CECE BENNETT THE GO-FOR-BROKE BOSS OF B.C.
One of the sturdiest myths of Canadian politics is that its leaders are too dull to earn either the nation’s love or its hate. Our legislative bodies are said to be woefully short of heroes and villains. They hardly ever produce a leader whom his admirers call, uncritically, The Man, or his detractors call, furiously, That Man. If the charge needs an answer there has seldom been a better one than William Andrew Cecil Bennett, the premier of British Columbia
For almost exactly a decade Bennett has been attracting wild extremes of passion in his own province. Within the last year, largely because of his policies on public power and public finance, he has become a target of contumely and occasional approval all over the rest of Canada and in many places abroad. His home press in B. C. belabors him almost unanimously and almost daily. He gets similar attention in
places far afield. The Sunday Telegraph of London recently said that, thanks to Bennett's expropriation of the privately owned B. C. Electric Company (a quarter of whose shares were owned in the United Kingdom), “Canada is rapidly acquiring the financial reputation of one of the more unstable South American republics.” The president of the Investment Dealers' Association of Canada asserted that Bennett had shaken the confidence of the whole investing public, in Canada and abroad. The Canadian Bar Association accused him of violating civil liberties and property rights. Davie Fulton, a fellow British Columbian and former supporter of Bennett who is now federal minister of justice, has said that Bennett’s program of hydro-electric development is “ruinous” and if allowed to proceed will lead their province to “economic disaster.” Bennett reminds Canada’s leading business journal, The Financial Post, of "Moses on a Mountaintop.” The Portland Oregonian, a spokesman for 212,000 of the several million Americans who arc or might be affected by his policies, likens him to Fidel Castro.
These on-the-record observations about Bennett aren't a patch on what is constantly said about him off the record. It is almost impossible to spend an hour at the Union Club in Victoria (Bennett, incidentally, is a member), the parliamentary restaurant in Ottawa or any tavern or White Spot grill in Vancouver without hearing him compared to Hitler, Mussolini or at the least Maurice Duplessis. Sometimes—not so often, but sometimes—a voice will arise to equate him with John A. Macdonald or with the B. C. visionary who changed his name to Amor di Cosmos, lover of the world.
Bennett's emergence as a subject of national, rather than merely local, controversy arises only partly from the fact that he calls his government Social Credit and wars as belligerently against the federal Conservatives and Liberals as against his official opposition in B. C., the CCF-NDP. It’s not as a doctrinaire party man that he has achieved his greatest extramural celebrity. Outside his own stronghold, as well as inside, he’s best known as the chief gladiator in a complex fight over water power.
The point at issue—the question on which Bennett is staking his own future and the future of his province — involves the use of two
The Diefenbaker government — which has the right of veto over Bennett, just as he has the right of veto over it — is flatly opposed to selling any Columbia power abroad. Forty years ago Canada was exporting surplus Ontario power into New York but when, as the treaty governing its sale said we had a right to do, we asked for it back, the U. S. refused to surrender it. Ottawa’s stand, as it has been since the Twenties under Liberal and Conservative governments alike, is that we can’t take the same chance with a precious national asset again. Bennett’s stand is that if both the Columbia and the Peace are dammed there’ll be plenty of power for everybody and it would be criminal to allow it to go on being wasted during the two or three decades left before atomic energy comes into its own and begins making hydro power obsolete.
B. C. rivers. One is the Columbia, which lies partly in Canada and partly in the United States. The other is the Peace, which is altogether in Canada. Both rivers hold great unused stores of wealth and energy, not only for western Canada, but for the power-hungry states of the western U. S. A.
Bennett wants to dam both rivers now and claim their power now. So, in the case of the Columbia—whose international character makes it a legitimate concern of theirs—do the federal governments of Canada and the U. S. A. At this point harmony ceases.
Since Canada’s and B. C.’s construction upstream will bring great benefits downstream to the U. S., it’s agreed by all three governments that Canada and B. C. are entitled to half the added power they make available below the border. Bennett wants to sell B. C.’s share of this downstream power to the U. S. in order to help pay for the dams and other needed equipment in Canada (and indirectly to make it easier to finance the development of the Peace). Ottawa says no.
The debate is further complicated by minute engineering calculations—no two of which exactly agree—and by elaborate financial calculations — which don’t agree either — and by some of the fanciest political infighting the country has seen in years.
