GENERAL ARTICLES

Canada's Mr. Bridge

Wherever the sharks cut for deal they know Shorty. He still gets fun playing the game that's his work

TRENT FRAYNE March 1 1947
GENERAL ARTICLES

Canada's Mr. Bridge

Wherever the sharks cut for deal they know Shorty. He still gets fun playing the game that's his work

TRENT FRAYNE March 1 1947

Canada's Mr. Bridge

Wherever the sharks cut for deal they know Shorty. He still gets fun playing the game that's his work

TRENT FRAYNE

BRIDGE IS a strange and wonderful card game which causes husbands to denounce their wives and wives to starve their young. It creates barely tolerable social cliques and indigestible snobbery, permita racial discrimination and is the basis of as many domestic quarrels as the pay envelope or the unattached blonde.

It is somewhat paradoxical, therefore, that the greatest bridge player in the country, Percy Edward (Shorty) Sheardown, is a mild, whispering, unassertive man who blushes when he is praised and merely gulps when he is criticized.

Sheardown, whose profession and hobby is bridge, knows that ordinarily placid husbands often enquire noisily and bitterly of a room at large how anybody can make 15 mistakes playing 13 cards, and that, ordinarily devoted wives break loose from an afternoon of bridge at nine p.m. while their broods whimper piteously over empty supper plates. In short, he is aware that bridge sometimes brings out the worst in the best of its slaves and devotees.

Yet he is the first to point out that the game’s intriguing qualities are indisputable. He mentions that when the Canadian Army was based in England the soldiers’ most popular games were craps, poker and cribbage where stakes were dependent only upon a man’s financial stamina. In Holland, with money virtually worthless, the soldiers’ favorite game was bridge, indicating that the only instinct motivating its rivals was the gambling one.

In Canada its players tolerate racial discrimination. They allow the American Contract Bridge League, which holds a virtual monopoly on the official aspects of the game, to dictate a code of discriminatory rules to them. The ACBL recently barred Leon Beard, a student at University of Toronto, from the Canadian championships because he was a Trinidad Negro. Had the ACBL’s ruling been disregarded (it wasn’t, although Toronto officials did considerable public sputtering about it) the tournament would have been stripped of official recognition.

Sheardown was in the forefront among those who protested the ACBL ruling, since he is president of the Toronto Whist Club, one of the largest bridge clubs on the continent, which sponsored the tournament. He, personally, could find no justification for the ruling and it is his hope that out of it wiM come a Canadian bridge association or, at least, a separate unit of the ACBL with its own set of rules and regulations.

From Classics to Cards

SHEARDOWN, a native of Goderich, Ont., was stabbed by the bridge bug while attending University of Toronto and has made it his business ever since. Ironically enough, he enrolled loftily in classics, class of ’32, but after he had learned about bridge the ruminations of Plato and the murals of Michelangelo had no further claim on his attention. Plato’s work will be recognized longer, Sheardown concedes, but Shorty will have more fun.

Sheardown gives lessons and runs a weekly duplicate game in Toronto, in addition to managing the Toronto Whist Club (a housing crisis removed its quarters during the war and in the interim Sheardown is managing the St. Clair Bridge Club).

He has accumulated 250 master points, which is like batting .350 in the National Baseball League. He is far behind Charles H. Goren, the American expert whose 1,300 master points are by far the greatest total in the world, but the fact that Ely

Culbertson lias fewer than 200 invariably impresses the multitudes with Sheardown’s ability.

Master points can be won only in bridge tournaments recognized by the American Contract Bridge League; the size of the entry determines the number of points allotted at each event. For instance, the United States national championships, drawing upward of 500 entries, generally are worth about 50 master points to the winning pair or team of four and points are graded down to 14th place. The annual Canadian championships, which draw upward of 300 entries including many from New York, Detroit, Buffalo and other American cities, average between 20 and 25 master points. A player needs 300 to become a life master and there are between 50 and 60 life masters in the U. S.

Nobody seems to know how many people play bridge—or play at it. Playing card distributors and book publishers claim it is the most popular card game in Canada but admit they can’t illustrate the statement with figures. The John C. Winston

people, publishers of Culbertson bridge books, who figure Canada is good for an annual turnover of

5.000 to 7,000 of them, relate modestly that Culbertson’s is “the bread-and-butter book as far as dealers are concerned—a staple item” and claim that 90% of the bridge books purchased are Culbertson authored.

