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The Riddle of Nirvana: A Fable
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Bother with Boxes

Dan had signed up for the navy straight from school only to drift through a series of unengaging jobs when his stint was over. His wanderings ended on his happy discovery of a congenial haven, the bridge club where he now worked as a host. A remnant of the sense of duty instilled in his service days survived in his resolve to provide a game for every customer. Sometimes Dan could not avoid partnering one or another of the members, who, for whatever reason, had found no one else. One fateful day when Dan had paired up the usual suspects without having involved himself in the equation, a trim, elderly stranger dropped in, unheralded, shortly before the evening’s session. Novelty was adequate recompense for any lack in a visitor’s ability. Looks like I’ll be playing, after all, thought Dan.

“Name’s Jack,” said the newcomer, his handshake firm.

Dan reckoned he could always spot an officer in civilian clothing but any fool would have recognised Jack’s distinctive delivery. Retired Army. Seventy‑something but well preserved. Overdressed for a pairs session. Jack’s splendid blazer and tie underlined the sartorial failure of Dan’s trademark, rumpled pullover and signalled Jack’s place in the grand scheme of the game. Doubtless swears by the teachings of Buller, Beasley, or some such dinosaur.

“I particularly came here to try bidding boxes for the first time,” said Jack.

Dan’s eyes widened. Not totally set in his ways. The target of Jack’s sortie into Earl’s Court was less of a surprise. A revolution against spoken bidding was under way and news that the renowned Young Chelsea was in the vanguard must have reached whatever backwater Jack hailed from. Welcoming a chance to flaunt the product of assiduous practice, Dan fetched an opened box and gestured towards a card table where the two men seated themselves opposite one another. “Each player has a box, and keeps calls made from it separate from those of everyone else,” said Dan. Then in a fluid motion almost too fast for the eye to follow he swept a slim sheaf of bids from the box to lie flat on the table. As if by magic, only Dan’s chosen bid, uppermost and facing Jack, was in view. Dan moderated his tempo to show how the overlap of successive bids rightwards preserved them in correct order for return to the box. The polished performance drew murmurs of appreciation from Jack throughout, but by its end the partners‑to‑be had scant time to agree bidding methods.

Hopes low, Dan managed a small victory by coaxing Jack down to 15–17 from an antediluvian 16–18 point one no trump opening. When Jack, improbably in touch with the modern game, then proposed that the partnership use transfers Dan scarcely believed his ears. He dismissed his momentary uneasiness at a gift too great to refuse and gave his OK before Jack could reconsider. Prospects had soared.

During the session, Jack proved himself a workmanlike card player and an intelligent bidder, giving the lie to Dan’s first impression. Moreover, Jack displayed nothing of a beginner’s awkwardness in handling boxes. In contrast, Dan had lost accuracy.

The problem manifested early on when Dan held both majors in a balanced hand. After opening one no trump, he thought he had shown hearts in response to Jack’s Stayman, and concluded proceedings with four spades over Jack’s three no trumps. Only as Dan reached to pick up his bidding cards did he observe, to his embarrassment, that two diamonds was visible instead of two hearts. However, the other three at the table gave no sign they had noticed anything amiss. And as Jack’s hand, revealed in dummy, contained hearts and spades too, the misbid was fortunate to have done no harm.

More unsettling was an incident halfway through the session when Dan, responder to Jack’s one no trump opening, held five spades and game values. For an unprofessional instant, Dan must have dozed off because he jolted awake to see a pass on his right. After he slapped a hasty two heart transfer onto the table, his follow‑up of three no trumps became the contract. Both opposition players, seemingly uninterested in the auction, were quick, as was Jack, to restack their calls in their respective boxes. But Dan paused in perplexity because a two club bid lay neatly offset beneath his transfer. Where did that come from? Dan often boasted he could bid in his sleep, but his apparent sequence on the current deal made no sense. He was relieved, on tabling his dummy, to escape untoward comment, and later, on the result slip, he noted an unbroken row of no trump contracts. My bidding cards must have separated.

On the partnership’s final deal, the gremlins struck once more. Holding five hearts and invitational values facing another one no trump opening, Dan intended to bid two diamonds. To his consternation, his response elicited three swift passes, but his actual, wide‑of‑the‑mark effort was a playable contract. Thankfully, he didn’t take two no trumps as a transfer. Presumably, I imagined his alert. Dan was aware his last‑round opponents loved to ask what any alerted call meant, but they maintained a stolid silence. He stole a glance at them. They’re strangely glassy‑eyed. Watching the play, he smiled when declarer discarded on the third round of hearts. Jack and he had dodged the day’s last bullet.

“Sorry, partner,” said Dan, at the session’s end, “you’d think I was the one who’d never seen a bidding box. I was all thumbs. It was lucky not to cost us.”

Jack showed no interest in the final ranking. “I saw you had the odd spot of bother. What do you remember about those deals?”