The setting might have been tailored to Bennett’s special order. It is not an accident that, starting as a small-town hardware man, he soon became independently wealthy. His lifetime reading has consisted almost wholly of budgets, financial reports, business textbooks and government estimates and he has become a notably fast man with figures. In the flood of figures concerning the rivers of British Columbia he is as much at home as Siegfried on the Rhine or Ptolemy on the Nile. And for all his ingenuity with statistics, he has grasped the fact that B. C.’s rivers aren’t merely a matter of engineering charts or mills-per kilowatt-hour to the million and a half people who live beside or near them. The Peace, the Columbia, the great salmon kingdom of the Fraser, and the Liard, the Yukon, the Kootenay are among the loveliest, cleanest and most muscular rivers left anywhere in the world. In their isolated mountain province they hold a meaning as deep and special as the ancient meanings of the Congo, the Amazon and the Thames. Anyone who pays them proper homage and sets out to grasp their bounties—especially at a profit to the body politic—is sure of a kindly hearing.
No one ever accused Bennett of being a poet, but if he were his muse would be the rivers. “The rivers of Arizona,” he reflected recently, “are as long as ours but they’re only half an inch deep. That's one oí Canada's troubles. We're as long as the United States, but we're only half an inch deep. Until we push up from the border, up north to places like the Peace, we just won’t go anywhere.”
B. C.’s and Bennett’s dedication to electric power and its sources are further emphasized by the province’s two most conspicuous buildings. One is the legislative chamber in Victoria, the other the skyscraper headquarters of B. C. Electric in Vancouver. Both buildings are lighted up every night, all night; they gleam down on the province with the same perpetual optimism as their boss’s almost perpetual smile.
Bennett’s smile is his most striking characteristic. It adorns a firm, slightly round face, youthful for a man of sixty-one. His eyes are dark and constantly alert. His thick black hair has only begun to show a little gray. The smile lacks mirth but it’s nearly
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CECE BENNETT — THE GO-FOR-BROKE BOSS OF B. C. continued from page 10
On the 7th anniversary of his premiership, he went home to Kelowna — with $85,000,000 in old bonds
always there: after his takeover of B. C. E., a Victoria press gallery reporter compared it to the celebrated "smile on the face of the tiger” (who had just swallowed an overcomplacent old party from Niger).
Unless he changes his mind—a thing he’s done before—Bennett's indefatigable beam will be a major landmark in the forthcoming Dominion election campaign.
He says that although he has no wish to go to Ottawa himself. Social Credit will be going there in substantial numbers—enough to become the second largest group in a divided House of Commons. Even though he won’t be one himself, he intends to throw his whole weight behind his party s other candidates.
If he does, there's nothing more certain
than that he'll be doing what comes naturally. When I asked him recently to name his favorite hobby he said, without hesitation. ’ Politics." When I asked what career he'd have chosen if he hadn't chosen politics, he answered, "Politics."
"1 only went into business, he said, "in order to acquire enough money to go into politics. Politics is the most important thing
in even country. It affects every person and every decision in even walk of life. All the important histon is political history. I've been in politics since 1 was eleven years old. That's how old 1 was in the great Dominion election of 1911. Laurier against Borden. 1 was going to school in Hampton. New Brunswick, not far from Hastings, where 1 was born. I still remember the excitement, the torchlight parades and the bands. My father was a Tory and 1 marched in the parades for Borden. Each side had a big bonfire ready for election night, an effigy of Laurier hung over our waiting fire, an effigy of Borden over theirs. After the results were in and we were sure the Conservatives had won we knocked down the Liberals’ tire and rescued Borden. Then we marched down the street and set fire to Sir Wilfrid."
Perhaps it was more than a coincidence that when, nearly half a century later. Bennett celebrated what he considers to be the greatest triumph of his own political career, he elected to do it with another bonfire. When he came It) office as B. C'.'s first and only Social Credit premier in 1952—a position lie’s held ever since—the province had a debt of about 200 million dollars and one of Bennett's promises was to wipe out every dollar of it. By 1959 he claimed he had succeeded and. ignoring a barrage of furious counterclaims, prepared to celebrate.
