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Tales from the Past, Part 2: Double Bay
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A few years ago, while attending some event or other, I was approached by Ron Klinger.

RDK: Is it true that you once conceded one off in a doubled game, and when the opponents disputed this, you were awarded an overtrick?

AW: Not quite. I was awarded a doubled overtrick and 100 honours

RDK: [raised eyebrow] And how did you manage that?

 

Now, you may reasonably conclude that, as honours are involved, the setting was a rubber bridge game. And, as for how did I manage it... well, there's a  Damon Runyon story titled, "A Story Goes With It".

First, we need to know a little about the Double Bay Bridge Centre...

The rubber bridge game in Sydney's Double Bay Bridge Centre was booming for many years. When I started there in the late 1970s, the cut-in filled the club on week days, while cut-around in fixed-fours on the weekends was so popular that if one didn't call by midday to reserve a seat, one missed out.

Players were mostly of two kinds: Professionals/hustlers of varying grades, and Eastern Europeans who had come to Australia after the war. The clever management (Andrew Markovics and Hubert Sloman) found a way to arrange matters such that there was often just one pro per table. This was a licence to print money. I remember a long interval where I averaged $90/day, and that was serious money back then. After the game, with a pocket full of money, I got up a great deal of mischief of all kinds.

 

A strange fact is that, in the late 70s and early 80s, there were two Double Bay Bridge Clubs in Double Bay. One was the rubber bridge club in Cross St, and one was an illegal casino on New South Head Rd, up some stairs next to the Golden Sheaf Hotel.

It wasn't so easy to get access to the illegal casino; one needed an introduction. But a dealer there, Norman, was a regular at the rubber club, and one day he took me to the casino and introduced me to the bouncers at the top of the stairs, and from then on I had access. But, no introduction, no entry.

 

Another regular at the rubber bridge club was a mid-thirties Polish player. Let's call him "P". It came to pass that he wanted to chat to Norman, who was at work at the casino. P went up the stairs and spoke to the bouncers.

P: Good evening, boys! Hello, hello! How you are? I come to see my good friend Norman

B1: Get lost

P: You no understand! It is my friend Norman I come to see! I see him now, thank you!

B2: Get lost

P: Boys! You no listen me! I see my good friend Norman! Now!

B3: Get lost

P: [now angry] Boys! Is vun more vord you are saying, is ambulance you are calling!

And in this, P was quite right. More words were said, and an ambulance was called.

 

Nonetheless, P was a strong bridge player. One day, as the games were winding-up, we had the following conversation:

AW: How did you go today, P?

P: Yarborough, Yarborough, Yarborough, is all day long Yarborough up I am picking!

AW: That's no good. How much did you lose?

P: [outraged] Lose? Lose? I vin 140 point [$280]

AW: That's pretty good for a guy who picks up Yarboroughs all day long

P: Ha! Is easy vin vis Yarborough, ven you are so good I am!

Now, my habit was to arrive at the club early and have a coffee and read a book while waiting for a game. But I was seldom early enough to arrive before K, who would sit alone and move from table to table, a few minutes at each one. He was a reasonable player, but not top-class.

One day, before the crowd had arrived, in walked two men I had not seen before. They looked to be brothers, and I guessed them to be Eastern European.

Man: Hey, kid! You play bridge?

AW: Yes

Other man: For money?

AW: Yes

Man: Well, find a partner. We want a match game [fixed partnerships all day long], $5. Start right away

AW: [pauses... how good are these guys?]

K: [loud shout from the back of the room] I'll play! I'll play!

AW: You're on. Where do you want to sit?

And so the game started.

 

The reason for K's enthusiasm soon became apparent, for, while each opponent was courteous to K and me, they plainly were playing with one aim: to establish that their brother was the worst player in the world.

I must confess, that matter caused me to ponder at length, for there were times when I thought that one was the worst in the world, times when I thought the other held that title, and times when I thought it was a dead-heat. And after every hand, while the cards were being dealt, they would argue as to who was the fool behind a large plus-score going my way.

At the end of the day, out came their wallets, and each paid K and me a LARGE amount of money. I don't know what K did with all the money, but that night I got up to more mischief than usual.

