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Game's Over for the Winning Bridge Team : Representing U.S. Is Not in the Cards

December 01, 1987|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Four bridge players who won the Reisinger Cup--considered the toughest, most prestigious bridge competition in the country--cannot continue to the national trials because two of them are not U.S. residents.

Victors in the major event of the American Contract Bridge League's 10-day North American Championships held at the Anaheim Hilton & Towers were Zia Mahmood, 40, a Pakistani who lives in London; Jaggy Shivdasani, 29, a certified public accountant from Bombay, India; Billy Cohen, 29, a self-employed businessman from Santa Ana, and Ron Smith, 34, an options trader from Chicago.

But since only two team members are U.S. residents, the second-place team will compete in the U.S. trials next year. That team includes Walter Johnson of Columbus, Ohio; Ralph Katz and Howard Weinstein of Chicago; and David Berkowitz, William Pollack and Mark Cohen of New York City.

"Those guys were thrilled," said Billy Cohen.

The Reisinger is one of four major bridge championships held in the United States each year. The others are the Spingold Trophy, the Vanderbilt Cup and the Grand National Teams, a grass-roots tournament.

Normally, winners of all four events would compete in May, 1988, at the U.S. trials in Memphis, Tenn., to determine the U.S. representative in the Bermuda Bowl, a world championship to be held in Perth, Australia, in 1989. At least four members of a team, which can include alternates, are required to be U.S. residents.

All players on the first-place team knew in advance that their multinational team would be ineligible for a chance to represent the United States, and none was disappointed. "It's nice to win a national title. The best players in the world were playing here. If you beat these guys, it's about as good as it gets," Billy Cohen said.

"The best thing about this is we had a black, a Jew, an Indian and a Pakistani playing together," Mahmood said. Moreover, while Mahmood is a Muslim, his partner Shivdasani is a Hindu, a relationship he compared to Arabs and Jews.

"It's good to show how bridge can bring together people from such different backgrounds from the beginning to the end of their lives," said Mahmood, the son of a prominent family in Karachi, Pakistan.

"It just shows a special magic about the game of bridge. If you could take the magic and box it and throw it in the world, it would be a successful formula," he said.

Most partnerships for the Reisinger event are formed a year in advance, but the winning team was composed only a week ago, Smith said. By that time, he said, "All the other good players were taken."

None of the winning players are professional bridge players--experts who charge their partners to play with them in tournaments, most of which do not offer cash awards.

Many players in the U.S. national events come from Mexico and Canada, said league spokesman Rick Beye. "In many cases, you'll find teams of six with two Canadians and four Americans, so if they do well, they will qualify for a trial spot. It happens quite often," he said.

In July, the winners of the Spingold were also disqualified from the finals because Shivdasani was on the team.

Winning two major American bridge titles in a year is "pretty unbelievable," said Shivdasani. He said he hopes his victories will earn him status as a professional with paying clients. "I can't afford to keep coming back."

Both he and Mahmood said they want to win world championships, but only if they could represent their own countries.

"I would like to win a world championship, I tell you that," Shivdasani said. "But with my guys (from India), it's very difficult to win a world championship."

In 1981 and in 1986, Mahmood led a relatively little-known Pakistani team to the world championships, finishing second only to the Americans who have held the world championship for 11 years.

He said he would like to create citizen diplomat bridge events in Iceland as a sort of peace initiative. "It would be nice if we could make bridge not just the introspective thing it is now but put the good part of it out."

A Reisinger team consists of two pairs of partners, playing opponents at different tables for a common score. In the finals Sunday, closed-circuit television showed Mahmood and Shivdasani's hands--along with expert commentary--to an audience of 1,500 in a Hilton auditorium, league spokesman Beye said.

'Probably the Toughest'

"Really the finals of the Reisinger are probably the toughest (bridge) tournament in the world," Mahmood said. "You play in the last stages against 10 teams, each of which could win any world championship."

Team members knew they were headed for victory since they had won 21 out of 27 sessions Sunday. But at one point Friday, when Smith and Cohen lost an opponent's challenge on appeal, they thought of quitting, Cohen said.

The next day, players said things started to click and they began to win. "I wished we were on a blackjack table," Mahmood said. "We could have made a fortune."

Cohen said the winners celebrated with song and champagne until they were asked to leave the Anaheim Marriott across the street at 4:15 a.m. Monday.

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