The case of the errant arrow
The last eighty-five million dollars of the province's outstanding bonds had been paid up. retired and replaced by less visible forms of liability and Bennett ordered the bonds taken by armored car to his home town of Kelowna. T here, on August I. 1959. seven years to the day after he was sw'orn into office. 20.000 people joined in paying homage to his fiscal footwork. A thousand of them attended a garden party at Bennett's handsome seven-acre estate. On the festooned streets there was a grand parade with seven bands, on Okanagan Lake a regatta and scores of bathing beauties.
The climactic moment arrived at 10.25 p.m. The starlit shores of the lake were dense with people in paper hats, waving balloons. On the lake itself there was a raft forty feet long and forty feet wide. The eighty-five million dollars worth of bonds, presoaked in gasoline, stood atop the raft like a soggy monument. Soon Premier Bennett himself floated up beside the raft, borne slowly in the prow of a launch. Someone handed him a mediumsized bow, preloaded with a burning arrow. The crowd grew still. The premier took aim and fired. Instead of the leaping Wagnerian pyre that had been so carefully planned, the only change in the lighting effects was the dying flicker of the arrow as it fell back into the lake. The launch hove to and a farsighted R( MP officer, a member of Bennett's escort, quickly leaned across the narrow gap of water and set fire to the bonds with a blowtorch.
To no one's surprise. Bennett's public debut as an archer became an immediate subject of controversy. The Vancouver Sun, which is moderately anti-Bennett, reported: "The arrow missed the mark." The Victoria Times, which is outspokenly anti-Bennett, said: “The arrow was fired, missed." The Colonist, closest among B. C’.'s four largest papers to being neutral, asserted: "The arrow hit. but fell
back into the water without igniting the fire." The Province, at that time Bennett's chief press supporter, announced staunch-
ly: “The premier shot an arrow into $70 million (sic) pile of bonds.”
The mystery of what really did happen to the arrow .s not nearly so confusing or contentious as the mystery of what really happened to the debt. Bennett still insists it’s gone, that in a world racked and smothered by deficit financing he and Social Credit have achieved the miracle of creating a government wholly solvent and wholly out of hock.
Less imaginative bookkeepers sound a constant warning that, while it may he true the province has no direct debt—i.e. no loans it must meet by a stated date in its own corporate being—it does have an indirect debt of a billion and a quarter dollars. This is represented by its guarantees to a growing array of public enterprises ranging from municipal offices and schools to ferry boats, bridges, toll highways, a railway and the $600-million IL C. Flectric. By running the provincially owned utilities as Crown agencies on what he insists is a self-sustaining basis he is able to argue that the province, as a province, has no bills outstanding, but only what he calls “contingent liabilities.” The dissenters persist in returning to the ugly word debt.
At the historic time of the bond-burning, Robert M. Strachan, the Glasgow carpenter who leads the CCF-NDP opposition in the legislature, called the whole thing “a show, a hoax, a cheap fraud” that would land any businessman in jail. When Bennett brought down his 1962 budget last February the only moderation in the opposition leader's language was that he had run out of short words long ago and was now reaching for polysyllables: “mass of deception, bubbling spring of misinformation. arrogant nonsense.” F.ven the Vancouver Province, whose support of Bennett and Social Credit was based mainly on dislike of Strachan and socialism, had been able to find no more friendly way to describe “the political cook-out at Kelowna” than as “a shabby trick to hoodwink the gullible.”
Gullible or not. few of Bennett’s constituents are much interested in all this wrangling over the fine print in the treasury statements. The premier’s talents as a lightning calculator probably have no more to do with his success on the hustings than has his posture as a Social Créditer. People vote for or against him for much more intimate and homely reasons. They vote for him because, in the early Fifties, he had the courage, honest ire or sense of the moment to cross the floor of the legislature and rescue the province from the limp embrace of a hopelessly worn-out coalition of Conservatives and Liberals. They vote for him because, with the two old parties now as dead as doornails, the only alternative is the modified but still disturbing socialism of the CCF-NDP. They vote for him chiefly because every time they look around they see something that he has built or caused to be built and that they are using to make life more pleasant or convenient.