 

I got to know the two guys, and they were very decent people indeed. Regrettably, one died from a heart attack not long after the match game, but the other played on and off at the club, and one day I cut him and had the following hand:

 

South
xxxx
xxxx
xxxxx
W
N
E
S
2NT
P
4
P
5NT
P
7
P
P
?

Partner considered his next action at great length. He studied his shoes, the ceiling, the walls and frowned at his cards. Eventually, he doubled 7. Each opponent passed very slowly.

Declarer won the lead, cashed a top trump and conceded one down in a fury. It turned out my partner had nothing at all apart from J1098. They were cold for 7NT.

AW: You doubled 7. Why?

Partner: Well, I know it took me a while, but I worked out they couldn't make it

I mentioned K's habit of arriving early and moving from table to table. What was that all about?

Well, K had a remarkable skill. When cutting into a table, he would always cut last. He would play with the strongest player about 2/3rds of the time, and play with the weakest player almost never. Quite an edge.

So how did he manage that? Well, he would arrive at the club early, and do two things:

- memorise the pattern of wear-marks and imperfections on the backs of each card

- mark the backs of aces and twos with his thumbnail

 

K had other skills. One day, after he had done the rounds of each table, he sat with me.

K: Can you play draw poker?

AW: Well, I know how to play, but I have no skill at it

K: I'll tell you a story... [shuffles a pack of cards, cuts it and deals some sets of five cards]

K: One day, I was in a poker game, and...

 

K proceeded to describe poker hands and then turn over a set of cards. Each set of five cards had the hand he had just described.

I felt quite uneasy about this, but he assured me he never did any of that stuff at the table and, indeed, I never saw any evidence of it.

One notable character at the club was C, a Hungarian. I would say that C had the ethics of a tapeworm, but the Honourable League of Tapeworms would be rightly annoyed at this defamatory comment. C was a true craftsman of the Dark Arts, and I learnt a lot by observing him. He was a master of the hesitation; as defender, there was the slightest of pauses, not enough for anyone to be able to complain, but just enough to lead declarer astray or to let partner know what the layout was. Truly impeccable timing!

One day C's partner dealt, glanced at his cards, passed, and proceeded to take an interest in matters around the room. C knew what that was all about and opened 1NT with his flat 19-count. Seven tricks.

C's ethics-free approach was not confined to bridge. High-stake backgammon matches were common at the club, and he fancied his chances. One day C arrived just as Paul Lavings was setting up to play an afternoon-long backgammon match. C felt like a piece of the action.

 

C: How much are you playing for?

PL: $10 a point

C: Would you like a side-bet?

PL: Sure, how much?

C: $2

PL: You're on

[C heads off to play cut-in rubber, PL plays backgammon all afternoon]

PL: [approaches C at the end of the day] I won 47 points

C: [hands PL $2]

That enterprising response got C a 3-month ban from the club.

 

One day, C was playing in a low-key one-day teams event. Matches were of 8 boards and, regrettably, C found himself significantly behind in a match against two elderly Eastern Europeans of very modest bridge ability. They placed the second-last board on the table, and C contemplated the fact that he needed IMPS badly. What to do?

The cavalry arrived in the form of an old man; a friend of C's opponents.

 

Old man: Abe! Ruth! How iss Minnie?

LHO [shakes head sadly]: Ah, Minnie... she is sick, so sick. You know she vass in Auschwitz. She suffer so badly...

RHO [shakes head sadly]: She never recover from ze war

C: [shakes head sadly]: Ah, ze war, ze war...

[sad faces all round]

C: You know, my father, he vass badly hurt in ze war

Old man: Oh! Vat happen to heem?

C: He fell out of ze guard tower

 

C won the match.

There were some strong players at the club. One shrewd expert had the following adventure:

He opened 1NT and his partner raised to 3NT. This was doubled by a youngish "earnest toiler". At the club, this asked for a spade lead.

Now, Mr Expert had KJx. Quite clearly, RHO had a side-entry and AQ109x(...) and was betting on a spade honor being in dummy or his partner's hand. Knowing about the double-stopper, Mr Expert redoubled, for partner might have raised on a long, chunky minor and had the right to run from 3NT.

So 3NTXX became the final contract.

LHO led an obedient spade. RHO won his bare ace and cashed eight clubs.