Since Winston’s bring out new books every three to five years it is deduced that about 20,000 of each publication are purchased in Canada. On the quite possibly erroneous assumption that no expert is without one, it would appear that there are perhaps

25.000 reasonably skilled players in the country. Canadian newspapers carrying a daily syndicated

column on bridge say surveys have revealed that crossword puzzles and bridge, not necessarily in that order, draw the lowest readership. About three per cent of the readers peruse the bridge feature; yet no other single feature brings such protests from the subscribers when it is omitted. The managing editor

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Canada's Mr. Bridge

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of a Toronto paper confesses that in these days of tight space he would rather drop an item of three per cent readership than a piece of important news, but every time he tries it he knows he must expect indignant protests by telephone and mail. .

Although he has never written a letter to the editor, Sheardown is one of those who is completely captivated by the game. He paced a Canadian team of four to the U. S. National Championship at Chicago in 1936, a feat quite as difficult to pull off as the one golfer Ross (Sandy) Somerville, London, Ont., managed in winning the U. S. Amateur golf crown in 1932. Canadians hadn’t before, and haven’t since, scored in the U. S. Nationals.

In addition, Sheardown has won the Canadian aggregate championship three times, the Canadian pairs three times, the Ontario pairs twice, the Michigan State team of four twice and the New York State pairs once. He’d probably be a life master today except that he enlisted in the Canadian Army in June, 1940. He went overseas in 1943 as an intelligence sergeant and got back to competitive card playing a year ago.

In Holland he observed the Canadian soldier’s preference for bridge and in London he visited a bridge club and was partnered by a large and foreboding lady who was somewhat suspicious of Canadian bridge players. Before the cards were dealt she sounded him out.

“Do you know Culbertson?” she demanded, leaning aggressively toward him. “Why, ah, yes,” replied Sheardown, “that is, I’ve played against him a few times and Mrs. Culbertson and I have been partners.” The dowager glowered. “Don’t be facetious, young man,” she hissed. “I am referring to the system.”

Sheardown partnered Mrs. Culbertson, whom he regards as a better bridge player than her husband, at Niagara Falls in one of the annual CanadianAmerican tournaments. Before play began, Mrs. C. asked Charlton Wallace, the Cincinnati Star-Times’ bridge editor, what player he regarded as the top Canadian. Wallace indicated Sheardown and the lady commandeered him for her very own.

Along with Don Farquharson, Toronto, Wallace, Mrs. Culbertson and Sheardown won the international teamof-four championship. Shorty has also played against Charles H. Goren, who has more master points than any player in the world, and the American expert said in a recent visit to Toronto: “Sheardown is definitely the best player Canada has produced. I can’t imagine how many master points he’d have run up if he were able to participate in the dozens of tournaments in the States.”

Coaches University Team

Sheardown, an expressionless, stocky man of 35, never seems to be called anything but Shorty. Nothing about him is hurried. His voice is soft, he smiles a lot but seldom laughs. He keeps his sandy, wiry hair clipped close at the sides. His reasonably solid 185 pounds are bulked on a big-boned, five-foot-eight-and-a-half frame.

“Penetrating” is the word that would probably come to your mind if you saw him play. He pushes his body toward the rear left comer of his chair, arches his left ankle across his right knee and drops his cards rather aimlessly toward the centre of the table, generally with his left hand. He talks little, bids quickly but quietly and peers thoughtfully at his cards as the

bidding progresses, as often as not puffing slowly on a cigarette.

As entrepreneur of Toronto’s leading duplicate game, Sheardown interprets its rising popularity as proof that the game, not the stakes, is the thing in this country. Ordinarily, no money changes hands in duplicate, aside from a modest entry fee and a nominal prize of perhaps $1 for the winner.

It works something like this: Assuming that 60 people have assembled to play, they take their positions at 15 tables. Cards are dealt in the ordinary manner for the first round but they’re never dealt again. As each trick is played, the player turns his card over in front of him and at the conclusion of the hand he places his 13 cards in a tray which has four pockets.

Then the four players move to another table where the same process has been carried out. Each player plucks a hand from the tray, retaining the same position (north, south, east or west) throughout. In this manner, the same hands are played by all pairs. At the end of the game, the scores made by each pair on each hand are compared and match points are awarded, the greatest number going to the pair which made the most out of each hand.

This system of scoring, rather than the total points counted, is designed to avoid big swings, such as a 1,700point penalty. In this way each hand, whether part score or grand slam, has an equal importance in determining a player’s final match-point total.

You Need Card Sense

Sheardown thinks the basis of sound bridge depends on the individual’s aptitude and his desire to play frequently. He calls card evaluation, the ability to visualize the number of tricks a hand can produce, one of the essentials.

