You can't call a spade a spade even if you want to. Fact is, you can't tell one from a club (though you could probably spot a heart or a diamond if push came to shove). You want to enjoy card games--no, you want to be able to tolerate card games, and you live in fear of the day when Genevieve Bujold invites you to her place for a game of strip poker.
"I don't play cards, ma cherie, " you will have to tell her and spend the rest of your days in self-loathing. Your sense of inadequacy is only compounded by the knowledge that all great writers, at one time or another, have tasted the fruits of the deck in an all-night card-playing debauch.
So you face the prospect of a bridge lesson with a deep sense of foreboding. So much hangs in the balance, more than your well-meaning editor could ever have known when she gave you this assignment. Still, maybe this time you will feel the magic. Maybe you will face the demon and emerge, bloodied but triumphant.
But you're not taking any chances. No, you need all the help you can get. So you march straight to the video store and rent "Play Bridge With Omar Sharif."
You take the tape home and, while quietly whistling "Lara's Theme," pop it into your new VCR. Old Omar, still dashing, sets the tone nicely. "I have played bridge with royalty and with cabinet ministers," he says, confiding how he used to play bridge on the set with Sophia Loren. He let her win, he says, because he knew she hated to lose. His eyes twinkle mischievously, and you begin to think that maybe you've waited too long to learn this game.
You are wrong. You should have waited longer. "Now, through the electronic miracle of the videocassette," Sharif says, "you will be my partner in the world's most fascinating card game. . . ."
You remember nothing from that moment on, save a few colorful terms, like trick, no-trump, slam and rubber.
And so you arrive at the Hueneme Bay Bridge Club with your sense of foreboding intact. Will you get trumped here, among these 20 or so active seniors? Will you be forced to play a rubber or pick up tricks? Not if you can help it; a reporter can only be expected to go so far in the line of duty.
Your instructor, Pat Perkins, tries to make you feel at home among her students, both beginners and intermediate players. She tells you that she grew up in Texas. "My father played cards, though some people thought he shouldn't have," she says. "The Southern Baptists called cards the 'pasteboards of the devil,' so we used to play with the shades drawn."
Perkins stands before a chalkboard filled with strange symbols. "Tonight's lesson is on the response to an opening no-trump bid," she says, and you begin to wonder why seemingly nice people say such things.
But it's time to play bridge. You've been placed at the beginners' table and, since four women are already there, you double up with one of them. All your table mates have been here a couple of times before, so they're only moderately green.
They seem concerned about your comprehension of the game, and you don't want to disappoint them. Quickly you master the dual-pronged technique of:
a) looking like you understand and,
b) asking seemingly intelligent questions.
For example, your partner says to you, "If you win a trick, you put your cards down vertically. If you lose, you lay them horizontally." You nod knowingly, rub your chin and ask, "Is that standard operating procedure in duplicate as well as in rubber bridge?" They're impressed. You're pretty sure they would have been less impressed had you asked the question that was really on your mind: What on earth is a trick?
After a half-dozen or so brain-numbing hands, you decide to take an inventory of what you've learned so far about the world's most fascinating card game. You scribble the following in your notebook:
1. The art is in the bidding.
2. The dealer always opens.
3. An ace is worth 4 points, a king is 3, a queen is 2 and a jack is 1.
Thus assured that the evening has not been a total loss, you approach Perkins and ask her the question that has gnawed at you since your game with Omar Sharif.
"Why do people play bridge?"
Perkins says she plays for the intellectual stimulation and the challenge. "It's good for older people because it gives them something to do," she says. "When you start to lose more of your memory than you'd like to, it's good for you. It helps keep you alert."
Maybe she's got something there, you say to yourself, and resolve to give the game another try--in about 35 years.
There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. This week's Reluctant Novice is free-lance writer Steve Keeva.