Bridge & Humor: The Great Kibitzers’ Strike by George S. Kaufman

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The New Yorker 1939This piece was featured in the 1939 spring bumper issue of the New Yorker magazine and aims its humorous arrows at that most unsung of bridge heroes: the kibitzer.

Since I was a close observer of events leading up to the national strike of bridge kibitzers some years ago, and subsequently a member of the committee that helped to bring about a settlement, I think it is fitting for me to set down the true story of those turbulent days. There has long been a belief that the trouble started when a kibitzer named Lefkowitz—not Sam Lefkowitz, who later demanded that kibitzers be allowed to double any slam contract, but a cousin of his, named Marty—applied a hotfoot to a player during a six-no-trump contract.

The Lefkowitz hotfoot case was not without its points of interest, and the depositions taken in the hospital are now preserved in the Library of Congress, but it was not the cause of the kibitzers’ strike.

On the night of May 12, 1926, in the old Cavendish Club, on East Sixty-Fifth Street, a player named Jymes, or Hymes, or something—the records are unfortunately vague—concealed a queen of spades from a kibitzer, known simply as Commander Smith, during the play of a hand. By holding the spade queen behind the four of diamonds, Jymes completely confused the kibitzer in his calculations, leading him to believe ‘that he would make only three spades instead of four. Smith stayed in his place for the rest of the evening, but it was noticed when the game broke up that he failed to ask, «What time are you boys playing tomorrow?»

On the following night, Smith didn’t show up. It was the first night he had missed in eleven years, but still no one was worried; it was simply assumed that he was dead. This had happened before to kibitzers, and the procedure in such cases was well established. One of the players would deal and say, «Did you notice that Bill Chink died last night? One spade,» and his partner, when it came to his turn, would say, «Yes, I did. Two spades.» Or diamonds, or hearts, or whatever it might be. So the players would kitty out three dollars for flowers, and that would be that. (How times have changed! Under today’s rules, the death of a kibitzer calls for the cessation of play for a full ten seconds, and the next four hands are automatically doubled).

But to get back to Smith, when the next day’s papers carried no obituary notice, the players began to be worried. That evening, Smith was absent again, and this time one of the players put in a phone call to Smith’s house. Smith was home, reading a book. Not a bridge book, either—some sort of novel.

The following night, two more kibitzers were missing, and from then on the thing grew by leaps and bounds. Smith held an indignation meeting at his home on the fourth night, with nearly fifty kibitzers in attendance. Subcommittees were formed and chairmen were appointed in Queens and the Bronx; inside of three weeks there was not a kibitzer on duty in Greater New York. Picketing was started in front of the Knickerbocker Whist Club, and a rock was shied at Oswald Jacoby’s head as he was entering the club. Happily, it hit an old lady who was not even a bridge player.

There was, of course, consternation within the clubs. With no kibitzer to say, «You should have played it the other way around» or «Only a fathead would have led the king of diamonds,» post-mortem discussions were routine and without color. Without kibitzers, the players became careless and listless; games simply dragged along, sometimes without comment of any sort. The players began to lose weight, had no appetites. In many cases, games were actually cancelled.

Jymes, or Hymen, or whatever his name was, eventually offered public apology to Smith for concealing the spade queen, but by then it was too late. Sympathy strikes were springing up all over the country, a national kibitzers’ union was formed, and card players were presented with an ultimatum in the form of a set of rules. Among the stipulations were these:

1) Recognition of the union as the only bargaining force for kibitzers, and an agreement that no game should be started without at least two kibitzers in attendance.

2) Cessation of play if a kibitzer was called to the telephone.

3) The right of the kibitzer to call a revoke if it was confirmed by another kibitzer.

4) If a kibitzer had to go home before the end of the game, the results were to be telephoned to him as soon as the game was over.

5) The right of the kibitzer to put his glass of water on the bridge table.

And many others.

Negotiations were deadlocked for four months, and in that time there were many outbreaks of violence and sabotage. In’ a Minneapolis bridge club, the six of clubs exploded in a player’s hand, and was found afterward to have been dusted with TNT. In Dallas, a deck of cards was found to have three aces of spades in it, and this crime was traced to a kibitzer who had managed to get a job in a card factory. In New York City, fifteen thousand kibitzers held an indignation meetingin Union Square, and many were beaten by the police when they tried to parade without a permit. In the ensuing riot, three people were trampled to death. In Seattle, a player who went down one on a cold slam claimed that he had been quietly given a needle by a kibitzer who had jostled him on the sidewalk. Ely Culbertson was burned in effigy.

On September 28, President Coolidge appealed to both sides to settle the controversy before there was further property damage or loss of life. Leaders of the two factions assembled in the White House on October 9, and on the night of October 22, at a little after ten o’clock, the formal announcement of peace was made.

I do not want to claim too much credit for the settlement, but when the conference had been deadlocked three days over the question of penalties for a kibitzer’s foot on a player’s chair, it was I who suggested a happy compromise. The foot, I said, should be amputated, not burned off.