Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, May 27, 2001


The tables are full at the Honolulu Bridge Club's tournament, held
monthly at the St. Louis Alumni Building on Isenberg Street.
Players say the game is addictive because it's complex, but also
because of the fellowship of gatherings like this one.

Playing the hand
you’re dealt

Bridge can inspire
frightful devotion

By Scott Vogel

HANG AROUND a card table awhile and it won't be long before someone warns you of the dangers of choosing your spouse as a bridge partner. Nevertheless, this unwritten rule is frequently ignored by couples all over America, often with disastrous results.

Case in point: John and Myrtle Bennett, who invited another wedded duo, Charles and Myrna Hoffman, to their Kansas City apartment for a friendly game of party bridge in 1931. Notwithstanding a rather serious rift in the hosts' marriage -- John had been known to slap his wife when she played poorly -- the Bennetts were leading the Hoffmans by a sizable margin after a few hands. However, in bridge, as in life, things have a way of evening themselves out over time, and after a few hours, the Hoffmans had somehow managed to gain a slight lead.


Sessions are open to the public:
Place: St. Louis Alumni Building, 925 Isenberg St.
Cost: $5 per session
Call: 529-0808 for meeting times

With the game this tight -- according to later court records -- it was essential that John play expertly for the rest of the night. This he did not do. In fact, he played one hand so poorly, he and Myrtle were soon embroiled in a vicious shouting match. John, as was his wont, promptly slapped his wife several times. Things degenerated further when Myrtle began taunting him by repeating, "Nobody but a bum would hit a woman," several times in a sing-song, nah-nah voice. According to the testimony of Myrna Hoffman, John then jumped up from the table and announced he was leaving Myrtle.

"I think you'd better go," said Myrtle to her guests, and the Hoffmans immediately scurried toward the door. But just as they were saying their goodbyes, Myrtle emerged from the bedroom with her mother's loaded gun and began chasing John around the apartment. For awhile it seemed that he might escape his wife's wrath by locking himself in the bathroom, but she fired twice through the door. And when she missed both times, John took the opportunity to run for it. Myrtle took off too, and this time her aim was true. She shot John dead just as he reached the front door.

At the end of the trial, John Bennett's death was ruled an accident by the judge, a surprising conclusion given that John had been shot twice and there were two more bullet holes in the bathroom door. But legend has it that the judge was an avid bridge player. The fatal last hand was supposedly replayed at the trial and experts called in to examine the deal. It was subsequently determined, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that John had completely misplayed the hand. In fact, the judge confessed that he would have shot Bennett himself, had he been his partner.


Mauka Makai cover

EVEN WHEN the passions it elicits do not lead to murder, bridge has been known to inspire a devotion bordering on hysteria. This probably comes as a surprise to the millions of souls who flip past newspaper bridge columns without a glance at North's diamonds or East's overtrick or West's dummy ruff. Equally surprising may be the news that bridge is one of the most complex and fascinating of card games, not to mention one of the most addictive.

"You become hooked," Karen Lanke says while setting up tables at the Honolulu Bridge Club. "Bridge becomes a way of life for people. I know it sounds kind of extreme, but it happens."

At this moment it is just past noon on a Wednesday. Most of the 13 tables at the St. Louis Alumni Building, where the club holds regular games, are empty. But soon some of the town's best bridge players will begin arriving, and two Mr. Coffees are already working overtime in preparation. As she sets out canisters of hard candy, Lanke, who runs the club along with her husband, struggles to account for bridge's cultish popularity.

"First of all, it's a partnership game, and one you can learn to play in just a couple of months. But then you can spend the rest of your life perfecting your skills. Plus, it's a very social thing. I know many people who have taken up bridge because they retired or their husband died or children went to college, and they found that they had a lot of free time. Not only do they come up with a wonderful new hobby, they have a whole new set of friends. Because bridge means instant acceptance. You can go any place in the world and be welcomed."

By this time the players have begun slipping in, a jovial bunch of mostly senior citizens who do indeed seem to relish the opportunity to kibbitz. One brings a bunch of pussy willows for a fellow player. Another shares her lunch. And all of them gladly fork over five bucks to Karen's husband Richard, who sits at a table making change from a cigar box.

By all accounts, the Lankes have a happy marriage, a rare bridge partnership unlikely to end in gunfire. They have peacefully run the club for more than 10 years, operating games five times a week. Also, they met at a bridge club. ("He was a good player, and handsome as you can see," Karen reports.) Furthermore, they do not play as partners, though not for the reason you might suspect.

Mildred Werbel, 94, began playing bridge at age 62.

"My wife and I fill in if someone needs a partner, but otherwise we don't play," says Richard. To keep peace in the family, right? "No, that's because we play together pretty well and we don't want to win our own games. We're in the entertainment business."