Backgammon certainly played a part of life at the club. There were some excellent players; one regular drove a Rolls Royce with the number plate, "BG".

An occasional backgammon player was "Dr". One day, in 1978, he played a match against a friend of mine, Peter Rogers.

It came to pass that Dr had a five-point board; only the one-point was open. Dr rolled well and put Peter on the bar.

Peter shook the dice cup vigorously and.... rolled a 6-1! On and out!

Much cursing and complaining from Dr. Then.... Dr rolled well and put Peter on the bar.

Peter shook the dice cup vigorously and.... rolled a 6-1! On and out!

Dr lept up, ran to a wall and proceeded to bang his head on said wall, while wailing bitter complaints to the backgammon gods. Then... Dr rolled well and put Peter on the bar.

Peter shook the dice cup vigorously and.... Dr interrupted.

Dr: [wags a finger under Peter's nose] One more 6-1 and there's trouble!

Peter shook the dice cup vigorously and... backgammon gods being a perverse lot, I don't have to tell you what came out of the cup.

Dr let out a shriek, snatched up the dice and swallowed them. He then ran out of the club, down the stairs and into Knox Lane. People stuck their heads out of the windows and watched Dr sprint off down the laneway, screaming all the way.

 

Later that week I was having a drink with the magnificent Don Evans; on a good day Don was in the Seres class as a cardplayer. His bidding... well, that was another matter. I mentioned Peter's now-famous triple 6-1 coup.

Don: Of course, you know that Dr was followed around for two days to see what he rolled...

Backgammon did not provide the only stories about Dr... the bridge table supplied plenty more.

One Wednesday, around mid-2005, I was playing in the cut-game. I recall it vividly... Michael Courtney was on my left, I was playing with Tim Seres and Dr was on my right. I had my back to the Bay St windows and Dr's phone rang.

 

Dr: Hello.... yes... yes, she's a patient of mine

Phone: ...

Dr: She what? Jesus Christ! I told her! I told her! She knew! Wednesday is my day off! I told her! Bloody hell! How could she do this?

Phone: ...

Dr. No! No, I can't come in to the hospital! I just told you! Wednesday is my day off!

Phone: ....

Dr: No, I won't! I'll come in tomorrow. How could she do this? I told her! Wednesday is my day off!

Phone: ...

Dr: No! No! Now, look, I have to go. This is my day off. I'll see you tomorrow. Bye

Dr: [puts phone away] Bloody woman! Suiciding on my day off... I told her! Wednesday is my day off!

 

There was complete silence from the other parties at the table. I reflected that it would probably be the only time in all of history that Courtney and I could simultaneously think of nothing to say.

There were some practices at the club that would be frowned-upon in the duplicate world; one was, the frequent momentary exchanging of hands by dummy and declarer after the auction, so dummy could get a peek at the action.

One day:

Dummy: [looks at declarer's hand] If you make this, you can sleep with my wife

Declarer: [takes back his cards and throws them face-up on the table] One off

 

Another day, in 1978, I was playing with a strong player against two reasonable old Hungarians.

SP and I bid to 6 and I was dummy. My hearts were Axxx. We exchanged hands. SP's hearts were K108xx, and we had a side-loser. I stood up and said, "I'm off to the loo." I looked at my LHO's cards and saw Q9x. I said, "I'll be back in a minute."

I headed off, knowing that normal play would bring the slam home. When I got back, the slam was one down. I said nothing, the rubber ended after a few more hands and I cut in at another table. The rubbers went by and my game was the last to finish. I chatted to club manager Andrew Markovics for a bit, and left the club. I went out the door and turned left towards the staircase... and was grabbed from behind and slammed chest-first into the wall.

A voice hissed in my ear: If the book play works, you say, "I'll be back in a second!"

In contrast to C, one of the true gentlemen at the club was the late Dr Z, one of the most genial and patient people I have ever met.

Z liked playing night games of fixed-four (cut-around for partners), and his games were popular, for the stakes were high and that Z would lose was a near-certainty. Z was not a good player. He never argued, never said an unkind word, was always forgiving, and was a truly awful player.

