Cutting into the stack of issues of the New Yorker on my nightstand that never seems to get shorter, I read David Owen’s recent piece about a cheating scandal in the world of professional bridge and unexpectedly came across this Dallas cameo:
The first American full-time professional bridge team, called the Dallas Aces, was formed in 1968 by Ira G. Corn, Jr., a Texas businessman. The pay wasn’t spectacular: a thousand dollars a month for married players, somewhat less for bachelors, plus travel and tournament expenses. Corn assembled his team because he was upset that, for more than a decade, the game had been dominated by a group of Italian players known as the Blue Team. The Dallas Aces won the World Teams Championship in 1970, and again the following year. Those victories were all the more impressive because the Aces were convinced that the Blue Team was cheating, although no members of the team were ever formally charged. Bob Hamman, who played on the Aces and now, in his late seventies, is universally considered to have been one of the best bridge players ever, told me, “The Blue Team had two outstanding players and one very good player, but the other three were essentially from central casting.” He conjectured that the Italians used a number of illicit signals, involving things like hand gestures and the positioning of their cigarettes. In 1975, two members of a later version of the Blue Team were caught signalling under the table with their feet; they’ve been known ever since as the Italian Foot Soldiers.
Which led me to want to learn more about the Dallas Aces. The team apparently disbanded after Corn’s death in 1982. Hamman actually stuck around in Dallas, however, founding a company called SCA Promotions that insures companies for prizes and promotions they offer — like if a golf course offers a bunch of cash for a hole-in-one. You may have heard of SCA’s refusal to pay Lance Armstrong a bonus he was owed for winning the Tour de France in 2004, which led to a years-long dispute and eventual settlement after the rider publicly admitted to what SCA had suspected, that Armstrong was cheating.
D CEO profiled Hamman in 2010, and that article explains further just what a big deal he is in the bridge world:
Jeff Tillotson, the attorney who represented SCA in the Armstrong arbitration, tells this story:
“I’ve never played bridge, despite Bob’s efforts. I was on a holiday with my wife, a cruise. They had bridge lessons and asked us to join,” Tillotson recalls.
“I declined, but said, ‘I have a friend who plays—a guy named Bob Hamman.’ It was like telling a group of girls in the ’60s that I knew Paul McCartney,” he says. “Bob is a rock star in that world.”
Indeed, he’s so much a rock star that SCA’s chief operating officer, Hemant Lall, ultimately joined the company through a bridge connection. “I first read about Bob when I was 16 years old, going to college in India, and I read about the Dallas Aces,” Lall says. The Aces were a professional team formed by the late Ira Corn to win world bridge championships.
“I got accepted at places like Stanford, but I came to … [Southern Methodist University] because it was in Dallas, and I wanted to be near the Dallas Aces,” Lall says. He never became part of the Aces, but Lall himself has won five national championships—all, he said, while partnering either with Bob Hamman or his wife, Petra Hamman.
I took a gander at the World Bridge Federation rankings, and the septuagenarian is still doing pretty well for himself:
So maybe comparing Hamman to McCartney isn’t sufficient. When’s the last time McCartney topped the charts?