This shameful tale begins last year, when one wild, wintery, windswept weekend I agreed to play for a Cambridge University Alumni team against our Oxford counterparts. The previous year we had thoroughly thrashed a fairly weak team, and it was suggested to us that perhaps we had taken the encounter too seriously. So it was a scratch team of County members current and past, thrown together in expectation of a casual and cordial encounter, who rolled their way westwards.
But when we arrived, the fiendish falseness of our fearsome foes was revealed as they unfurled a team including internationals Sheehan & Ockendon and Landy & Smith. Furthermore, they had suborned a current Cambs & Hunts player onto their side with the meager excuse that she had attended Oxford University in her (obviously misspent) youth.
As though these underhand tactics weren't enough, they had even agreed to meet one of our players, Frances Hinden, at the railway station and drive her to the venue. But Ms Hinden wasn't born yesterday, and realising that this could all be part of a plan to make her miss the match, thwarted this dastardly, devious device by donning a disguise, fleeing the station through another exit and leaving her escort gnashing his knuckles.
Now I would be the first to admit that it's only a game. And of course I only play for fun. But the fact is, the fun's in winning.
So as we sat down against these people, I was in a mighty mean mood. I hadn't won a bridge event for some time. I felt, in the depths of my soul, "OOOh, I really, really hope we win this match. I'd give anything to win!"
There was no resounding thunderclap; no fitting flash of forked lightning; but there is no doubt that the skies darkened as the afternoon wore on.
And we did win. Things went well from start to finish. Strong players took phantom sacrifices; they failed to cash obvious tricks against doomed contracts...in short, we had the devil's own luck.
So, smiling smugly and smarmily, I wandered back through the centre of Oxford, passing purposelessly the various Colleges until, I found myself outside "All Souls'." Peering in, I saw a black-clad figure in a bowler hat, who blithely beckoned in my direction.
"Have we met?" I enquired. "Not yet; I am the porter of all souls," he intoned. "As you surmised, I contributed somewhat to your success today. And now I have a proposition for you."
Well, I know this all sounds like a clumsy clich'e. And I know from the film `The Seventh Seal' that Chess rather than Bridge is traditionally the Mephistophelean pastime, but I wonder why. Anyway, the upshot of this Faustian encounter was that I was offered for a trial period of one week, a pair of glasses which enabled me to read people's minds at the bridge table. With these, I could hardly lose, the porter persuaded me. And in return for these spectacular spectacles, all he wanted was some minor metaphysical attribute of my corporal being.
With hindsight, it was indeed fortunate that I had heard of deals like this in the past. In the various trashy tall tales that you read in magazines, newsletters and the like, these diabolical devices never seem to be quite as useful as you had imagined. So I insisted on the one week `sale or return' clause.
Thus it was, that on All Souls' Day this year, I turned up at the Cambridge club equipped with the wherewithall for mind-reading resting on my nubile nose. And what a revelation that proved.
First of all, you wouldn't believe how boring other people's thoughts are. Yes, it may be important to you Sheila what your kids are doing while you're playing bridge, but frankly, I don't care. And yes Julian, I know my hair is turning grey. And apparently half the club genuinely don't know which one is Jenny and which one Joanne. And perhaps some of you reading this are worried that your tawdry little secrets are now known to me. Rest assured, none of the bridge world cares about your petty peccadillos away from the table - they can hardly be worse than the ones you commit in full view of us all.
Doesn't anyone concentrate while playing bridge? It was a real effort disentangling the "I think he threw a middling red card on the second spade - or was it the third?" from the "Am I missing anything good on the box tonight?" and the "I really shouldn't have told him that `hot dog' joke last night, but he does go on and on about his precious pooch all the time - why's everyone looking at me - should I apologise to him - oh it's me to play."
Now I know you're all thinking "what a cheat" - but I wasn't being unethical. I only read my partner's mind after the play of the hand. (And I'm certainly not going to play with HIM again, the arrogant, condescending so-and-so.) It is, after all, quite legitimate to use opponents' demeanour to try to work out what they hold. I was just using a more precise tool for card-placing than we usually have. Of course, after the play I was well-placed to analyse the hands, but that's what cured me from this ill-judged enterprise.
Towards the end of the evening, I was West against a strong pair on this hand.
Now if any of you are thinking of cashing in your immortal
what's-it for some glamorous glasses, let me tell you that the
only good thing about the deal, is that you don't have to think
about your own boring cards - you can always look at the big
hands. I didn't have to spend the entire hand staring at my
typical 3 count, with a trump trick, it's true. So I led my
middle club, dummy went down and I looked into declarer's mind.
The relevant thoughts went something like this:
"Was I right to sign off? Six heart tricks, two clubs and a ruff and then game's on the spade finesse into the opener's hand. Non-vulnerable, we did well to stay out of it. Bet we lose a game swing though. Oh well let's see who's got the Q. Jack please."
So declarer won K, unblocked A and led a heart to the king. As partner discarded, I switched on the glasses again:
"Oh, he's shown out. Just as well we kept out of game. I'll say something nice to partner after the hand."
Declarer now ruffed the third club, cashed A and led a small diamond off table. Partner cashed two diamonds and led a club through.
"Oh dear. I'm not actually going to make this, am I. RHO almost certainly has A, so if I'm overruffed I'll lose at least A and a trump promotion. And if he has AQ I'll be two down. Is there a safety play for one down? Yes of course, I just throw a spade on the 4th club. Then either he must cash A or I throw my other spade away. Sort of scissors coup. Oh well, we may still gain on the board if they're in game."
So we scored +50. Before the cards were back in the folder I piped up with, "Yes, well played; of course you might go two off if you ruff the club." And as I expounded expertly, I read everyone's minds, to see how impressed they were with the speed of my analysis:
South: "Does he think I didn't realise that? Hang on, maybe I could have done better; there was no hurry to ruff the club. If I attack spades after coming back to hand with a heart, all I need is Q right; RHO is unlikely to have 5 spades and I can get back to hand with a spade ruff. Oh he's still talking, I don't think I'll mention it."
North: "Interesting hand. With hindsight it's wrong to put the J in at trick 1 - it blocks the suit, and even if it wins, it doesn't gain a trick. Could be wrong even with trumps 3-1. Oh he's still talking - I won't mention it just now."
East: "Can't he count to 13? I threw a club on the first trump. If declarer had ruffed the club and been overruffed, and partner had led a spade to the J and my ace, I would have had no cards to give him a promotion with. Rather than going two down the contract makes. I was wrong to discard a club early, but noone seems to have noticed. Oh he's still blathering on. Doesn't he ever think? Oh well, at least he didn't make any mistakes this hand."
So there you are. I threw my new glasses onto the floor, but they vanished before reaching it. As I replaced them with my tried and trusted pair, I saw everyone was nodding politely. Do you really want to know what everyone else is actually thinking? I don't recommend it.