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Bridge with Dad, part 1

In July, 2010, David Berkowitz was inducted into the ACBL Hall of Fame. In April of that year, his daughter made Life Master. This is the story of their one attempt to play a tournament together, narrated (wholly impartially and reliably) by the latter.

Lisa, David, and Dana Berkowitz
Lisa, David, and Dana Berkowitz

This past July, I took the New York Bar Exam. There is an ancient and glorious tradition among Bar examinees dating back to, oh, probably ancient Egypt, that dictates that shortly after the day(s) of reckoning, the liberated test-takers must undertake a costly pilgrimage to a desirable European destination where, for several weeks, they will force themselves to binge on good food and cheap wine and dark men with seductive accents before succumbing to the soul-sucking drudgery of life as a working attorney. In other words, it wasn't my choice to frolic in London and Paris for a few weeks after taking the Bar. Duty called.

I had always wanted to visit Europe with my mother. She and I share a taste for theater and art museums and shopping (not to mention French accents) -- in short, the kinds of activities that make the menfolk in our family want to poke their eyes out with a spoon. But could I really ask Mom to accompany me on my ritualistic journey of spiritual cleansing while telling Dad that he need not bother setting his TiVo?

Inspiration struck. I would ask my father for the one gift that he could give me that no one else could, for a gift that would compare to a European getaway. I asked him to play a regional with me. After months of tense negotiations between my people and his people, we settled on a tournament and a fee arrangement: the August regional in Parsippany, New Jersey; he would cover my expenses, pay all entries, and arrange for teammates.

We filled out our card over breakfast at an Original Pancake House a few minutes from the hotel. Between bites of banana pancake, I wrote down what my father told me to write. Two copies, of course. His hands were occupied with a BLT.

"Wait, wait," you may be thinking. "There is a standard practice for situations like this. The weaker player gets to choose the methods."

The standard practice has obviously never played with my father.

"What do you like over 2NT?", he asked.

"I usually play puppet."

"That's unplayable. We play regular Stayman."

"Of course."

"We play transfer Lebensohl."

"What's that?"

"It's just like Lebensohl, but better. We play it."

"Got it."

"What do you do over their 1NT?"

"I like Landy. I can remember it."

"Sonty and I play that! Almost. We play multi-Landy; it's better. Write that down."

"Yessir!"

There was only one method that I got to choose, because Dad was indifferent.

"What kind of Blackwood do we play?", he asked.

"1430."

"Kickback?"

"Absolutely not."

"Not even in the minors?"

"No, regular minorwood."

"I can't get Sonty to play kickback either. Fine, you win."

More on that later. Meanwhile, I had finished my pancakes and was beginning to panic in earnest. The last time I had sat down across the table from my father had not been a great success. We'd had a 55% game at Jourdan's Bridge Club, and Dad had declared that we could not possibly be related. Okay, maybe he didn't say that in words, but he has very expressive eyes. As was more or less par for the course when I played bridge with a parent, I was near tears that day.

We got in the car and found the hotel and bought the entry and before I knew it I was pulling the cards out of the tray. My hands were shaking so badly, I was just trying not to drop the cards, and all I could think was "For the love of God, Berkowitz, get ahold of yourself!" I managed to hold my cards, both literally and figuratively, throughout the morning session. My palpitations slowed. I remembered to breathe regularly. I even followed suit. Dad had not yelled at me; in fact, he had hardly said a word. After four rounds of the Swiss, we were 0 and 4.

In the evening, the Swiss gambit paid off, our teammates rallied spectacularly, and we wound up finishing third in the event. "Mission Accomplished," as far as I was concerned. I told myself that I was ready to call it quits; why not declare victory and retire undefeated from the field of battle? In truth, I was beyond excited that there were five more days of bridge with Dad still to come.

I only remember one hand from that first day. Bob Sartorius was the declarer on the deal and the unlucky victim of one of my rare bouts of competence. I was defending, and these were the relevant cards[1] in my hand:

??? ??? KQJx ???

We needed three tricks to set the contract (whatever it was). I knew that Dad had only a stiff in the suit (please don't ask me how) and I had, most unusually, given some thought to what I would do when it was led. So when Bob led a small card from dummy toward his hand, I managed to "duck smoothly" with my only non-honor card (for perhaps the first and last time in my bridge career). Bob looked at me, and he looked at his hand. He looked again. And then he said, "I know there's a reason I shouldn't do this, but…" as he laid down the Ace. This was his holding in the suit:

A1098

I concealed a small smile. At least, I think I did. On the second round, Bob turned to me and said, "Nice play." At the table, Dad only shrugged. Later that night, and over the course of the week, he gave the hand to every bridge player at that tournament; many heard it twice or three times. Then he called everyone else he knew.

To be continued...

[1] By the way, you'll notice that the details you're accustomed to in these fancy bridge write-ups are noticeably absent from these essays, as is any degree of certainty about who held what or bid what or when. I do apologize. In my defense:

  1. Unlike the writers who author fancy bridge columns, I am not an expert. I am, and have been for many years, a "promising beginner." Or maybe I'm now an intermediate; you could ask Dad. In any event, I lack the perfect recall for hands that seems to come so naturally to those who play the game at higher levels. And, in a fit of pure ego, I (mostly) refused to ask my father for clarification for the purposes of this article.
  2. We played mostly team games, and at a regional there are no hand records for team games. So there.
  3. So this one is less of a defense than a really, really poor excuse: I was lazy and did not set about writing this article until nearly 6 months had elapsed. Which is kind of a long time and a lot of stuff has happened since then and did I mention that I don't have good recall to begin with?
  4. You've surely recognized by now that if you were on the prowl for a solid theoretical article that would explain the logic behind good card play technique or bidding methods, you've clicked on the wrong link.
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