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26 English Bridge August 2014

TO many, 'Bridge' and 'San Francisco' mean

just one thing: the magnificent Golden Gate

Bridge. Construction began in 1933, the

same year that the US Department of

Justice acquired Alcatraz Island to create the

maximum security penitentiary for around

two hundred and fifty of America's most

obdurate criminals at any one time. The

prison closed in 1963, and today Alcatraz is

a tourist attraction, with a helpful com mentary

provided on headphones by past

inmates and guards as you tour through the

cell block and recreation area. It is there that

you hear that the prisoners' most popular

recreational activity was bridge.

Bridge was big in Alcatraz. There could

be up to 30 tables in play, with about half

the prisoners taking part or watching.

Recreation time was restricted to

weekends and holidays, and each Friday

night a foursome would plan a match for

the weekend with packs of stale cigarettes

at stake. Play would take place for five or

six hours on each day whatever the

weather. The folding tables were low with

the legs cut short, and the players sat on

hassocks. Playing cards were banned in the

prison because the nitrocellulose coating

could be used as an explosive, so the

inmates improvised with thirteen domino

tiles from four coloured sets, one for each

suit. The blank-one became the ace,

blank-two, the two, and so on until blanksix.

Then six-one was the seven, six-two

the eight up to the double six, which was

the queen, and the double blank was the

king. After a domino shuffle, the players

drew their hands which they held in

wooden racks that they had made in the


In the evening, the players would

discuss and replay each of the day's hands

from memory between being locked in

their cells at 4.50pm and lights out at

9.30pm. They might also obtain guidance

from Josephine Culbertson's Contract

Bridge for Beginners, the most popular

book ever borrowed from the prison

library, or practise a form of 'solo bridge'

which they had developed. Yes, with

players including the likes of George

'Machine Gun' Kelly, bridge certainly was

Bridge in play at Alcatraz (by courtesy of


San Francisco Bridge by David Burch

big in Alcatraz.

The Alcatraz Coup

For those who play outside the laws of the

game, the Alcatraz Coup is a means of

locating a missing key card. For example,

take this deal:

South plays in 6´.

West leads the ™A.

´ Q 10 4 3

™ 9 7 4

t 10

® A J 8 3 2

´ A K J 9 5

™ Q

t A K 3

® K 10 9 4

After ruffing the heart continuation,

declarer draws trumps ending in dummy,

and realises that the contract hinges on

finding the ®Q. The outlaw declarer plays

the Alcatraz Coup by advancing the ®J

from dummy and discarding his small

diamond from hand. After West has

revealed the location of the ®Q, declarer

realises his 'mistake' and apologetically

corrects his revoke with the ®K if West

plays the ®Q, or with the ®4 if West

follows with a low club or discards. West

calls for the director and receives the

appropriate redress.

There is no evidence that this coup

originated in Alcatraz, and the earliest

record is from 1947 when Oswald Jacoby

used an example to initiate a change in the

prevalent laws covering revokes. With no

director to provide redress, if an Alcatraz

inmate had ever tried such a ploy, then I

expect that even Machine Gun Kelly, who

was a well-mannered model prisoner,

would have sent the dominoes and fists

flying. r





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