Third in a series of reviews of books about games.
Note: There are three other books in the series: Unholy Tricks, Cardinal Sins and Divine Intervention, all by David Bird and Terence Reese. I have read Unholy Tricks, but my copy has gone missing, so it is not included in this review.
When I volunteered to start writing this series, I noted to Greg that a significant portion of my bookshelf was filled with books on the game of Bridge. Not a typical selection, perhaps—I'm quite fond of books on Auction Bridge, for example, the form of the game popular before the invention of Contract Bridge in the 1920s. I promised Greg that I wouldn't write too many reviews on Bridge books—but I can't resist a review of this series.
David Bird is among the most active writers of Bridge books of any variety, but he is perhaps best well known for his Bridge fiction. Until I discovered Bird's books, the concept of "Bridge fiction" didn't make a lot of sense to me; the Bridge books I'd read tended to be technical and dry. Having since read other "Bridge fiction" books, I must admit that in general it's an easily avoided sub-genre.
Bird's books however, in particular his series chronicling the Bridge adventures of the monks of St. Titus, are different. To be fair, as "fiction" they are nothing special—for example, the characters don't change much over each book and stories tend to be resolved over a few chapters rather than over an entire book. The characters are all interesting and believable though—at least within the setting of a monastery full of Bridge-obsessed monks—and the Bridge hands are interesting and enjoyable, the analysis coming through the actions of the characters rather than through technical discussion.
What really makes the series so enjoyable—and these are Bridge books that are a pleasure to read, rather than an effort—are the interesting characters. The central character in the books is the Abbot, well described in the introduction to Miracles of Card Play as "a capable but uninspired player; greatly jealous of his reputation." His foibles are frequently the source of amusement, particularly when he plays against members of the novitiate. Oftentimes the Abbot's play pales in comparison to that of the more junior monks, leaving it to his other senior teammates to win the match. Perhaps my favorite character is Brother Anthony, who plays in spite of the vow of silence he took some thirty years before. Taking his vow very seriously, he passes every time; knowing that he does this leads to many fascinating bidding sequences you'll never see in your local Bridge club—it's rather silly, but it's all the more enjoyable for being so.
For the most part, each book in the series is roughly equivalent to the others; each offers interesting hands, humorous situations and solid analysis. There are two key differences in the series, however. The first is that the book Saints and Sinners is presented as a series of quizzes rather than a series of stories; it still fits well within the series, though. The other is the inclusion in the earlier books of a set of chapters detailing the Bridge play of a pair of monks in a mission in Africa. While the natives are presented as being notably smarter than the monks, not to mention being better Bridge players, in other ways their presentation is decidedly not politically correct. The use of stereotypical speech patterns and behaviors may not be an issue for everyone, but are worth knowing about before reading the books. These chapters cover roughly a third of Miracles of Card Play and Doubled and Venerable; the more recent books, from The Abbot and the Sensational Squeeze on, do not feature this setting at all.
Anyone who plays and enjoys Bridge (and perhaps even some of those who play the game without enjoying it) should look into this series; the most recent book, The Abbot's Great Sacrifice is a fine example and is most readily available. Miracles of Card Play is a better introduction to the series, but between being more difficult to track down and the potentially troublesome African scenes, may be a better choice for those who've already enjoyed The Abbot's Great Sacrifice—and who don't believe they will be bothered by the content. Other books in the series are equally good, just not as good starting points; Saints and Sinners is ideal for those who enjoy the challenge of quizzes. I would not recommend the series for someone who doesn't play Bridge or who is just learning. Much of the fun comes from the Bridge play itself and I doubt the books would be very enjoyable for anyone struggling to keep up with the play. For those who read the daily Bridge column and are looking for something deeper, this series is as good as anything I've found.
- Joe Huber