To the millions who play bridge for fun, even to those who risk a penny a point, the stakes were unbelievable. U.S. experts, who rarely can find a game for as high as 20� a point, found them unnerving. But the 80-rubber challenge match in London's Piccadilly Hotel last week—between a team led by Omar Sharif and two of England's most successful money players, Jeremy Flint and Jonathan Cansino—was played for a pound ($2.40) a point. Then there was a side bet of �1,000 ($2,400) to the net winner of every four rubbers.
Flint and Cansino had no difficulty in finding backers to oversubscribe their side, for the British players were considered heavy favorites. Omar the actor, who can afford it, carried practically the whole amount staked by his so-called Circus team, leaving the three professionals with him—- France's Claude Delmouly and Italy's Benito Garozzo and Giorgio Belladonna—to play for their usual 2� or 3� a point. Sharif could have lost as much as $100,000. In the end, after six grueling days of play, he won $17,928—$4,800 on the side bets and $13,128 over the scheduled 80 rubbers.
Omar has won more at blackjack and lost more—far more—at baccarat than he ever could at bridge, even at these remarkable stakes. But to him the money was of academic interest. The sky-high stakes were agreed on in order to capture public interest and create a dramatic setting for a television film of his Circus in action.
The Circus was formed three years ago to present bridge as a colorful, exciting spectacle. Its upkeep in 1968 had cost Omar some $60,000, which he regarded as money well spent, for spectators had flocked to his exhibition matches to watch and enjoy top-class bridge. At the Piccadilly, 50 technicians, manning eight color cameras, recorded more than 40 hours of action. Only when the public sees the film, cut down to 13 half-hour episodes, will Omar know whether he really won or lost the pound-a-point match.
"Bridge," he says, "is a faster game than golf. Why, then, should it not have the same appeal for viewers?"
Just as the Medicis in Renaissance Florence were the patrons of poetry and painting, so Omar sees himself as patron of bridge, an evangelist whose mission is to spread far and wide the pleasures of what he considers the most intellectually satisfying of all games. "If they all played bridge," he told a journalist who was trying to draw him out on Middle East politics, "they would have no time to hate each other."
Omar approves strongly of what he calls "hobby passions," and he takes his bridge seriously. More than once he has said that he would rather be considered a bad actor than a bad bridge player, and he showed his feelings when a London paper headlined its report on the first day's play at the Piccadilly: BOOB COSTS OMAR SHARIF �1,500. The London match had opened dramatically with an unbeatable grand slam for the Circus. The bidding sequence of the precise Blue Club system told Sharif that a king was missing, and it might have been the king of trumps. Refusing to risk the small slam bonus for a grand slam of which he was uncertain, Omar stopped at six hearts. This, said one expert quoted by the paper, showed Omar's lack of nerve. Another described it as "a surprising mistake."
Omar saw in these remarks a woeful ignorance of the Blue Club, a system that demands the kind of strong discipline from its practitioners that has won 10 successive world titles for Italy. He was the first to agree that he would have been less resentful of a bad notice for a film.
After the first 10 rubbers of the match the Englishmen were 1,300 points ahead. But in the 11th Sharif and Benito Garozzo scored two slams. The Circus team took the lead and never lost it.
The hand that most stirred the audience watching on Bridge-O-Rama, if not the players, could properly be called the one with the $5,000 card. Shown above are the English team's cards and the bidding sequence.