One evening I kibitzed a night game, sitting in between Tim Seres and Z. Seres, South, was playing 1NT and this was the diamond suit that I could see:

        Dummy

        AJ109

Z

Qxx

        Seres

        xxxx

Seres won the opening lead and started on diamonds: low, low, jack, king. Z was pleased with this, for his side had won a trick against the great Tim Seres!

Seres regained the lead played another diamond. Z pulled out his diamonds in turn and considered the merit of each at length. After a while, he decided that low was best, and Seres played dummy's 10. Z leaned forward in hope, but was disappointed to see that his partner could not win the trick. Rats!

Now came the diamond ace... show out... low... and Z knew he was in trouble. He looked on both sides of the Q, but no help was forthcoming. He checked the heart suit carefully, but no luck. Looking sad, he leafed through the black cards, but it just wasn't his day. He just didn't have any small diamonds. With a sigh, he contributed the queen.

Z: [shaking his head] Ah, it's a pleasure to see The Master at work!

 

One day in the mid-90s, while waiting for the game to start, Seres told me about Z's regular Friday night fixed-four cut-around rubber game in the early 1960s.

Z would leave his surgery, have dinner in Double Bay and come to the club at 19:30. After the other three players had arrived, Z would open his briefcase, pull out bundles of envelopes and open them. Each envelope had a £5 note*. The other players would each be given a large pile of these £5 notes. The game would start and, invariably, Z's losses would mount.

Around 22:30, a grim-faced kibitzer would come stomping in - Mrs Z. There were quite a few things that Mrs Z did not like in this life, and frivolity and waste were two of them. She watched the last hour carefully, disapproving of the general happiness and waiting to see how Z fared against those evil hustlers.

When it came time to settle-up, at last she had a smile on her face, for, one by one, the other players would hand over heaps of cash, each ruing their foolishness in taking on the great Z.

Seres: Z, you've got me again! I hope you can play next week, I want the chance to get my money back!

Mrs Z: [happy, adoring look] Oh, Z, you're so clever!

 

The next week, Z would arrive, they would do a proper settle-up for the previous week, Z would go to his briefcase and pull out piles of envelopes...

 

So why the envelopes? Why did each of them contain a £5 note?

Z was a medical specialist in an area that got him into a lot of trouble. He charged £5, unless the person concerned was disadvantaged in some way, then Z's services were free.

At times Z into ran problems, and quite real ones, with the police and other authorities. Z never flinched and never backed-down.

 

============================================

* Australia changed to decimal currency in February, 1966.

One regular at the club was N - a very strong card-player. N had a teenage son; let's call him sN.

One day, sN had some good fortune: He checked his bank account and found that some kind person had put a large amount of money there! sN's balance had gone from very little to a lot! What luck!

sN celebrated this happy event by partying with his friends, bigly, and then some. Much fun was had! Unfortunately, the good times came to an abrupt halt, when, following a knock on the door, sN was invited to assist with certain enquiries.

This matter made the newspapers; sN was in trouble.

 

N came to the club, quite distraught. Many players stepped up to commiserate.

 

Person 1: N, I'm awfully sorry to hear the bad news. If there's anything I can do...

N: [looking miserable] My own son! How could he do this! 

Person 2: Look, it's going to blow over. Things will work out...

N: [looking even more miserable] How he do this? How could have he have been so stupid? Why didn't he come and see his father?

Person 3: He's a young man. It's not the end of the world. We'll help you sort things out. Now, if you need a hand...

N: [a look of intense misery] This is terrible! It's a disaster! Why didn't he come and talk to me?

Person 4: It'll be ok. Nothing bad is going to happen...

N: [unable to cope, bursts into tears] Waah! Waah! Why didn't he come and see his father? Why didn't he come and talk to me? I could have got all the money out safely! Waah! Waah!

One of the most feared rubber bridge players was Olek Minc [1923-2007].

Olek was Polish and the survivor of six concentration camps during WW2. He had the numbers on his wrist, so he had been a worker in Auschwitz. His 3-hour interview with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute can be found here:

https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/vha2365

 

Olek was one of the many Eastern European refugees who came to Sydney after the war and prospered after much diligence and hard work. I liked Olek and used to go to visit him at his retail outlet, Way Textiles, on Parramatta Rd near Norton St. We would adjourn to a nearby coffee shop and talk about politics, economics, history, art, science, literature and so on. Olek was knowledgeable and lots of fun, away from the bridge table

Olek's bridge was eccentric, and that's being reserved. In BW article of some years ago I recounted two Olek stories:

 

1. Olek and his partner were well-known for their loud criticisms of each other, held in the corridor outside the playing area of the state Bridge Association. One day the following shouting-match was heard:

Olek: Idiot! How could you go down in 4?

