When Bobby Wolff goes to a friend’s house, the last thing he wants to do is play a few hands of bridge after dinner. “Social bridge,” he says with disdain, “has no interest for me.”
Wolff, 52, is into killer bridge. High-level international bridge. Riffle a deck of cards before him, he’ll tell you which card is missing. To the cognoscenti, he’s “the ace of aces.” This week, Wolff—whose daily bridge column is syndicated in 130 newspapers—will put his reputation on the line. He and five U.S. teammates will take on competitors from 80 countries at the World Team Olympiad in Seattle. The U.S. players are the defending world champs, and Wolff, who has been a grandmaster for 13 years, is a team leader and guiding spirit. “He’s a fierce competitor,” says teammate, partner and pal Bob Hamman, “a mean puncher.” Adds Joe Musumeci, the team’s coach, “Bobby’s one of the greatest natural players of all time. He’s got terrific powers of concentration.”
Concentration for the professional bridge player is what hand-eye coordination is for the major league baseball player—everything. Tournaments are mentally grueling affairs that last up to two weeks, with 10 or more hours of play every day. “And all the time,” says Wolff, “you’re a mathematical detective trying to piece together an opponent’s hand from the cards that have fallen before.”
So intense are such tournaments—Wolff plays in about 15 per year—that Wolff will sleep 12 hours a day for the two weeks following a match. During a tournament he’ll try to get to sleep within minutes of leaving the table to avoid concentration-busting postmortems. To sharpen his mental focus, Wolff tries to minimize the pressure on himself. “I never think about winning,” he says. “I think about doing the best I can. And I don’t believe in making side wagers. If you bet on yourself, you create artificial pressure.”
Wolff, ironically, bets on nearly every game other than bridge. “When you gamble,” he says, “you are buying the thrill of winning. Of course,” he adds philosophically, “you might also be paying to feel bad.”
As for the cheating scandals that occasionally have rocked international bridge, Wolff just shrugs. To him, cheating is a pointless activity, for bridge is an ego game, where “matching intellects play for glory and prestige. If you win by cheating,” says this connoisseur of egotism, “I don’t know how you can get that boost.”
Now the game is policed from above and below. Screens keep partners from signaling at eye level and shields under the tables keep them from using their feet. (At the 1975 Bermuda Bowl, two players were accused of employing a toe-tapping code.) “But if someone really wants to cheat,” Wolff shrugs, “he’ll find a way.”
Wolff grew up in San Antonio watching his lawyer-father and housewife-mother play social bridge. He took up the game as a teenager, and by the time he entered Trinity University law school, he realized his future lay in the cards rather than his law books. Wolff dropped out and began teaching bridge and playing in tournaments.
Wolff and his wife of eight years, Deborah, live in a four-bedroom contemporary brick house in North Dallas, and it’s there that he writes his newspaper column. The homespun quotes with which he begins each column (“He that resolves to deal with none but honest men, must leave off dealing”) come from a variety of sources—friends, books, even random conversations with strangers. Wolff refuses to discuss his finances, but it’s common knowledge in bridge circles that the top players are paid in excess of $10,000 to play private money matches funded by wealthy bridge fanatics.
Wolff truly does detest social bridge. “A lot of people will start asking me questions about the game,” he complains. “It’s like being a doctor at a cocktail party.” He breaks down and plays with Deborah only once per annum, on New Year’s Eve.
In addition to concentration, Wolff has found one other quality that a top-level bridge player should have: a sense of humor. “You lose so many times when you play this game,” he says, “that if you can’t laugh at yourself you won’t be in business very long. Bridge makes fools of us all.”