They vote against him because, behind his forced and wintry smile, they detect a tough and ruthless autocrat, a man who has made the government of B. C. as much a one-man show as Duplessis once made the government of Quebec. They vote against him because they are sometimes disappointed in the benefactions he is offering them with their own money—school grants, tax rebates, the hospital plan and the like. They vote against him because they have little liking for the men around him, the men in his cabinet and two or three outside it—alleged kingmakers and bandwagon-riders like the late Axel Wenner-Gren, the mysterious financier from Sweden; like Frank McMahon, the pipeline colossus; like Einar Gunderson, the recently appointed $27,500-a-year vice-
president of B. C. F. whom many British Columbians regard suspiciously as Bennett's gray eminence.
Social Credit itself has almost no bearing on the political situation in B. C. If asked. Bennett will give his own short definition: “Social Credit is using the credit of society to raise the living standards of society as a whole." But efforts to get him to elaborate on doctrine seldom lead beyond a fairly conventional attack on the old parties. ("They are both debt parties. The Conservatives have increased the national debt by two billion dollars. Only two provinces have reduced their debts, Alberta and British Columbia—and they say ue’re the funny-money party. When we took over B. C. Fleetric they started calling us socialist, but were the only genuine free-enterprise party left. We reinforced the free enterprise system—created power for the people. We intend to create more.” )
While he acknowledges a debt to the patron saint of Social Credit in Canada. William Aberhart, Bennett admits his brand is not the same as Aberhart’s. "Remember. he was elected when people wore gunny sacks and eggs were ten cents a dozen.”
To Social Crediters who still revere Abcrhart's evangelism Bennett has been a disappointment. He attends church (United) faithfully and does not drink, smoke or swear. But he has discouraged the oldtime religion as a campaign instrument and almost eliminated it from his own platform and, with some exceptions, from the platforms of his followers. "1 refuse to wear my religion on my sleeve." he says firmly. “I sort of like the saying that religion is for sinners, not for saints. We Social Crediters are no better than anyone else. But." he adds hastily, “we strive to be."
“And the Bible. Mr. Premier?”
A reporter who covered Bennett’s successful general election campaign of 1956 recalls sitting in the press row as the premier ended his last meeting at Penticton. After the address there was the usual question period. An elderly lady rose and said earnestly: "1 woidd like the premier to reaffirm the Social Credit creed: ‘Loyalty to the Queen, free enterprise and Back to the Bible.' ” Bennett nodded appreciatively. “Gladly, my dear madam. Loyalty to the Queen and free enterprise.” The lady rose again. “And Back to the Bible?" she reminded him. “Yes," Bennett said earnestly. “Loyalty to the Queen and free enterprise.” The lady subsided, deep in her disappointment. The reporter, spurred by an impulse that he says he'd like to think was chivalry but knows was pure mischief, now spoke up audibly from the press section. "And Back to the Bible. Mr. Premier?" Bennett returned to the rostrum “And Back to the Bible.” he beamed, as though correcting an inexplicable oversight. On the way out of the hall, lie stopped the reporter. “You know." he said severely. “You fellows are here to report, not take part."
Bennett's forthright evasiveness has long been one of his best-known characteristics. When he wants to he can fence and dissemble as skillfully as the late Mackenzie King. This the present writer can vouch for in person. I had two long interviews with him shortly after he had made a public New Year's resolution. The resolution was that no matter how strong the temptation to do otherwise might be. he would confront his fellow man henceforth with nothing but good will and brotherly love. If the sedate and restfid winter lawns of Victoria hadn’t been so impossibly far from Madison Avenue, it would have been easy to suspect that the premier had been per-
suaded to remake the image. The Bennett who rules with an iron hand, a strong will and an unpredictable temper, the Bennett who has been compared to the toughest political bosses of his generation, was about to become a veritable Sweet-AliceBen-Bolt. The veteran legislative correspondent, James K. Nesbitt, lamented: “I doubt if I’ll be able to stand the coming session.”
I was among the first outsiders to be exposed to the new, peacemongering Bennett. The impact did not come all at once, but in a series of questions and answers over the course of several hours. To what extent. I asked him once, had the wellknown animosity between him on the one hand and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, Justice Minister Fulton and F.xternal Affairs Minister Howard Green held up the complicated negotiations on the Columbia? (It is, of course, already a matter of verified history that, having agreed to a U. S.Canadian treaty. Bennett refused to accept it after it had been ratified by the U. S. He added to Ottawa's embarrassment and indignation by locking his office door when Fulton came to Victoria to talk the matter over. Green, like Fulton, is doubly involved as a cabinet minister and as an MP from B. C.. and he also shares with Diefenbaker the special indignity of having spoken for his country in the conference rooms of Washington and being unable, so far, to make it stick.)
