Saturday, December 16, 2017

Bridge over troubled waters

Tony Deyal logo53

Mark Fraser

 I used to be a cardiologist but didn’t have the heart. Actually, from the time I learnt to play donkey, I was on my way to being one. I am not referring to what my friends in some Caribbean countries call “forming the ass” but a card game like “old maid”.  

Almost in a heartbeat I had learnt to play all fours, rummy, whappie, poker and some other games with exotic names like “sip sam” and “beehee”.  Then I graduated to bridge...and so from cardiology, I moved to construction. 

What I did not learn in all those years and found out later is the ancient wisdom of cards that I will pass on. It came from the American humorist, Ring Lardner, and the movie, Guys and Dolls.  

The key character says, “My father told me, ‘Son, I don’t have much money to send you out into the world with, so I’ll give you some advice. If you ever come across a man that says he can make a jack jump out of a sealed deck of cards and spit cider in your ear, do not bet this man. For as sure as you stand there you will end up with less money and cider in your ear’.”

While the national card game of Trinidad, “all fours”, is not as extreme as some bar bets, many strange things take place that are sanctioned socially as part of the culture or ethos of the game and make an interesting point about Trinidad.  

You can find out more about all fours on the web but according to Wikipedia, “All Fours, also known as High-Low-Jack or Seven Up, is an English tavern trick-taking card game that was popular as a gambling game until the end of the 19th century…Nowadays the original game is especially popular in the Caribbean…”

Trinidad is the all fours capital of the world and in many parts of the country there are clubs which compete regularly during the year. There are even on-line sites for continuous play. 

Perhaps the most important and significant thing about all fours is that if you’re not cheating, you are being cheated. In all fours everyone is expected to cheat.  

As one of my friends said to me when I complained, “You can’t play cards with your eye in your back pocket.”  

In all fours you can claim points and even argue vociferously about having “game” or playing “high” or “low” without any basis in truth or in fact. Some people “mash up” a game when found out. Decks are stacked, cards are hidden and anything goes.  

I have always wondered what that says about Trinidad. What kind of country and people are you if cheating is not just encouraged but integral to your national game?

Eventually, I found bridge or, in fact, bridge found me.  In 1970 at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in St Augustine, Trinidad, during the state of emergency resulting from what was called the “Black Power” disturbance, I was chairman of Canada Hall, one of the residences.  

We had a lot of time on our hands. Three of the people stranded were bridge players looking for a fourth...they begged me to play. I read a book on bridge (there are almost as many bridge books as there are on chess) and started my love affair with the game. I was hooked and despite continuing to play “serious” cards (meaning cards for money) afterwards, bridge remained my favourite game.  

Even now, not having played for many, many years I still carry a version around on my Samsung phone and try not to use it because even if you’re playing bridge by yourself, it is extremely addictive.

After UWI, I started playing with a group of friends a few years younger than me. There are weekends when we started on Friday night and sometimes went on to Sunday.  

My friends were better than I was at the game but we never argued or quarrelled. They would shake their heads sadly in my direction sometimes but no outbursts and absolutely no cheating except when an Englishman, teaching in one of the secondary schools nearby, played with us and kicked us under the table to prompt a bid or action.  

There is a story about a man who went to the doctor and noticing that the man had several dark, ugly bruises on his shins the doctor asked, “Do you play hockey, soccer or some physical sport?” The man answered, “No. I play bridge with my wife.”  

Cheating is forbidden in bridge but common. As is the constant bickering. When I first started playing bridge at the national bridge club, I found that the higher the level and status of the player, the more the arguments with his or her partner. There was also cheating—more sophisticated but still evident.  

This is why I was not surprised when two German doctors were caught cheating at the Bridge World Championships and had to give back their gold medals.  

The two doctors had constructed a series of coughing codes to signal to each other which cards they held. Previous cheating incidents in world tournaments based on signals included how players held the cards in their hands or arranged their pencils (used for scoring). Obviously they scored a lot of wins before being caught.

I sometimes wonder about my phone. I have a feeling that it knows the cards in my hand. I hear people who have iPhones have the same problem. However, seeing the ongoing war between Samsung and Apple about who stole whose information, I am not surprised.

• Tony Deyal was last seen repeating a woman’s viewpoint that life with men is like bridge.  You need a heart to love them, a diamond to marry them, a club to beat them and a spade to bury them.