Ray Lee

Bridge book of the year?


It isn’t often a mainstream publisher puts out a book on bridge, and it’s an even rarer event when the author is a well-known writer in other fields.  But that’s exactly what’s just happened.  Doubleday has just released The Cardturner, by Louis Sachar, the bestselling young-adult fiction author responsible for such winners as Holes (which became a popular movie).

When the story begins, Alton Richards is a fairly typical 17-year-old.  He’s in high school, his girl-friend Katie has dumped him for his best friend Cliff, and his parents are bugging him about getting a job for the summer.   Then Granduncle Lester calls.  Lester is the crusty old relative no one wants to spend time with, but he’s also filthy rich, and the family wants to stay in his good graces, and therefore presumably in his will.  Lester needs some help, and Alton, being apparently idle, is duly summoned to the phone by his mother.  Lester asks him two qualifying questions:  “Do you know a king from a jack?” and “Can you play bridge?”.  Alton gives satisfactory answers to these questions (‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively), and is hired: for $75 a session, he’s going to be Lester’s cardturner.

For Uncle Lester, it turns out, is a keen (and very good) bridge player, despite being blind, diabetic, and quite possibly terminally ill.  Alton’s job is to take him to the bridge club three or four times a week, to sit beside him, then to call out and turn his cards.  Apparently the previous incumbent, Toni (also a grand-niece, but reputed to be more than a little crazy, so avoided by the family) began to learn a little too much about the game.  Finally, when instructed to duck an ace, she stopped and inquired “Are you sure?”, the incident that led to her being replaced by Alton.

Through Alton’s eyes, then, we are introduced to bridge and bridge players.  There is a funny incident when he reads out Lester’s cards to him for the first time – and does it in random order (“Jack of diamonds, four of clubs, six of hearts…).  Lester yells at Alton for being an idiot, but later realizes he just didn’t know any better, and demonstrates very neatly to him how memory and organization work together:  Memorize this sequence, Lester challenges him:  g-b-c-d-i-o-a-o-r-y-t-g-l.  When Alton admits defeat, Lester says, ‘Okay, try the letters in this order: g-i-r-l-b-o-y-c-a-t-d-o-g.’

At first, Alton is bemused by what he sees: by the game itself, by the people he meets, and by how they behave and talk to one another.  “These people are from a different planet, Planet Bridge”, he tells Cliff in his first week of duty.  “They even speak their own language.”  But gradually, depite himself, he begins to learn about the game, and realize something of its complexity – that it is more than a substitute for bingo for old people.

He becomes more and more interested, and eventually (of course) begins playing himself – with Toni, who we can soon guess is going to become the ‘love interest’, even though she is currently dating someone else.  We also being to learn a little about Lester’s past – which contains some kind of mystery involving his former bridge parter, Toni’s grandmother Annabel.  It seems some kind of incident occurred at a Nationals, which ended with Annabel in an asylum, and Lester giving up bridge for many years.  Annabel’s unhappy life eventually ended in suicide.

The plot moves along briskly, and I’ll leave you to discover for yourself how Alton and Toni get to play bridge at a Nationals (and, of course, finally get together), and what happens there, by reading the book.  The fascinating thing is how Sachar has managed to weave the bridge background into a compelling story, without making it inaccessible for non-players (who surely must make up the bulk of his audience).   Indeed, as we get to the Nationals, the deals and incidents multiply, and the bridge content gets quite dense.

The key to how he manages this rather neat trick is the little whale icon.  This symbol (which is reference to passages in Moby Dick where any teenage reader will just want to zone out for a while) precedes and warns about any detailed bridge section.  The reader can then either choose to plow through it, or just skip it by just reading the neat boxed summary at the end of the section – which contains all they need to know to continue with the story.  However, the author isn’t in any way apologetic about including all this technical stuff (we get into finesses very early, for example).  Here’s what Alton, the narrator, says:

“Bridge is like chess.  No one’s going to make a movie out of it.  A great chess player moves his pawn up one square, and for the .0001 percent of the population who understand what just happened, it was the football equivalent of intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown.  But for the rest of us, it was still just a pawn going from a black square to a white one.  Or getting back to bridge, it was playing the six of diamonds instead of the two of clubs.  Well, there’s nothing I can do about that.  I’m sorry my seventy-six-year-old blind diabetic uncle didn’t play linebacker for the Chicago Bears.”

There’s  a great bridge background to this story too – not just the play by play parts, but stories about bridge and bridge players.  President Eisenhower is in it (Annabel, a Senator’s wife, was a regular at the White House bridge games).  Richard Nixon has a cameo too, but not as a bridge player.  There are funny stories, and the atmosphere of a bridge tournament fairly leaps off the page.

For me, this book actually accomplishes what Ed Macpherson tried to do in The Backwash Squeeze a couple of years ago: explore and explain the world of bridge and bridge players by following a novice as the game gains an ever-increasing fascination for him.  Here, in the hands of a top-class writer, I think the attempt is successful.  But I’m too old and I’ve played too much bridge to be part of the intended audience for the book, and it is non-bridge-playing teenagers who will eventually decide whether or not it’s succeeded.  People like our eldest grandson, Cassidy, for example.

A couple of years ago, Cassidy (who is a keen player of all kinds of games) discovered that his grandmother was away in China, playing in the World Bridge Championships.  He digested this for a few seconds, and then asked his mother, ‘What’s bridge?’.  When this was reported to me in due course, I said to Jen, “Aha – got him!”, and she ruefully admitted I was probably right.  In any event, there’ll be a copy of The Cardturner heading out to Vancouver pretty soon.  If you have teenage kids or grandkids whom you want to interest in playing bridge, this is a book to give them.

I doubt that the IBPA would ever consider The Cardturner for their Book of the Year award, but they should.  It has the potential to do for bridge what Searching for Bobby Fischer did for chess.


Dave Memphis MOJOMay 26th, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Nice review, thanks for sharing.

Ross TaylorMay 28th, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Agreed. Makes me want to go out and buy the book. Thanks Ray.

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