanian friends. It was a fun and relaxed game, sprinkled with talk of their recent travels, old jokes, good wine, snacks and brownies. We played a small slam and went down one. They attempted a small slam, I doubled, and they went down two. Nobody lost, nobody won.
The week before we had dinner and then played bridge with an American couple, new friends, who play for the fun of the game and didn’t even want to keep score. It was another nice evening.
We rarely play bridge these days. The game was more popular in the sixties and seventies, when we were young, and then, slowly, it went out of fashion. Today, few young people show an interest in it. Often, if at all, they play on line or in clubs. The game didn’t lose its luster, and the passionate and serious bridge players continue to hone their skills and invent new bidding conventions, but it isn’t as much of a social pastime as it was when everyone played with friends, during the lunch hour at work, on the beach in the summer and on leisurely afternoons.
I remember countless evenings in my childhood home in Bucharest, in the sixties, when my parents got together with friends for a game of bridge. It was always a festive affair. My grandparents participated as well (we were a three generation family sharing one apartment). While still in school, I would sit behind one of the players and kibitz, fascinated. I don’t remember when I learned the game, but by the time I entered college I was playing routinely. My then girlfriend — my wife now — had learned to play bridge with my family. She was shy in the beginning, and more assertive and skillful as time went by. “True love is playing bridge with your husband”, she’d remind me during vehement disputes over the accuracy of bid or a mistake made playing a hand.
My father was always an intimidating figure. He was big, and loud, and handsome, and argumentative, and his style had a higher dose of romanticism and risk taking than the rules of the game presupposed. But he won and lost as much as everyone else, and he had more fun than anybody. This was in the glorious days of aggressive scorekeeping with the Pirates soring system that favored the daring, all about bidding slams and then making them; and all about preemptive bidding. The person who played the hand was rewarded points not just for winning the game, but for the hand he or she had, like five points for having all four aces when playing ‘no trump,’ or having all honors in the suit that was chosen.
I remember Bogosov, an older gentleman, who, my parents said, used to play bridge for money before the war at the Jokey Club in Kishinev, the town in Moldova where my parents were from. He was always spiffy, in a jacket and bowtie, and he wore a monocle. His game was precise and his demeanor controlled, exactly the opposite of my father’s. He lectured my father at the end of each game, patiently, passionately. My father rebelled; he was unrepentant. My father was a doctor, and Bogosov was his older friend and his patient. Bogosov had spent time in jail after the communists came to power, and had health issues. At the time of the bridge games in our house, my father always held the upper hand in that doctor-patient relationship.
Bogosov was married to a former actress, an older but still beautiful woman, who smoked thin cigarettes from a long silver cigarette holder, and sipped tea with my grandmother. She was a distant relative of my grandfather’s, who was also a bridge lover. My grandfather, already in his late seventies and early eighties, was hard of hearing. Hearing aids were not available yet, or at least not heard of — excuse the pun –in Romania. Consequently, bidding was always somewhat of a guessing game to my grandfather, who still had a good head on his shoulders. My parents made flash cards for him: one spade, two diamonds, three ‘no trump,’ etc.
Other people who came to the house were Nenea (uncle) Vlad, an economist with a long narrow nose and a sharp sense of humor, Tante Mimmi, a platinum blonde in her early forties who, before shuffling, always made a good luck sign over the cards with her ring covered fingers and bright red fingernails, and Dr. Nitulescu, who worked with my mother, had a pleasant round face and curly black hair, spoke very fast and was nicknamed Doctorie (Medication). Other friends and neighbors showed up, some noisy and gregarious, others timid, but everybody bowed to the God of cards, and for a few happy hours forgot about the world outside and all the worries of their daily lives.
My grandmother would show up with her arms loaded with trays of little cheese and Tarama open sandwiches, smoked fish, dry salamis, olives, fruits and desserts. People drank wine from beautiful Bavaria crystal glasses, myself included. Everybody smoked (I didn’t), and towards the end of the long summer nights, blue clouds billowed out of the room through the open door to the balcony and into the fresh air.
Maybe in other homes or clubs bidding was more sophisticated, but in my house we kept close to the basics, essentially using a simplified version of what today is called Standard American. There was no Stayman, or Precision Club, but since slams were so much fun, we utilized Blackwood. I once wrote about playing bridge in a short story, in which I described the imaginary passing of my paternal grandmother. “No trump!” she always bids in my story — the strongest of bids, and to this day a most desirable outcome.
And we were happy. Those were the simple times when bridge mimicked life to perfection. Just like today, when anything that happens to you has already occurred on the Seinfeld show, at that time most life events could be reduced to a corresponding bridge situation, and all of us could take solace from applying the wisdom of the game in our day-to-day struggle. People say the game has billions of possible combinations and it is more complex than chess by an order of magnitude. And so were our lives.
Time went by. Bogosov died. Nenea Vlad moved away, Mimmi’s husband committed suicide. New bridge players started coming to the house, but to a large degree I lost interest. In college I continued playing, and later on at clubs in Israel and even in Greece (where I spent five months in a refugee camp), and occasionally in the US, with my wife, friends and family.
The bridge evenings with my parents, who joined us in the States, became opportunities to remember the past rather than compete and acquire new game skills.
Yet I cannot forget one evening. We were in a rented summerhouse in the Outer Banks, in North Carolina. A special friend of ours, an artist, a great painter, was there with us. We put the children to bed, and started a game. Our friend said he didn’t want to play, but would be happy kibitzing. At the end of each game he competently pointed out our mistakes while downing large quantities of white wine from a Gallo bottle. You should have bid ‘no trump,’ he kept suggesting. When my mother had to leave the table, we insisted he take her place for one hand, but it turned out he had no idea of how to play the game, and his smart kibitzing was fake, based on his boundless imagination. The joke was on us.
And such it is! Bridge imitates life where nobody has the perfect play, and we all strive to do the best we can with the cards we’re holding.
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