To employ a couple of platitudes, experience is the best teacher and practice makes perfect. His definition of a good bridge player is one who has the ability, by a combination of imagination and logic, to visualize the distribution of cards in the concealed hands. His advice to the average player is to stop halfway through the play of a hand and endeavor to visualize the location of high cards and the number of each suit in each opponent’s hand.

Sheardown never played bridge until he entered university. There he watched other students, among them Mickey Miller and Roy Funston, two of Canada’s top-ranking players today, play auction. They became interested in a new version of the game, called contract, and began to play around with it on the theory that a good suit and an outside trick constituted an opening bid.

. They expanded their version of the game and then the widely publicized match between Ely Culbertson and Sidney Lenz in New York in 1932 sent the whole country into contract. Numerous bidding systems sprang up but Sheardown says it’s the exception now to find pairs with unusual methods. Bidding, he says, has become standardized along so-called Culbertson lines.

“The theory which Culbertson publicized and which became known as the Culbertson system largely because he publicized it, has been modified greatly but basically it’s the same,” he says. “The honor trick count and the requirements for an opening bid are the same but the bidding of borderline hands depends on the individual player. There are many other technical differences that would take a couple of hours to discuss in detail.”

In teaching the game, he divides his * lessons into instructional and practice

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periods. Length of a lesson is generally determined by the interest and ability of the pupil, who pays $1 a lesson. Sheardown tries to place his pupils in groups of equal ability and to determine whether each player’s weakest point is the bidding or the playing of his cards.

An analogy can be readily found in golf, he says. Some golfers drive well but they approach with, say, a six-iron instead of a seven; in bridge, some players bid well but they take their tricks with aces instead of queens.

He tries to teach strategy. A typical example: A player is left with six cards and must take five tricks. He has ace, king, queen, spot of one suit and ace, queen of another. He cannot afford to lose the lead immediately as the opponents have an off-suit trick to cash. So, says Sheardown, he should postpone the finesse.

“The finesse is always there,” he points out. “Try to run the long suit, hope for a break in distribution. If you’re going to lose the queen, there’s nothing you can do about it. But in the meantime you may have made four tricks which, plus the ace, makes the finesse unnecessary.” Most players, hé finds, become proficient in 10 lessons.

There aren’t many ways in which a bridge expert can get rich, particularly in Canada. He can manage a club, although there aren’t many in this country; he can run a duplicate game, in which he gets a percentage of the entrants’ playing fees; he can write books and syndicate newspaper columns and he can give lessons. Against American competition, a Canadian’s books or columns probably wouldn’t return enough royalties to buy a deck of cards.

He can’t make a living playing, either. A tenth of a cent a point is considered a respectably high stake in Canada; at those prices, even a onesided, threeor four-hour session of rubber bridge is unlikely to net the winning team more than five or six dollars apiece.

Sheardown says he plays infrequently for stakes. Lessons and the revenue from his duplicate game bring him a neat but by no means gaudy living.

Familiarity Breeds Quarrels

Sheardown thinks there are more top-ranking men bridge players than women, although there are more good average women players. “Women seem more studious and more ready to take advice,” he observes. Then he smilingly appends: “And sometimes more ready to give it out.”

■ By and large, women are sounder bidders, as a result of their acceptance of advice, and men are more willing to take a chance in bidding. Sheardown, who is single and therefore unquestionably prejudiced, can see no reason for husband-and-wife wrangling. Having seen it, however, he believes he knows the reason for it.

“Familiarity,” he says. “People who know each other well will take liberties they wouldn’t attempt with a stranger. A man feels the same despair when his partner makes a mistake whether it is his wife or a stranger. But he doesn’t tell the stranger.”

Sheardown doesn’t subscribe to the widely popular theory that erring partners should be impaled on a high flagpole. “I think errors should be pointed out, but pointed out diplomatically,” he comments. “Noisy rebuffs are apt to make a partner nervous and produce even more mistakes.”

There are successful husband-andwife combinations, of course, the most famous being the Culbertsons. In

Canada, Mr. and Mrs. W. M. Anderson and Mr. and Mrs. Hudson Johnson (both couples from Toronto) are outstanding examples. Mrs. Anderson is the only Canadian woman with more than 100 master points, and the other Canadian men, aside from Sheardown, to top 100 are Don Farquharson, Toronto, who is second to Sheardown’s 250 with 180, Milton Weiss, Toronto, and Sam Gold, Montreal.

Montreal’s best woman player is Mimi Roncarelli and the game’s grand old man is John Jacobson, Toronto, who has been winning championships for 40 years in spite of the changes from whist to auction to contract to duplicate. Actually, it is difficult to assess Canada’s players because there is no national organization. Very few western players play in the annual Canadian championships.

