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'The Devil's Tickets': A Tale Of Murder, And Cards

Gary Pomerantz's previous books include <em>Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn</em> and <em>Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds </em>
Gary Pomerantz's previous books include Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn and Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds

A few weeks before the 1929 stock market crash, cosmetics salesman Jack Bennett overbid his hand, failed to finesse for the queen of spades and didn't make his contract. When Myrtle Bennett called her philandering husband a "bum bridge player," Jack smacked her across the face. Minutes later, she put two bullets in his back.

The infamous "bridge murder" is the centerpiece of The Devil's Tickets, Gary Pomerantz's deliciously detailed and splendidly written account of the emergence of bridge as America's No. 1 pastime.

Pomerantz shows how Romanian-born Ely Culbertson, the debonair, chain-smoking "colossus of cards," capitalized on the case to build a bridge empire in America. Part showman and part charlatan, Culbertson claimed that bridge was a metaphor for modern marriage and the "battle of the sexes." He became the game's patron saint by teaming up with Jo Dillon, his elegant, steady and cerebral wife, to famously defeat icons Sidney Lenz and Oswald Jacoby in the "Bridge Battle of the Century" in 1931.

Sensing that the relational question "Who's in charge?" was rising "like an evil moon" in the 1920s and '30s, Culbertson advised bridge players to adapt to bad players as well as bad cards by learning how to communicate amid uncertainties — and when to defer. But he wasn't afraid to contradict himself. Spats at the bridge table, he suggested, helped defuse the petty and not-so-petty tensions of married life.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Pomerantz points out, nearly one out of every four Americans played bridge regularly. Though money was scarce, they spent over $100 million per year on lessons, books and supplies. The game appealed to them, he speculates, because every hand presented a new opportunity. If you kept your head in the game, nothing else existed: "no past, no future and no emotion."

Over time, of course, Americans found new distractions, including drive-in movies and television. In the computer age, Pomerantz concludes, "a game requiring study and patience dried up like an old riverbed." Nonetheless, about 25 million adults still play bridge. Older but not always mature, more than a few of them, no doubt, still fantasize, as they fall one spade short of making their contract, about "pulling a Myrtle Bennett."

Illuminating a crime and card game of passion, and the gentle gender-bending of the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression, Pomerantz weaves a compelling read even for people who don't know the difference between a trick and a trump.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glenn C. Altschuler