Ray Lee

An improbable book

As a book publisher, I usually refrain from commenting on books I haven’t myself published, but I decided to make an exception in the case of The Backwash Squeeze and other improbable feats, by Edward McPherson.  Since this is an outsider’s look at the world of bridge, it seems only fair that an insider take a look at the look, so to speak.


Despite a fair amount of cynicism about bestseller lists, I approached this book with optimism — indeed, someone I knew said he was half-way through it and enjoying it immensely.  So, I asked myself three chapters in, why wasn’t I?  Why was this book so disappointing?


Perhaps I know the scene too well.  Was it that there’s nothing in here I didn’t know before I began reading?  Why did I find the whole thing so dull?  Here was an author who had decided to write about that bizarre social group that I’ve been part of for decades, and yet it wasn’t interesting…  As I soldiered on, I began to come to the conclusion that it wasn’t me, but the book.


This is an author who’s fascinated by surface details.  We learn the minutiae of what a bridge club looks like inside, and what each opponent is wearing.  We share the author’s amazement when he learns about bidding boxes.  We follow him around to various clubs and tournaments in the USA (and even for some reason to London, but not Canada and definitely not any non-English-speaking countries).  And we certainly get that he had lots of fun learning bridge at Harper Collins’ expense.  But in the end we don’t learn anything we really want to know.


The title actually gives it away.  ‘Backwash squeeze’ is a term the author came across, refers to once as a cute piece of jargon, uses as his ‘grabber’ title — and never mentions again.  He has no idea what it is, he just likes the sound of it. This is a narrative that resembles the Mississippi river — it’s 2 miles wide and half an inch deep.  Throughout, the author struggles to understand the fascination of the game without really coming to grips with it — even though he gets bitten by the bug himself.  He interviews top players and Ray Leeistrators, but there is a sense of awe rather than objectivity — the questions are powder puffs, and the tough cross-examinations never happen.  When he outlines some of Zia’s radical ideas for popularizing the game in the media to (then) ACBL president Harriet Buckman, he lets her get away with pooh-poohing them in favour of the status quo.  The most insightful comment comes early on (before addiction, perhaps?) when he remarks how successful the ACBL has been at marketing and selling something of no value whatsoever — the master point.


And in the end, it is a narrative.  It’s a description of ‘A year in Bridgeland’, which leaves the most interesting questions untouched.  Here are a few of the things I would have liked a perceptive outsider’s take on:


How hard is this game to learn?  What are the toughest parts of it for a beginner?  I’ve been involved in enough teaching to sense how hard it must be, but it would be fascinating to see the process from the student’s viewpoint.


What does an outsider notice about the top players?  What makes them different?


Why do master points have the attraction for most people that they do?


How do you account for the incredible international appeal of bridge?  How about the way it cuts across social strata? 


Why do so few young players take up the game, compared to other mind sports like chess?


Why does the bridge gender gap exist?  What are the parallels in other endeavours, if any?


And above all, what exactly is the addictive quality of the game?  What is it that keeps people from beginners to world champions coming back to all the places it is played, from social clubs to tournaments and big money clubs?  McPherson does attempt to get at that, but in the final analysis can never answer the question.  By the time he’s in his first supervised play session, he’s an addict himself, without even knowing it, and the objectivity is gone.  No longer the observer, he’s become one of the lab rats.

There is definitely a book that needs to be published on bridge sociology, but this one isn’t it.  If you want to see what I have in mind, take a look at The Immortal Game (David Shenk, Random House) which is a book on chess that does do the job — it examines the complexity and fascination of the game through the ages, as well as looking at the personalities and talents of top performers.  In contrast to bridge, chess is a game that does seem to appeal to young people — perhaps if we understood why that is the case, and what the issue is with bridge, we would be on the way to being able to prevent our game from dying of old age. 


ShazDecember 7th, 2007 at 10:37 pm

It’s probably the image of bridge that is the problem when it comes to young people playing bridge. When I tell anyone in my age group that I play bridge, the consistent and invariable comment I get from almost everyone is, “Oh, my grandmother plays bridge!” The image everyone has of the game is that it’s for old people. Chess doesn’t have that image associated with it.

RayDecember 13th, 2007 at 5:21 pm

I agree, Shaz — but what I don’t understand is why. The last time I dropped in on a chess tournament, there were huge sections in age groups — under 11, under 13, under 15 etc. Lots and lots of kids (of both sexes) playing the game. I think part of it is that chess has been accepted as a worthwhile school activity for many years — bridge still has a hard time breaking in there (Tickets to the Devil, etc.) There’s still something unsavory about card games for a lot of people.

ColinDecember 13th, 2007 at 9:12 pm

It could have something to do with Chess only requiring 2 players to play and Bridge needing 4…

ShazDecember 14th, 2007 at 3:15 am

Haha, oh my gosh, yes Colin, that may very well have something to do with it: It feels like we’re ALWAYS looking for a fourth!

And yes Ray, that’s a very good point. I actually wish somebody had taught me bridge when I was in elementary or high school. All those wasted years I could have been playing bridge in!

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