As I negotiated our way to table three, a woman wearing a big hat approached my uncle. “Trapp!” she demanded. “One banana, pass, pass, two no-trump. Is that unusual?”
It sounded unusual to me.
“That’s not how I play it,” said my uncle.
A moment later a man in shorts and a torn T-shirt came up to him.
“Trapp, can I ask you something?”
“Go ahead.” [...]
“Could I have set you?”
“You needed to cash the king and ace of spades before giving your partner his club ruff.”
“I didn’t have the king.”
“Your partner did.”
“How was I to know that?”
My uncle gave a half-smile as he raised his left shoulder about an inch, then lowered it.
Even though I didn’t understand what they were talking about, I think that was my first inkling that bridge wasn’t just a simple game, and that there may be something extraordinary about my uncle. (26-27)
Alton Richards has just finished his junior year of high school, and his mother is forcing him to play bridge with his blind Great-Uncle Lester. Lester (called Trapp by everyone who isn’t family) is very rich, and Alton’s mother hopes that Lester will leave the family lots of money when he eventually passes away, instead of giving it to the crazy Castaneda family, his housekeeper, or his nurse. Alton has nothing better to do, considering his girlfriend Katie recently dumped him for his best friend Cliff. But bridge appears to Alton to be an old game with old players, until he meets up with Toni Castaneda, whose scandalous family seems to be connected to Alton’s in some way no one wants to talk about. With the title of Grand Life Master riding on the line, will Alton be able to help his uncle achieve this one last wish?
I think Louis Sachar puts it best in his author’s note when he says that writing a book about bridge is like writing a book about baseball on an alien planet where no one has ever heard about baseball. “When you try to describe a triple play, you get so bogged down explaining the rules about force-outs that the excitement of the play itself is lost.” Sachar does an admirable job attempting to explain the game, going so far as to distinguish chapters solely about the rules of the game with graphics. This is so that, as the narrator tells readers, “If it makes you zone out, then just skip ahead to the summary box and I’ll give you the short version.” (44) But as even he realizes, the book is about bridge, which is like watching a chess game, for some it’s thrilling and for others it’s just little pieces moving around a board in a seemingly incomprehensible way. And I’ll admit, readers might get bogged down in the descriptions and game analysis. Since I play euchre and I’m somewhat familiar with poker, it sounds like bridge is a combination of the two with some extra rules thrown in just to make it extra confusing. Oh, and certain plays and betting rules are named different things, and there’s a highly complicated point system. But otherwise it’s a really simple game (said with sarcasm). There is also an appendix written by the fictitious Syd Fox, who makes an appearance in the novel as a highly ranked bridge player, that explains some of the phrases and game play that is related in passing.
All the complications of bridge playing aside, I think Louis Sachar did an excellent job with this book. Alton’s relationship with his uncle begins as an indifferent one, not understanding the game, his uncle, or the appeal that his uncle has for the game. But as the story progresses, Alton’s understanding of all three begins to improve. The historical back story is appealing, and gives Uncle Lester a motive for insisting (somewhat cantankerously) to continue to play a game that he can no longer see. It also explains his ingratiating attitude, as readers become sympathetic to his last-ditch effort in achieving this title not just for himself but in honor of someone in his past (I’m not saying anymore, I promise.) Uncle Lester’s mental prowess is impressive, and the philosophical discussions that are thrown in give food for thought for readers and Alton combined.
There is a little bit of realistic magic towards the end, that some people might be thrown by because it kind of comes out of left field. Although I think the book would have worked without it, I think Sachar was trying to emphasize the connection that Alton and his uncle had with each other, and it pays tribute to all they’ve been through together. If anything, the book might encourage kids to research and experiment with card games other than just “Go Fish”. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a bridge book written specifically for kids, although my library has quite a few in the adult section, including a Bridge For Dummies.
Bookpage did an interview with Louis Sachar when the book was originally released.