Ray Lee

Three great bridge books you haven’t read – part 3

So finally, I come to the book I know you haven’t read, because it hasn’t been published yet — although if you’re as old as I am, you may have come across some of the material in it before.

Frank Vine of Hamilton Ontario, who passed away in 1987 at the early age of 50, was a regular contributor to a number of magazines, including The Bridge World.  I remember Frank well as an opponent from those days — he was a tough competitor, and his rather caustic wit probably made him as many enemies as friends.  He won the NABC Men’s Pairs in 1969 — until it fell victim to political correctness, this was the strongest event in the annual tournament circuit.  But it is Frank Vine the writer who, in my opinion, should not be forgotten.

I am not alone in this view, clearly, since The Bridge World published a short collection of Frank’s work shortly after his death.  A proverbial slim volume, it did not achieve wide circulation, and has been out of print for many years.  It has, however, been in my mind for some time to publish a more complete collection, and I’m happy to say that North of the Master Solvers’ Club will see the light of day at the end of the month.

It actually wasn’t easy to gather the material.  Jeff Rubens was enormously helpful, as always, and sent us an index of TBW issues from which we could begin to track down each article.   Tom Dawson lent us the relevant issues for scanning (how nice it is to have someone nearby who owns one of the world’s few complete collections of TBW!).  John Carruthers painstakingly culled the pages of the Kibitzer for Frank’s work, and brought a huge pile of magazines over to the office for scanning.  And Ron and Ira Vine, Frank’s sons, graciously not only gave permission for the book to go ahead, but wrote us a foreword.

It was a joy to read and reread all this material, to select the best from it, and edit it into the final book.  What a good writer Frank Vine was.  One of our proofreaders told us he had to go through the pages twice — he was enjoying himself so much, he forgot to do any actual proofreading the first time!

The book falls naturally into three parts.  First, the Coldbottom Chronicles, a series of a dozen or so stories featuring Cornelius Coldbottom, a character highly reminiscent of David Silver’s Professor Silver.  Using humor as his weapon, Vine skewers the bridge scene, taking aim at issues like committee rulings and cheating, and making his points so subtly and smoothly that the cuts almost don’t hurt.  The third part consists of parodies with bridge settings — even The Bridge World is not exempt, and is targeted in articles such as ‘How I challenged the Champs’ and the title piece itself, ‘North of the Master Solvers’ Club’.  Perhaps I should explain the latter – the reader (or solver) is always South in the MSC problems.  Partner, North, is described as an expert player with whom you have had no system discussion other than ‘Bridge World Standard’.  In Frank’s article, he meets the actual person who is North, and listens to him complain bitterly about some of the idiotic bids that the expert panel comes up with…

The middle section of the book we have entitled ‘Comment’.  It is a pot-pourri of bridge thoughts and ideas, ranging from technical to current issues (current then and current today, in many instances). Much of the material included in it appeared in local publications, often as a letter to the Editor.  It is no less pointed and funny for that.  Here’s one short example from this section, including my introduction.

Letter to the Editor

Committees are a curious phenomenon that I believe are unique to bridge. After all, this isn’t a video replay to determine whether a ball or a puck crossed a line – this is a post-mortem examination of suggestions, inferences and motivations, often in situations where the most ethical player in the world has no idea what his rights or responsibilities are. Small wonder that bridge committees have come up with some spectacularly bad decisions. But just because they don’t rule your way doesn’t mean automatically that you got hosed. Here Frank Vine puts on his lawyer’s persona and lets one litigant have it with both barrels. [Ed.]

In your last issue there was a letter from James Hardy which deserves comment. He tells a harrowing story. Holding 23 high card points and cold for game in two suits, he has his opponents misinform him (and each other) about the meaning of one of their systemic bids, and he and his partner languish in a partial.

The case went to a committee of “name” players who ruled against Mr. Hardy and he argues that such committees should not be composed merely of top players (who don’t understand the problems of the little man) but should also contain a sprinkling of average players. He cites as a precedent the jury system which as we all know bars all legal experts from service.

Well Mr. Hardy, I have been in the law business a long time and have yet to meet anyone in the trade who has the slightest belief that the jury system leads to justice. Don’t get me wrong. Lawyers love juries. Give yourself an absolutely stinking case, with the law and facts dead against you, and you still stand a good chance of finding at least one baboon out of twelve jurors who is ready to swallow any drivel. The same principle applies to bridge committees. The questions involved are generally complex. It takes people with a wide knowledge of all aspects of the game to arrive at an equitable decision. In one way you are quite right. Had there been people of lesser experience judging your case you might indeed have been given another decision, but that is only because you were wrong, Mr. Hardy, dead wrong.

You see, it is not a rule that you get something for nothing every time your opponents break a bridge law. Most times you must still show that you were damaged by the infraction. In your particular case the bad result did not come from bad behavior. It came from bad bridge.

In the first place, you were hurt by your chosen system. The strong club may have its virtues, but it is the easiest of the strong openings for the opponents to jam, as they did here. Secondly, at your first opportunity to describe your hand you underbid by a full ace. Despite all this, you were given another chance and wound up in three notrump, which was going to make, no doubt about it, on the marked spade lead. Unhappily, your partner pulled to four of a minor, and this without being doubled, thus ignoring the first rule of winning bridge: Don’t run until the shooting starts. All this made the final result the fault of your partnership and there is no question that the committee ruled correctly.

While I am on the subject of committees, let me say this. Your average player would not be happy serving on one. You give up a good part of your dinner hour, you miss most of the festivities following the game, you work energetically to come to a fair, impartial and just decision, giving full weight, Mr. Hardy, to the level of experience of the players involved in each instance, and in return you get no pay, little thanks, and make a lot of enemies. Not to mention the abuse you receive from certain poor losers who spend the next few weeks taking carefully laundered versions of the facts to anyone who will listen and scream about the rooking they got from the committee. As you can see, I think it is about time someone talked back.

Well, if you haven’t read Frank Vine before, that should give you a pretty good flavor.  Read more in North of the Master Solvers’ Club, coming from Master Point Press to your local bridge book supplier in early October.

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