“Animosity?” Bennett said in surprise. “Why, no. These men are all friends of mine. There’s nothing personal in it at all. It’s just politics. 1 call them John, Davie and Howard and they call me Cece. Before I quit the Conservatives, Fulton and Green and I helped each other in our campaigns and when I ran for the House of Commons in 1948 Diefenbaker came all the way out here to give me his help. I have no feeling of animosity toward any of them and I don’t think they have any feeling of animosity toward me.” (Later, in Ottawa, I talked to both Fulton and Green and asked for and received a brief comment from the prime minister’s office. None of the three would be quoted verbatim. They all confirmed that they had once been on cordial first-name terms with Bennett but it was my impression that to describe their present feelings toward him as friendship would be an overstatement.)
Another time I asked the premier if he had difficulty in controlling his notorious temper. (Once he seized a book from the speaker’s table and threw it into the audience. squarely aimed at a heckler’s head.)
"Temper?” he said. “I have no temper. People keep telling me I smile too much. I'd never have anything to do with anyone
who couldn’t control himself. Wouldn’t have him working for me, wouldn’t have him around me. I’ve never lost my temper.” He paused and added: “Righteous indignation is another thing.”
Later we were discussing the widely held notion that Bennett has surrounded himself with a weak cabinet and handles even the minor decisions himself, and that when he commits the province to important enterprises such as the B.C.E. expropriation, the development of the Peace or the knockdown fight with Ottawa over the Columbia, most members of the government hear about it for the first time in the open sittings of the legislature. “This is a team government,” Bennett answered mildly, without altering the smile by a millimetre in any direction. “Anyone who is head of a government should be able to delegate authority. Our cabinet ministers in B. C. have more authority than the ministers in any other government in Canada. Men can only do good work if they’re given their heads. And Social Credit has no place for the cult of personality. You’ll notice that when the other parties use up their free radio or television time it’s always the party leader who speaks. I don’t do that here. My ministers use our free time.”
His relations with the press came up. This is a topic on which the old Bennett sometimes seemed on the verge of losing the old-type Bennett temper. “We’re getting a fair press.” the new Bennett volunteered. “I say we’re getting a fair press because the more unfair criticism we get the better it is for us. I love a critical press. A partisan press helps us rather than hinders us. People begin to sympathize with us.”
Whatever the quality of Bennett’s press may be, the quantity is staggering. Even in dull times British Columbia tends toward a Graustarkian preoccupation with its own affairs, and this is reflected in all the province’s newspapers. In the exciting era of W. A. C. Bennett, of great rivers tugging at their leashes, of governments locked in mighty combat, of big money, big dreams and big debates on every hand, it’s not much wonder that the emphasis on B. C. news is greater than ever. Directly below Bennett’s office in the legislative building in Victoria there’s a base menta storage room with a metal fireproof door and barred windows at eye level with the street. The room contains a few filing cabinets of publicity handouts and official minutes but the most striking exhibit is a set of scrapbooks containing some of the clippings Bennett and his actions have iiu_
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spired since 1952. To date there are thirtythree filled books, each containing about 200 pages of about three newspaper columns. Practically all the clippings are from one or other of the four largest B. C. papers and none are duplicated. This adds up to 20,000 columns or. using the standard gauge of 800 words a column, the equivalent of sixteen million words. Clipping Number One in Volume Number One tells of a Social Credit meeting in Eagles Hall. New Westminster, on the night of March 10. 1952. This was a year after Bennett had bolted the Conservatives, three months after he had joined forces with Social Credit and five months before he led his new party to its first astonishing victory. In introducing Bennett, the chairman of the meeting said gratefully, though somewhat apprehensively: “He is our
champion in the legislature. He is a sheep among wolves.”
Sixteen million words of newsprint and ten years later there are thousands of British Columbians w'ho would say—some proudly, some in bitterness or frustration
— that the metaphor has been turned exactly inside out. If there arc any sheep in the B. C. legislature today their names \¡vnot Bennett. His enemies point out _Jíscfúlly that Bennett obtained only thirty-nine percent of the popular vote in the last provincial election and that his majority dropped from twenty-four seats to twelve. His friends point out that in his latest important test of strength not a single member of any party dared vote against his expropriation of B. C. E. Bob Strachan could only complain that the CCF thought of it first and would have done the deed less high-handedly.