And on this Wednesday, business is good, with all 13 tables nearly full and the room buzzing with conversation. One of the few partner-less players is 94-year-old Mildred Werbel, sitting South at a table in a far corner of the room, her walker at her side. Surely Mildred, who didn't know a hand from a foot until the age of 62, could explain bridge's appeal.

"I lost my son," she says, her voice breaking as she reflects both on his death and the therapeutic value of card-playing. "At 40, he died of cancer because they gave out cigarettes in front of the school when he was 18 years old, and he couldn't stop smoking and they killed him." Her eyes filling with tears, she picks up her cards for the next hand, Richard Lanke having taken the North position.

"There was a study done recently that says that the practice of playing bridge actually does something to the brain, keeping the powers of reasoning and memory intact longer," Karen says, speaking of her bridge club's IQ in general and Mildred Werbel's remarkable lucidity in particular. "So bridge is really a healthy exercise. It doesn't look too healthy because you see a bunch of people sitting down. But it's real good for small motor skills and gets people out of the house."

Among those who have fled hearth and home today are Jennie Dang, 70, and Dora Shimada, 73. Considered among the club's best players ("No! No! We hold our own!" Dora protests), both agree that bridge's uniqueness stems from the peculiar combination of luck and skill it demands.

"It's not like mah-jongg, which is mostly luck," says Dang. "This has luck too, but you have to do a lot of thinking if you don't want to have a terrible, terrible game."

Per Skullestad, 69, agrees. "Poker can be very interesting, but it's a very simple game, and that makes it entirely different from bridge. In poker, if you get four aces, then you know you will win."

But in bridge, getting good cards is not nearly enough. Each hand is divided into a bidding phase, during which each team decides how many of the hand's 13 tricks they can win, and a playing phase, in which one team tries to collect the stated number of tricks. It's not the number of tricks you win but your ability to predict in advance the hand's outcome that determines your overall score.

With this change in scoring, developed by tycoon Harold Vanderbilt during an ocean cruise in 1925, bridge became a game about building, well, a bridge of understanding between partners, a change that minimized the effect of luck and maximized the need for proper communication via playing cards alone. It requires insight and logic, memory and no small amount of patience, especially in the beginning.

"I've been playing bridge for 50 years," Skullestad says, "and it's more interesting to me now than it was 50 years ago, because now I have the time to study all the intricacies of bridge."

Seventy-six-year-old Bob Lau ("L-A-U. Spell it right!" he commands) agrees that its complexity is one of its most compelling features, but bridge is not only for experts. "The game is good because you can play at the level you want to play. If you are competitive, you play competitive. If not, you don't. It's definitely better than watching TV." And healthier: "People go to the gym to keep fit. They come here to keep mentally fit."

"SOONER OR LATER I'll get to play one of these hands in my suit," says Richard Lanke, still sitting opposite Mildred Werbel, who, despite not always having the cards, somehow manages to control most of the bidding. ("I'm 94 years old, so don't criticize my playing," she says.) After they fail to make their bid for a second time, Richard seems to be struggling to keep his composure. "I know you wanted it for hearts," Mildred sheepishly offers. Richard stares at her during the brief silence that follows.

"I didn't want it for hearts. I had diamonds. I bid diamonds. I rebid diamonds."

"All right, all right, it's over," says the lady sitting West.

MY MIND is transported to the Bennetts of Kansas City, and I begin to fear that Mildred might be packing heat in her purse. This is my cue to leave, and I'm almost at the door when I'm stopped by Karen Lanke, her voice reassuring me that bridge's effects on the elderly are entirely therapeutic.

"People still want to retire early, and then all of a sudden they have 30 to 40 years stretching ahead of them. And if they don't take care of themselves and make productive use of their retirement years, people get Alzheimer's. They end up being a burden to their children, they sit home and watch television all day. Bridge is a really healthy thing for people to do. And it's fun."

It is fun -- and as a novice bridge player myself I can reassure you that on most days, this day included, no shots are fired. Though many of its players are twice my age, I doubt that the members of the Honolulu Bridge Club have twice as much fun at the card table as I do. Like them, I've caught the bug, and with any luck I'll be playing bridge well into old age myself.

Not unlike Myrtle Bennett, by the way, who according to an essay in Alexander Woolcott's "While Rome Burns," continued to play long after that unfortunate incident in Kansas City:

Myrtle Bennett has not allowed her bridge to grow rusty, even though she occasionally encounters an explicable difficulty in finding a partner. Recently she took on one unacquainted with her history. Having made an impulsive bid, he put his hand down with some diffidence. "Partner," he said, "I'm afraid you'll want to shoot me for this." Mrs. Bennett, says my informant, had the good taste to faint.

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