Sally Sparrow

The Backwash Squeeze

Having read Ray’s point of view on the new book The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats by Edward McPherson (HarperCollins), I was curious to check it out for myself, particularly to see if I felt differently about it from my perspective as a virtual non-bridge-player. Ray, as you can see in his blog review here, wasn’t fond of the book. I find myself ambivalent: I think that perhaps being the more “intended audience”, I did glean some better understanding of the world of bridge, but I also found that the book had its share of problems.

One such problem was the pace, which was often slow—an unfortunate flaw for a book whose partial aim is fighting the misconception that bridge is boring. Sometimes the author’s attempt to paint a thorough picture–giving us descriptions of fellow bridge players, the snacks at the bridge club, the conversations going on around him–can seem plodding trivialities rather than colourful observances.   

Yet in contrast, at times interesting subjects aren’t covered with enough detail. One such example is the “Battle of the Century”—the 1931 bridge showdown between Ely Culbertson and a rival bridge group. It caused quite the brouhaha, with crowds gathered, trick-by-trick press coverage, and international interest, and is a wonderful illustration not only of the power of bridge, but of the different zeitgeist of that time. However, this tale seems buried in a general “bridge history” chapter when I think it could have been given more space to spread its wings.

As well, though it was fun to journey with the author as he caught the bridge bug, he did seem to get so drawn into the bridge world that he lost his objectivity. This is particularly evident in the interviews, when you get the impression that he is so jazzed to be talking to these bridge greats (because of his love for the game) that he fails to press them or challenge their statements. For instance, when the author interviews Sharon Osberg, she comments, “I found being a woman in bridge way more difficult than being a woman in business”. This is a thought-provoking statement, but I was left to my own devices to guess what the causes and implications of the gender differences are, and to wonder what the counterpoints to Sharon’s claim might be, because the topic went no further.   

My carping aside, I must say that as the book rolled along, aspects of the bridge world did take shape. The author’s account of the Cavendish Invitational Pairs tournament in Las Vegas stands out in my mind, for instance, as providing a great window into the bridge scene. The author writes of attending bridge parties and mingling with some of the big names (including Zia Mahmood, Bob Hamman and Justin Lall), kibitzing with the bridge fans, and the rising suspense as the competition draws to its climax. Somehow, this chapter hit the perfect mix and gave me, I think, a better idea of the world of bridge: the unique personalities involved (fans and players), the communities and relationships built over time, the exhaustion and exultation of these events and of the game. On this level, I think the book was often successful.

Similarly, though I agree with Ray that the international bridge scene was not given its due, I did find the author’s visits to bridge clubs in the US and UK gave an interesting cross-section of the spectrum of players, different levels and styles of bridge, types of gatherings and so on, which reflected the multifaceted nature of the game.   

And I must admit that, despite the somewhat mild tone of the interview questions, I did find myself enjoying getting to know a few of the featured bridge champions a bit better–Andrew Robson and Zia Mahmood in particular, but also Bob Hamman, Jeff Meckstroth, Justin Lall and others–so that they were no longer just names but people. Though he doesn’t exactly crack through their exteriors, the author does have some interesting chats with a lot of the greats (and up-and-comers), and it was a pleasure feeling as if I was sitting there chatting along with him, getting a few insights into what makes these great players who they are.

Finally, I found myself warming to the author’s own story of his pursuit of bridge, his partnership with fellow beginner (and octogenarian) Tina, and his participation in bridge games through his travels, culminating in his and Tina’s playing at the 2006 NABC in Chicago. Though he never really puts his finger on the allure of bridge, it is fun accompanying him as it wins him over.   

So really, it is portraits of specific people and events that stand out for me and which, accumulated, helped me gain a better insight into bridge, while the overarching questions remain unanswered. In short, it’s diverting, but there is still more to be said.


Ray LeeJanuary 8th, 2008 at 11:53 am

The definitive book on the history of Bridge is ‘The Walk of the Oysters’ by Rex Mackey — which goes up to about the mid 50s. One day, when I find the right author, I plan to publish its sequel 🙂 Another book worth reading is John Clay’s biography of Culbertson (and Ely’s own autobiography, too, come to think of it). The same author’s ‘Tales from the Bridge Table’ is far less successful, however.

Cam FrenchFebruary 3rd, 2008 at 4:24 pm

My favourite(sic) bridge books of all time were Kantar’s Gamesman’s Bridge and Adventures in Card play by Kelsey/Ottlik. Kantar’s was funny and a joy to read. Philip and Robert King have a couple of great reads too.

I laugh because I just purchased the Backwash book from my good friend VKO aka Vince Oddy ( and I look forward to reading it.

The worst bridge book I have had the misfortune to read was Clyde Love’s book Squeeze Play Complete. A complete waste of time.

Some, like me, love to read bridge fiction and non-fiction. Others, fail to attain the same pleasure and disdain reading. Their loss.

I recall Martin Hoffman writing about how a light went on when he read Reese’s Master Play (I think) and the chapter was called “Hold it!” It was about not releasing vital cards to the defense prematurely. It was, and remains a compelling read.

I reccomend reading the bridge literature, be it Bobby Wolff, Eddie Kantar, and some of the older stuff. (Watson’s Play of the Hand is still a classic for newcomers to the game.)

Sarah HowdenFebruary 4th, 2008 at 9:57 am

Thanks for the recommendations, Cam. I look forward to broadening my knowledge of bridge lit – and I shall take your advice and avoid Squeeze Play Complete. Incidentally, I am just reading the new biography of Charles Schulz right now (Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis) and it makes several mentions of his penchant for bridge – though the church he belonged to did not approve of contract bridge, apparently (!).

Justin LallFebruary 13th, 2008 at 10:06 pm

Really surprised at the negativity towards Love; his book is generally considered THE book for learning squeezes. I still remember dealing the cards out and feeling like each squeeze was magic. I would definitely recommend it.

Nick KrnjevicMarch 9th, 2009 at 1:50 am

Sarah-I suspect Cam and Justin are both right, but their remarks target different skill-levels.

I wouldn’t recomend Clyde Love’s text for the inexperienced player, since you need to learn to walk (i.e. count) before you can run (squeeze).

But any keen intermediate player who takes the time and effort to read Love’s book will find that it will open up an entirely new dimension of the game for them.

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