But Bennett still feels secure enough of his base to treat Strachan, his only visible rival, with distant scorn. In six years as leader of the official opposition, Strachan has never been inside Bennett’s office. Occasionally he has failed to get past Betnett's secretaries on the telephone and sometimes his letters have gone unacknowledged. The only communication between the two men is across the floor of the legislature, where the old-style, pre-Amor di Cosmos Bennett has been known to dismiss his critics with the single phrase: “Flub. flub, flub!” or “Blah, blah, blah!”
Bennett’s hold on the nonsocialist vote appears, for the time being, unshakeablc. There have been frequent though unconfirmed rumors in B. C. and Ottawa that John Diefenbaker would like to relieve Davie Fulton of the captaincy of his Columbia River team and send him back to engage Bennett from a different flank, as leader of the provincial Tories. Bennett is undisturbed, perhaps with good reason. The luncheon clubs, the golf fairways and the yacht basins of Vancouver and Vic-
toria are jammed with businessmen — potential Conservatives and Liberals to a man — w'ho, to quote one of them, "hate Bennett’s guts but don’t dare not support him.” Their fear of socialism is only a part of their non-anti-Bcnnettism. With so many public utilities in operation and so many new public works in progress or in prospect. a high proportion of the private commerce and industry of B. C. depends directly or indirectly on government contracts. Last August Bennett opened a B. C. House — a trade and tourist centre — in San Francisco and issued 175 invitations to prominent British Columbians. More than twice that number showed up. even though San Francisco is as far from Vancouver as Vancouver is from Regina. "What are you doing all this way from home?” one of the bona fide guests asked one of the long-distance gate-crashers as they pushed toward the refreshments. "Buttering up everybody I can lay my eyes on,” the gate-crasher said unhappily. "I've got to make a living.”
In this salubrious climate, with no discernible need to call an election at home before 1964, Bennett can probably well afford to stake his next main power play on the next Dominion election. He concedes that Social Credit took a humiliating shellacking w'hen it tried to go national in 1958, but insists there were special conditions then that won’t apply this time. “In 1957,” he says, “Diefenbaker went in with a minority government. He was in exactly the same position as Social Credit in B. C. five years before. When he went back to the country in ’58. looking for a clear majority, a lot of our people thought he deserved a chance at it. the same chance B. C. gave us in ’53. Maybe it was only through a sense of fairness but a lot of Social Crediters voted Conservative four years ago. Now Diefenbaker’s had his chance and failed. He’ll get no Social Credit votes next time.”
Bennett prophesies “anywhere up to eighty” Social Credit seats in the next House of Commons — most of them from B. C., Alberta and Quebec. “Social Credit is bound to form a government at Ottaw'a some day,” he says, but he denies the slightest interest in leading it himself. Who would be his choice then — Ernest Manning of Alberta? “We’ve got a pretty good man right now,” he told me after a moment’s careful thought. The present national leader is Robert N. Thompson, a chiropractor of Red Deer, Alberta.
Wherever the lost seats come to rest. Bennett’s minimum hope is that his friends Diefenbaker. Fulton, Green and their Conservative colleagues will take a sufficient setback from the national electorate that (a) they won’t be involved at all in the next main round of the Columbia debate, or (b) they’ll have been so chastened that they’ll be much more ready to compromise. To him. as to most people, the essence of good compromising is to get more than you give away. That he expects to win at least his main condition — the sale to the U. S. of Canadian-owned power on the Columbia — he has never revealed the slightest doubt. “We’re doing as much work on the Columbia right now as we could be doing if the treaty were already ratified.” he points out serenely. "We’re also spending millions of dollars on the Peace. Both projects will go ahead, together.”
Bennett does have a few minor hobbies besides his major one of politics. He sometimes plays . the horses — and doesn't apologize for it. He also enjoys gin rummy and bridge. A friend of his says he’s much better at the former, where each player is on his own. than at the latter, a partnership game. He often counsels his bridge partners: “Don’t open unless you see a chance for slam.” ★