MORRIS: The ‘Quilhot bid’

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Leo Morris

I have a new phrase to add to your vocabulary and self-help guide: the Quilhot bid.

It comes from Russ Quilhot, who hosted the weekly afternoon card games a group of us old codgers participated in. I played bridge with him Wednesday before last. On Thursday he died. It was one of those abrupt and unwelcome events that encourage us to put everything else in perspective.

I am tempted to say he was my friend, but that would be presumptuous. He lived for 89 interesting and productive years, and I knew him only for the last three. But we enjoyed each other’s company, and his knowledge of history and zest for discussing it made our Wednesday afternoons informative as well as entertaining.

He was also a very good card player, and being his partner taught me something important about bridge. It’s not always about the strength of the hand.

We would be having what players would call a bad run. All the good cards would be going to the other side, hand after hand, and we’d be getting our brains beat out.

Russ would sigh and say something like, “You know, it’s no fun losing,” look at his hand, then jump into the bidding with a reckless abandon totally unjustified by the cards he was holding.

He might have eight points and a couple of four-card suits, which an experienced bridge player will tell you is barely enough to support a partner’s bid, let alone make an opening one. But he’d do it anyway.

That was the Quilhot bid, a damn-the-odds maneuver meant to at least shake things up if not turn them around.

And the thing is that he sometimes parlayed that unorthodox move into a winning hand. One of the secrets bridge players learn is that if the 40 high-card points (which we must obsessively count), are distributed more or less evenly, no one has a hand worth opening with. But any two hands in combination could win a modest bid if one of the players has nerve enough to take a wild shot.

People who knew Russ longer and better than I say the way he played bridge was the way he approached life – not always intimidated by the weakness of his hand.

I don’t doubt it. He played football for Purdue, then became a member of the elite Marine Corps. He was a successful businessman, then he and his wife Jeanette started a nationally respected horse breeding and training farm at an age when most people would be thinking ahead to retirement. He was the respected rather than feared patriarch of a large and loving multi-generational family.

You do not have a life like that by always adding up the points and just playing the strong hands. Sometimes you have to take a chance on a weak hand.

I hasten to add that this is not gambling, at least as that word has come to be used. Since the Supreme Court opened the door to sports gambling, millions of Americans have bet and lost billions in physical spaces like casinos and digitally by merely pushing a few buttons on their smart phones. On the recent Super Bowl alone, $7 billion was wagered, a 10-fold increase over last year.

That is just stupid – desperate chances taken by foolish people against overwhelming odds, encouraged by unscrupulous governments preying on human weakness.

What Russ did, in cards and in life, was to trust that his experience, wisdom and skill would occasionally see him through when his position wasn’t the strongest. It might seem like taking a chance, but it was in fact a calculated risk.

Think about that the next time something really important seems about to slip away from you, when you think you’ve already used up your best efforts. Sigh, take a breath, and make a Quilhot bid.

Leo Morris is a columnist for the Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to [email protected]