Dan mustered up a good host’s stock‑in‑trade, an aura of confidence. “Everything.”

“When my side starts with one no trump, my partner recalls nothing of a spoken auction between the opening and the contract.”

That’s preposterous. It’s either a wind‑up or he’s delusional.

“I owe you an explanation,” said Jack, “Allow me to recount a plain tale from the Raj. I promise to be brief. And let me buy you a drink.”

Standing orders being to cultivate customers crazy or not, Dan routinely accepted alcoholic bribes. He sketched a salute. “Aye aye, sir.”

The Truth about Transfers

Primed with a single sip, Jack fired the opening salvo. “Does Nirvana, with a capital en, ring a bell?”

Comfortable on a seat beside Jack in the club bar, Dan lowered his half‑emptied glass to answer. “The band, you mean? Their album came out a few months ago.” Incongruous though the notion of Jack as a rock music devotee was, nothing else sprang to mind.

“No, the comprehensive suite of developments after a one no trump opening.”

Dan fancied his knowledge of bridge was vast. “Never heard of it.” And surely not in the Beasley system.

“This will make things clearer,” said Jack as he scribbled on his scorecard:

    Eight paths follow!

    Four are short,

    Three are long, and

    One is naught.

Having expected a bridge hand or auction, Dan shook his head at the cryptic doggerel and exercised heroic restraint in biting back an expletive. “As clear as mud.”

“I have the Sanskrit on my study wall. Afraid my translation takes a few liberties.” Done with his self‑deprecatory preamble, Jack plunged into his tale proper. “As a freshly minted Sandhurst graduate, my first posting, a little before the war, was a tour of duty in India. Wherever I moved in the country, the officers would entertain themselves at bridge. The auctions were straightforward; everyone bid what he thought he could make. However, I and my chums, to the disapproval of the traditionalists, embraced one exception to this natural British style. We were mad keen to use Mr Blackwood’s new four no trump convention at the faintest whiff of a slam. Although we ace‑asking enthusiasts imagined ourselves to be sophisticates, we little expected the flowering of artificial methods to come. But fate granted a few of us enlightenment when we crossed paths with a truly remarkable individual, not an officer but a savant of the auction.”

“A bidding guru?” asked Dan.

“Just so. An apposite designation for our mentor, whose brainchild, a set of coded responses to a one no trump opening, outshone our primitive approach. He, more modest than his contemporaries, eschewed any association of his family name with the innovation, and instead let the eloquent ‘Nirvana’ speak for itself. Penned in customary Devanagari script, his short verse was an aid to pedagogy, and his enjoinder to us, his disciples, was always to show respect for the method. Perhaps he had seen a glimmer of talent kindling within me because, when my duties were about to take me elsewhere, he gifted me the riddle. As he relinquished his original manuscript, he impressed upon me my obligation to use my power sparingly. I didn’t appreciate his full meaning until I became involved in the postwar tournament scene.”

At least he kept a tall tale short, thought Dan, when Jack fell quiet, but calling it plain is a joke. It makes things no clearer than the riddle did.

Jack broke the silence. “You were gracious to apologise for your clumsiness, but the blame lay with me. I confess to subterfuge in inducing you to play Nirvana.”

“I couldn’t have been playing a method I knew nothing about.”

“Cast your mind back to my question before the session.”

Dan recalled his incredulity. “You asked me, ‘Shall we play transfers?’”

“You missed the crucial detail. It’s unmistakable when written,” said Jack while he jotted on his card:

    ⁸transfers.

Dan squinted at the slyly sprouting prefix. There had to be a catch.

Jack breezed on. “No doubt you remember giving your assent. The honorific always does the trick.”

“Honorific?” Dan had an inkling.

“Why, the ‘eight’! Whenever appropriate, a true Nirvanan uses the riddle’s first word to demonstrate his respect.”

What nonsense! And it makes no difference if I unwittingly agreed to his peculiar Nirvana. Taking a deep, calming breath Dan engaged his critical faculties. The tale had a flaw; he pounced. “Your guru couldn’t have used transfers before the war. They didn’t appear until the fifties.”

A fleeting smile crossed Jack’s features. “Many bidding ideas arose long before they were blessed with their current names. A ‘depression’ in the guru’s lexicon denoted a partnership bid, just above which the next was naturally encouraged to rest. Do you see? The small circle of Nirvanans was avant‑garde in employing depression responses to one no trump. After the war, the best part of a decade passed before a poor man’s Nirvana gained traction amongst the wider community. The astute Mr Jacoby provided the impetus when he rebranded depressions as transfers, and Nirvanans, always ready to move with the times, adopted the neologism.”

He can’t be serious, thought Dan, despite Jack having delivered his revisionism with the straightest of faces. Dan gamely pressed on with another conundrum. “Why does the riddle not mention transfers, er, depressions?”

“The riddle speaks only of ⁸paths since they, not their constituents, are the essence of Nirvana.”

