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Howard Cohen

 

An Acol stalwart, Howard (right) first discovered bridge in his mid teens and has been playing at the club for nearly 60 years. He usually plays the Wednesday and Friday lunch sessions and doesn't have a regular partner.

 

When did you start playing bridge and why? What are your earliest memories of the game?

 

"When I was about 15, I started playing solo with a few friends, and German Whist against my grandfather. These card games shared a similarity in that they involved the attempt to win tricks and that one suit had priority over the others, namely the trump suit.

I remember taking a pack of cards to school, hoping to organise a solo game with a few friends, and being ready to teach the rules, if need be, to possible contenders.

It was lunch break on the first 'card playing' day. We were playing at the rear of a classroom, and a few young kibitzers surrounded us. At that moment the Headmaster walked in, and when he saw what we were up to I feared the worst. But there was not that much to fear. "Card playing at school is not allowed" he bellowed, "but I will make one exception. I will allow you to play contract bridge."

We didn't take him up on that. We had all heard that bridge was difficult to learn and complicated.

Winding forward a few years, I was then 20, and regularly took the 28 bus from Golders Green to Kensington, where I was at College. There was a bus stop in West End Lane, and I observed Number 86 was a shabby building displaying a sign 'New Acol Bridge Club'. Suddenly my interest was aroused again, and a day or two later, on my return journey from College, I alighted at the bridge club to make some enquiries. As I walked through the hallway, I was greeted by wafts of smoke emerging from behind a closed door. As I walked into the card room, I became less aware of the smoke, but far more aware of the noise. One of the club proprietors assured me that the arguments that took place between the players were signs of a healthy club. "That's the fascination of a first class bridge club – ‘lively debate’, he assured me.

The Club played rubber bridge for varying stakes. The usual stake was a shilling per hundred, but there were a few sixpenny players who played amongst one another. In the evening, a two shilling game was usually in play, and occasionally a five shilling game took place after midnight.

It was suggested that I come along and watch for a while, until I felt comfortable enough to sit and play. A few days later I took the plunge. It was 1959. We cut for partners, and I felt quite comfortable opposite a rather jovial chap of about 50, Our opponents were a rather smart, well spoken English lady, and her partner, a miniscule Polish sounding man. His name was Leslie, a diamond merchant from Hatton Garden, I learnt.

Within moments he became quite aggressive towards his rather dignified lady partner. She remained silent. It continued that way for a few deals until in his finest Polish accent, in a quiet and serious voice he said "Madam, effry day you play vorse zan ze day before, but today you are playing like it vos tomorrow"

 

What do you enjoy most about the game?

 

I think that to reply with any accuracy, my answer should be given on a "then and now" basis.

In my early days I think that having read a great deal about the game (a fair bit was above my head) actually putting into practice something that I would never have considered at the time.

I still remember, almost vividly, a hand from rubber bridge that I played at the Acol on a weekday afternoon in 1960. I was working for a local estate agent, and at about 4.00pm, had to leave the office on an important mission. I almost ran from the office in Kilburn High Road to West End Lane, and cut into a shilling game. That was not as trivial as it may sound - probably equivalent to £2 a hundred in today's terms.

My partner and I had bid to 6 hearts. A card was led, and I waited anxiously for the dummy to appear. With my trump holding being a four card suit headed by the ten you can imagine why. The following was the combined trump holding...

AJ9xx

T87x

I started to think. Do I play the ace first and then another, or do I take two finesses?

While I was trying to work this out, my RHO said "bad luck" as he showed me his trump holding of KQx.

I could hear "bad luck" from around West Hampstead.

I had just been reading about "end plays" and the miracles they could sometimes produce. I asked my opponents if they would allow me to play on. My prerogative I believe.

So, I started cashing winners - back and forth, with no confidence whatsoever, and the defenders kept following suit. I can honestly remember that my heart began to race as I thought I might make the slam. We were down to three cards each and no trumps had yet been played, apart from two ruffs in dummy and one in my own hand.I now played a small trump from dummy, and it was my LHO who threw his cards on the table in a fury. My partner was so excited that he promised to remember me in his will. (He must have forgotten.)

That particular hand changed my way of thinking about the game as a novice, followed by some slightly more exotic situations that arose in the future (as we all experience) made bridge for me the only card game I have ever wanted to play.

 

What has changed most about the Club since the 1960’s?

 

The easy answer to that is everyone and everything, with the exception of Dinah Caplan and me. I have seen the occasional visitor who can be traced back to that period, but I cannot remember others who were, and are, still regulars.

I will now start by referring to the game itself. As I’ve mentioned, the New Acol was a Rubber Bridge Club. The game was played for stakes.

There were a few jotted around London and the Suburbs, but apart from a handful, where Duplicate was played, all the others were money bridge clubs. I have been asked many times why rubber bridge has almost died out. I think the answer to that is that until the early 60's there were no Casinos or Betting shops. If people wanted a monetary interest they arranged games privately (at home). But, if one player was ill or had an unco-operative wife ( or husband), the game might be called off at the last moment. But a busy Club almost guaranteed a game whenever required. Even if 4 players wanted a game, but one preferred a lower stake, that could be balanced by the House or the player's partner.

Gradually, rubber bridge began to fade, and by the mid 70's, I don't think it was played at all.

I barely played at the Acol over the next 30 years because I became captivated by High Stake Rubber. My business activities were in London and there were two or three elegant clubs within dealing distance. Excellent dining, snooker rooms, racing facilities, bars, bridge and backgammon. Need I continue?

But times change.

About 6 or 7 years ago the Acol had become a bit sleazy. Noorul, please forgive me. I meant scruffy. It ain't now. Word was getting around that major changes were in hand and that the club was to be improved beyond all recognition. It was, and more some. And the work goes on...and on. It's the Forth

Bridge of bridge clubs.

Need I say more?

 

Would you reintroduce anything from back then?

 

Besides the peeling wallpaper and the leaking loos, I can't think of anything.

 

What did you do in your career?

 

In my early days I was an Estate Agent (near a bridge club). As time went by I gave up agency work, and with a colleague, formed a property development company. After a few years, we relocated in the West End. Opportunities were greater, and there were more bridge clubs!

 

What did you find most interesting about your work?

 

Locating two offices within 3 minutes' walk of London's best bridge clubs.

 

Do you have any other activities / interests aside from bridge?

 

I do like to play backgammon. The game became a rage in the early 70's.

My daughter, Michele, then aged 6, became somewhat of a phenomenon. So much so that quite a number of people spoke about her to Terence Reese, who had just become obsessed with the game. He wrote his first book on the subject with Bob Brinig - Backgammon, the Modern Game, in which he gave considerable praise to my 6 year old daughter.

Neither Michele (now approaching 50) nor I play much now. The truth is that I look for easier pickings.

 

Do you have any recommendations for the club?

 

YES - A bowl of complimentary poppadoms should be left on the side tables for each player.

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