Mr. Bridge

The greatest player in the world—perhaps the greatest player of all time—is a seemingly unremarkable, quietly intense septuagenarian from Dallas named Bob Hamman. How do I know he’s so good? Because every time I’ve played him, he’s inspired the same emotion: fear.
Mr. Bridge
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

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

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