“I think there are four great mind games,” Bob Hamman tells me. “Chess, backgammon, poker, and bridge.” He has played them all, and he proceeds to lecture on the subject. “The trouble with chess is that a small difference in skill is a huge difference on the scoreboard. If the other player is better, you lose. You either have to get better or quit the game. As soon as I figured that out, I quit. It’s like being the second-best sprinter in the world. You’re still never going to beat Usain Bolt. Poker is not about cards; it’s about reading psychological situations. There’s no complex card play. Backgammon is a matter of positional evaluation and math. It’s a gambling game.”
That leaves bridge, the subject that I have come here to discuss with Hamman. We are sitting in his office in North Dallas, but nothing in the headquarters of SCA Promotions, which he founded in 1986, would offer you a clue that he is one of the great games players in the world. Unless, that is, you happen to be, as I am, a bridge player. On the bottom shelf of a metal bookcase, surrounded by works on statistics and other arcana, I recognize a collection of paperbacks that provide a deal-by-deal description of world bridge team competitions. They are not here because Hamman likes to read about world championships. They are here because Hamman likes to win world championships. He has, in fact, won twelve of them, most recently last September, when he led the United States to victory over Italy, its longtime nemesis in international competition. He began his career in 1962, and he has won fifty North American Bridge Championships. This record is to bridge what Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak is to baseball—unassailable. It’s why Hamman is widely recognized as the best bridge player on the planet.
On second thought, no bridge player is “widely” recognized these days. There was a time, back in the thirties, when bridge challenge matches were front-page news and the names of experts like Ely Culbertson were known to the most casual of players. Evening bridge parties were the entertainment of choice for couples. One such social gathering, in Kansas City, ended in tragedy when an argument over a misplayed bridge hand led to the fatal shooting of John Bennett by his wife, Myrtle (she was acquitted). But the days of bridge being front-page news are long gone. The last bridge player who was a household name was Charles Goren, whose books simplified the game for the masses in the forties and fifties. No bridge champion ever approached the fame of chess savant Bobby Fischer.
The game probably reached its zenith of popularity in the fifties. (Goren made the cover of Time in 1958.) The most likely reason for its subsequent decline was television, which became the favorite recreation of Americans in that decade. The sixties brought sex and drugs, activities that not even the intricacies of a trump squeeze could compete with, and the ensuing decades saw opportunities for women in the workplace involving intellectual stimulation, compared with which a game of cards held little fascination. When I offered to teach the game to my own children, my daughter showed some interest, but my two sons fled behind closed doors to their video games.
Beyond this facile sociology lie a couple of hard truths about bridge itself. One: It is not easily mastered. It takes a long time—years, not months—to develop the judgment and the card-play skills to reach a level at which you can win tournaments. Two: Serious bridge players do not read Dear Abby. They play bridge because of their competitive natures, and they do not feel compelled to adhere to the rules of etiquette when dealing with newcomers. This attitude has had a predictable effect: There aren’t a lot of newcomers. When I first started traveling to tournaments around Texas, in the late sixties and the seventies, I was part of a large crowd (fifteen to twenty) of avid players in our late twenties and early thirties. I once won a two-day pairs event at a national tournament in Houston, a victory significant enough to be mentioned in the bridge column of the New York Times. But most of us quit playing competitive bridge years ago, and no new group has come along. Almost everyone at a tournament is old enough to qualify for AARP membership.
Meanwhile, bridge has been surpassed by poker, of all things. And not just any kind of poker but Texas Hold ’Em, a variation anyone can learn in five minutes. While bridge competitions are held in venues where the public takes little notice, you can watch poker just about any hour of the day or night on ESPN or Fox Sports. A glamorous high-stakes game of Hold ’Em was central to the remake of the James Bond film Casino Royale. The only time bridge has gotten publicity on national television was in 1984, when a couple of players from Texas—I had played with one of them—kidnapped the wife of a millionaire Mexican player at a Washington, D.C., tournament. (The news story had it all wrong. It referred to my onetime partner as an expert. Not in my book.)
But crime and punishment are of little consequence to the man sitting across from me. What Hamman cares about is action—the match of wits, the test of wills. He often carries a backgammon board to bridge tournaments, lest the hours between sessions pass without competition. How good is he at this diversion? “I’m not world-class, probably top thousand,” Hamman said. Chess is a nonfactor. “I played my last tournament in 1963. My high-water mark was provisionally rated master. If you became a master, you had to validate the performance in your next tournament. One blip and you weren’t a master anymore.”
Hamman is burly and broad-shouldered, built to dominate a card table. His most striking feature is the size of his head, considerably larger than normal—a Darwinian accommodation,