I should’ve known better than to argue with a madman. We might be on safer ground if we could discuss my problem deals like normal players. His transfers seem irrelevant to my mishap in that Stayman auction. Ever the sceptic, Dan was far from convinced of the reality of Jack’s unsung systems’ genius from the dawn of contract bridge. All the same, Dan, as he posed his question, avoided looking Jack in the eye in case the glimmer had grown into a searchlight glare. “Can your Nirvana account for my spots of bother?”

A Little Learning

“This was our bidding where we settled in a four‑four spade fit,” said Jack, while he scribbled again:

    1NT ⟨ 2C 2D ⟩ 3NT* 4S.

“I accidentally gave the wrong response to Stayman,” said Dan, “and the box has no brackets.”

“Our agreement left no place for Mr Stayman’s convention. Two clubs is an ⁸transfer; it shows diamonds or spades.”

Dan almost choked on the remains of his beer. His normal, blithe assumption had been mistaken. So much for moving with the times. Everyone else switched to Stayman at the earliest opportunity.

Jack waited for Dan’s coughing to subside. “The brackets’ sole purpose is to aid the student in understanding an ⁸auction. Responder’s enclosed bids, all ⁸transfers, constitute the ⁸path and the first call after the brackets is the ⁸continuation. An ⁸path shows only a first suit; an ⁸continuation can show a second. In this ⁸auction, my pointed ⁸path showed four spades, and three no trumps, asterisked as artificial, showed four hearts. There was no error in your bidding, but had you wished, you could have chosen a four heart contract.”

Thank you, professor. I can guess who the student is, but your so‑called pointed path is pointless. Unimpressed by superfluous brackets, Dan concentrated on the newly disclosed transfer for insight into Jack’s alien perspective. It’s something like puppet Stayman.

Meanwhile, Jack had warmed to his theme in a fresh line of bids:

    1NT ⟨ 2C 2D 2H 2S ⟩ 3NT.

“What’s that?” said Dan, in bewilderment. He had time safely to swallow the last drops of his drink before the awful truth sank home. If I really started with two clubs on that hand with five spades— He baulked at the discomforting notion that he might have no recollection of making a bid.

“You followed the long spade ⁸path. It contains two ⁸transfers as every long ⁸path does.”

“Shouldn’t that mean I showed diamonds and spades?”

“I’m afraid not. Permit me to remind you that no ⁸path shows two suits.”

As Dan floundered in the wake of incessant revelations, he was oblivious to the honorific that inserted itself into his next objection. “Why not use a two heart ⁸transfer by itself?”

“The short spade ⁸path is inappropriate, since it, like the pointed ⁸path, shows only four cards in the major.”

Of course. Silly me. Dan was uninclined to pursue the matter. His unconscious, if in thrall to Nirvana, had not bid badly.

“Now, your ⁸path on the last deal—” began Jack.

“Yes. I meant to show hearts. We were lucky not to miss a fit.”

“Your ⁸sequence matched your intent. Your two no trumps was an ⁸continuation.”

“But there was nothing to continue.”

“Only for someone unmindful of the riddle’s last line. Your rounded ⁸path, the one that is naught, showed four heart cards and your ⁸continuation added a fifth. I expect you can see why,” said Jack, as he obliged by writing the partnership’s last ⁸auction:

    1NT ⟨ ⟩ 2NT*.

I’ve no idea why. Dan was bolstered in his resolve to hide his incomprehension because he was dumbstruck. It’s completely absurd. An absence of bids can’t show a suit.

Jack took advantage of the hiatus to check the time. “My magic carpet awaits me,” he announced. At Dan’s startled look, Jack clarified his meaning. “Just a figure of speech. I have a train to catch from Victoria. I’ve had an interesting evening and I hope you have too.”

Sounds unpleasantly like that ancient Chinese curse.

Jack knocked back his gin and tonic and rose to his feet to leave London and the bright lights of Earl’s Court for his lair in the south. He never revisited the club.

Freed from Jack’s spell, Dan loosened his grip on his empty glass while his attention turned to the remaining drinkers. Their convivial buzz of conversation yielded up one distinct, repeated word: Stayman. Ah, back to normality.

Epilogue

The evening’s events cast a shadow that blighted any chance of normality for evermore. In a recurrent nightmare, Dan featured as a helpless participant in an unfathomable auction while an omnipresent voice intoned, “See why.” The hint was broad enough to goad him into action. He realised his mission was to reconstruct Jack’s strangely compelling method from the clues Jack had vouchsafed. Dan laboured on the project down long, lonely, obsessive years until the dream’s dwindling visits eventually stopped. Perhaps by then the last of the Nirvanans, he began asking his partners, “Shall we play ⁸transfers?” No effect was ever discernible, so he scoured the burgeoning Web for the missing ingredient, but his holy grail always eluded him. He never found a trace of the original riddle of Nirvana.

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