Partner: What are you talking about? It cannot be made!

Olek: You fool! My grandmother would make 4, easy.

Partner: Rubbish! You tell me how I could make it!

Olek: What was your hand?

 

2. Olek was playing for decent stakes in a rubber game. His opponents ended in a suit slam and Olek was confident that they each had some heart length. This suited Olek, for he had AKQJx and was on lead. Olek doubled and, for a joke, lead his fourth-highest heart.

The first trick went as follows:

Olek: J

Dummy: low

Partner: trump

Declarer: claim

 

Olek was furious; he maintained that the layout was surely obvious and his partner had no business ruffing.

 

Now, when I said that Olek was a feared rubber bridge player, I meant it. Cutting Olek was a terrifying experience.

One day I was returning to my rubber table and happened to glance at a hand at another table... "Goodness me, a 7-6!" I thought to myself. Then I saw that the player was Olek, who had the habit of sorting his cards all-red, all-black. Now, that might have worked well in Olek's younger days, but in my time that policy was beyond disastrous.

Olek would deal and open 4. Did he have 8-solid? Or was he 4-4 in the blacks?

Waiting to find out was a time of stomach-churning, sphincter-clamping terror.

One day, around 1981, I had a bizarre hand with Olek. I was in fourth seat.

Avon
K10x
Jxxxxxx
AQx
W
N
E
S
1
2
3
?

The first thing I did was check the backs of everyone's cards. All blue.

Now, my diamond length and their bids made it impossible for Olek to have a bundle of diamonds in his hearts, so, even though he was a hand-hog and an overbidder, he had to have something resembling his bid. Or so I hoped.

I bid 6 and redoubled when the opener doubled. Olek was visibly agitated with the jump to slam and the redouble was more than he could bear. He leapt out of his seat.

Olek: [anguished cry] All time I come here, all time they laugh at me! No more I come here! No more they laugh at me!

Olek began a slow jog around and around the table. "No more I come here! No more they laugh at me!"

At that moment, I remembered, too late, a conversation I had had a few weeks earlier with Tim Seres, while waiting for the game to start. We were chatting about this and that, when...

Seres: You know, I don't know the reason, but whenever Olek has a void, he goes completely nuts. He just explodes into action with nothing at all.

 

Yuck. So how bad was this going to be?

I took a look at Olek's hand.

Avon
K10x
Jxxxxxx
AQx
Olek
Qxxxx
AKQ10x
xxx
W
N
E
S
1
2
3
6
X
P
P
XX
P
P
P

 

Tim was right, he had nothing like a vulnerable strong-jump overcall. I guess the void and the 100 honours sent him over the edge. Now, I thought, most likely the doubler had both black aces and 6 was on the spade guess.

 

Olek was still running around and around the table, wailing away... but luckily I had a kibitzer; P, the Polish player mentioned earlier. P set off after Olek, in a similar slow jog.

 

P: Olek, pliss, you sit! Pliss, you sit and you play this hand, Olek!

Olek: No more I come here! No more they laugh at me!

P: Olek, you play this hand, pliss! This boy, he very nice boy, and you play this slam now!

Olek [more wailing]

P then stopped, turned around and waited for Olek. When Olek came into range, P grabbed him in a bear-hug and lifted him up in the air.

P: Olek, you listen me! This boy, he very nice! Listen me! Just play this slam he bid, Olek, you play now, pliss!

 

Well, from this, Olek worked out that things couldn't be too bad, so he sat down. Olek had won Australian Nationals and played for Australia, so the play took about 10 seconds... he got rid of the minors and their trump, and played a spade to the king for an endplay and contract.

 

Of course, Olek was never going to get the spades wrong. Not after all that running around and around the table...