His Best Bid

Card sense is important, Sheardown believes, and while intelligence has its place in the game it doesn’t necessarily follow that a genius would be an outstanding player.

“A genius,” he points out, “may not be able to co-ordinate the factors that go into a bridge game since he is generally a specialist in his own field.”

Card sense he calls a particular way of applying logic. The main factors in the game are mathematical but because it is a game of outwitting one’s opponents, the psychological factor influences the mathematical factor and sometimes can overrule it.

He cites as an example what he considers the best bid he ever made. It happened 10 years ago in a tournament at Ottawa and here are the hands:

North

Ax

X X X X X X

A Q 10 x x

West

x x

A K Q A K Q J xxx K

East

Q 10 x x xxx xxx xxx

(Sheardown)

South

K J x x x J 10 X x

J X X X

East (which is Sheardown) and West are vulnerable. West opens the bidding with an artificial two-club bid. The experts undoubtedly will understand this. North, knowing the bid is artificial (he has played before, too) tries a psychic two spades (what could be fairer than that?). Sheardown passes. South, on the assumption his partner’s bid is legitimate (this is the type who trumps his partner’s ace, no doubt) goes four spades. West now gets down to business and bids his diamonds, five of them.

North passes and here is where Sheardown turned to psychology. He feels if he nudges South a little by bidding six diamonds that South will stick his neck out for six spades in order to prevent East and West from making a small slam, vulnerable. Sheardown’s own hand, of course, is a virtual bust and he is aware that his partner probably won’t make six diamonds but, believing that the psychological factor can overrule the mathematical factor, he throws in his six-diamond bid. He had figured it correctly; South went to six spades, West doubled and NorthSouth went four light for 700 points.

Sheardown uses whatever slam con-

vention his partner prefers to play although his personal preference is a somewhat technical item called cue bidding. This comes into play after an agreed suit has been reached and it is rather more delicate but perhaps more exact than the conventional Blackwood four no-trump, or its variation the Blackwood four-club bid.

The latter has the disadvantage, he points out, that it prevents a normal four-club bid but its advantage is that it starts the ace-showing at the level of four rather than five. The main fault with most bridge players’ slam bidding conventions is that they use them too much, Sheardown believes. The responses are so easy that they become automatic whereas frequently players will jump to the Blackwood convention before they actually know where the hand should be played. All information should be gathered as assiduously for slam bidding as for game bidding; approach bids are vital.

Smother and Coup

Sheardown, who enjoys bridge for bridge’s sake, says an enjoyable game depends on the interest taken in it by the players. He would sooner play a game without stakes with players interested in improving in the theory of bridge, than with an expert who is interested solely in making money. It was in one of these games, in fact, that the most interesting hand he ever saw came up.

Here are the hands; with North the dealer and North-South vulnerable:

North 4 A 9 2 V 3

4 A K 10 8 6 4 KQJ2

West *■>

4 - 4

V Q 10 7 2 V

4 J 9 7 5 4

4 A 10 7 6 5 4

East

K 10 75 4 J 9 4 2

9 8 4 3

South

4 Q J 8 6 3 4 A K 8 6 5 4 Q 4 3

4 -

And here is the bidding:

North East

14 Pa»s

34 Pass

44 Pass

64 Pass

South West

l4 Pass

44 Pass

54 Pass

Pass Pass

Sheardown, in explaining the hand, notes that the bidding followed a

A Matter of Paper

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We, too, are doing our best.

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normal pattern, ending in a slam contract not unduly optimistic. West opened the club ace which South ruffed. South’s lead of the spade queen and West’s discard of a club disclosed the trump situation. The spade deuce was played from dummy allowing West to win with the king.

Now comes the key play of the hand, Sheardown points out. A spade return by East would have defeated the contract but East made the mistake of returning a heart, an error upon which declarer quickly capitalized. South cashed the ace and king of hearts, the queen of diamonds and ruffed a small heart with the spade nine. The king, queen and jack of clubs provided discards of two diamond spots and one heart from declarer hand.

On the lead of the diamond ace East, now reduced to a trump holding of 10, 7 5 and 4, ruffed with the 4-spot. South overruffed with the 6 and led his last heart, trumping in dummy with the spade ace. Willy-nilly, East must play spade 5. Now on the lead of a diamond from dummy, East holding 10 and 7 of spades is under declarer’s jack and 8.

Sheardown, summing up, calls the play of the hand an excellent example of a trump coup, plus a smother play.

He believes the experts in the audience will find it that way, too, but right here is one small voice which found its way into the wilderness. Just north of the trump coup—without a compass, it;