One strong player at the club was Béla Berger. But, he had a stronger skill: Chessplaying

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B%C3%A9la_Berger

 

In 1977, three young players came from Perth to Sydney to try their luck at rubber bridge. I stayed in Perth to try my luck at two other pursuits: drinking lots of beer and chasing girls. In one of those, I was very successful.

These young guys were also chess players. They each challenged Béla to a chess match for money.

Player 1 lost the first game, announced that Béla was way too good, paid up and went to play the cut-in.

Player 2 played all afternoon, never won a game, announced that Béla was way too good, paid up and went home.

Player 3 played all week, never won a game, paid up and grumbled about Béla's luck.

 

One day, I think in 2002, Béla was invited to play an exhibition chess match over five weekday lunchtimes, one game per day, to be held in Sydney's Martin Place and played with man-sized pieces. Béla's opponent was the State Under-12 champion. Béla had not played a serious game of chess for over a decade. My wife, who can play neither bridge nor chess, was interested in this match.

Mrs AW: Honey, what do you think the result will be?

AW: 5-nil

Mrs AW: Yes, yes, of course, honey, but which way?

AW: [sigh] Béla learnt chess via education and training in the Soviet chess schools. Unless the kid is an incredible prodigy, he has no chance. Béla could give him a pawn start and still crush him.

And so it went.

 

Béla was was certainly no fool. I played with him in an Australian National, and we made the knockout stage. We played a pair of whom I had genuine reservations. I was by no means alone in this view.

A segment was of 16 boards and it was quite apparent that our opponent's "Natural" system had quite a few complex follow-ups. Regardless, there was never an alert. They were silent until the last board.

My LHO opened 1NT, his partner bid 2C, and a long auction ended in 3NT.

Béla touched a card with his thumb and forefinger when....

Declarer: Wait! Wait! Before you lead, there is something you need to know! I have denied a four-card spade-suit and my partner has denied a spade stopper!

Béla put back the spade he was about to lead, and led a heart instead.

Their majors:

AKJ xx

Qx Kx

Now, one day in 1980 I called in for a Saturday afternoon game: $2/100, fixed four, cut-around. Andrew Markovics had arranged a nice game; three elderly Hungarians; they could draw trumps and take finesses, but they certainly weren't strong. Money for jam. I was looking forward to the evening's fun!

Except... this day was not going well. The cards ran the opponents' way, my partners were hogging the hands and making a mess of them, and everyone was critical of my actions... I was getting irritable and I was losing.

 

Then this hand came along; my partner, North, dealt and didn't have much:

North
xxxx
x
Jxxxx
xxx
W
N
E
S
P
1
4
X
P
P
P

I got a glare when the bidding finished, and partner wanted to exchange hands so he could see how bad this would be. I shook my head and clutched my cards.

The opening lead was the ace of spades. With an angry scowl, partner slapped down his rubbish, folded his arms and resumed the glaring.

Well, some backgammon customs had invaded the rubber game; it was permissible to ask for a settlement.

 

AW: [looking worried] Take one off?

LHO: Ha! No, no, my boy! You must play!

RHO: Ve do not take any vun off, my boy! Ve vant you to play! Ha, ha!

Partner: Ve are vulnerable! Vy you take zees risks? Vat is wrong viss you?

AW: [looks miserable, partner angry, opponents delighted]

West
AKxxx
xxx
x
J10xx
North
xxxx
x
Jxxxx
xxx
East
QJxx
xxx
xxx
AKQ
South
AKQJxx
AKQx
xxx
W
N
E
S
P
1
4
X
P
P
P
D
4X South
NS: 0 EW: 0

 

AW: [tables cards] Ok, ruffing, drawing trumps, making five, hundred honours

This caused some commotion.

 

LHO: Andrew [Markovics, manager], Andrew, pliss, you come. Pliss, you come now!

Andrew: What's the problem, boys?

LHO: This boy, ve double heem, and first he geev us vun off, and now he vant it beck!

RHO: [anguished cry] Vers! He vant honours and offer-trick! Doubled!

Andrew: [ascertains the facts] You could have accepted the one off, but you refused it. Play proceeds and now the young man has claimed. I think the claim is good, so it is indeed 4 hearts, doubled, with an overtrick and 100 honours.

 

From then on, they stopped arguing with me and began to raise my bids. At the end of the day, I was the only winner.

Much mischief that night!

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