Playing His Strong Suit

Photo: Glenn Cormier

Grant Baze slides his lanky frame in front of his home computer for a fifth straight game of bridge. He's already played online for six hours, missing a beautiful Pacific sunset, so what's another two, especially when you're looking at a hand with 12 black cards? He leans into the garish green glow of the screen. His partner, who is paying $75 an hour for the privilege of playing with the pro, sits in front of a computer on the other side of the country. The partner has just misplayed an easy card combination; Baze shakes his head in disgust and puffs on his 33rd cigarette of the day. The phone rings, but he doesn't move. He doesn't even hear it.

Baze, '65, makes his living playing bridge. He plays at least 50 hours a week, at clubs, in tournaments or from his home in La Jolla, Calif. He's won seven North American championships and hundreds of regional titles. Widely considered one of the top 20 contenders out of 170,000 fairly serious U.S. players, he spends about 25 weeks a year at tournaments. In a 10-day event, he might pull down $10,000, and he earns thousands more every year as a paid partner. No media cameras rush after him, but within the confines of the bridge world, Baze is a bona fide star. At tournaments, his discards are broadcast on a big screen. People log onto the Internet to follow his plays.

Bridge is a contest of strategy, memory and, most of all, logic. Four players, working in pairs, bid for the right to declare a trump suit and try to win the number of hands declared in the final bid. The game is Baze's universe. For nearly 40 years now, his daily rhythm has consisted of the laying down of cards. "I'm sort of an obsessive personality, so when I found bridge, I stopped everything else and just played," Baze says. "I don't watch the news. I don't read the newspaper." He has, however, read (three times) Colleen McCullough's five historical novels on the rise and fall of Caesar, and he consults a dog-eared Adventures in Card Play every day. He used to drink 30 to 40 cups of coffee a day until he overdosed on caffeine; now he drinks glass after glass of water. He shuns physical exercise, but stays thin. Says the 56-year-old Baze: "I don't like food."

Baze's wife, Wendy -- his seventh -- plays, too. "But only 10 hours a week," he says. "She's not a complete nut case like I am."

As a boy in Los Angeles, Baze was obsessed with tennis. Bridge didn't hook him until 1961, his freshman year, when three dormmates in Stern Hall introduced him to the game. The foursome pushed together two twin beds and played through Dead Week that fall, opening the windows to let the cigarette smoke out. As the games continued, Baze's grades suffered, and by junior year he had lost his ROTC scholarship.

Baze took a leave of absence from Stanford, playing at local bridge clubs and then moving on to Bermuda, Hawaii and tournaments around the world. That's when he discovered his passion could be profitable. (Because it's a game of skill, not chance, playing bridge for money isn't considered gambling in most states, and the earnings are taxable, says Jeffrey Polisner, counsel to the American Contract Bridge League.) Off and on for the next 17 years, in between bridge competitions, Baze would return to Stanford for a quarter. In 1980, almost two decades after he first enrolled, he got his degree in political science -- mostly to please his mother -- and then went back to bridge full-time.

By the mid-'80s, Baze was at the top of his game. In 1984, he traveled to 45 North American cities and won so many tournaments that he broke a world record by earning 3,270 master points, an annual total that remains unmatched. Master points reflect the level of competition and number of players in league-sanctioned tournaments. A pro might typically hope for 1,000 points a year.

What sets Baze apart? "He is a superb technician, and he plays with lightning speed," says his former bridge partner, Rhoda Walsh of West Los Angeles. Baze is also a perfectionist. "When I get a hand wrong, it drives me crazy," he says. "I study it and study it, and figure out every mistake."

And then there's his memory. When I ask about his favorite bridge game, Baze takes me on a 20-minute play-by-play, describing each player's cards, the way the game went down, who was leading and how he switched things. He slips into jargon and starts talking faster and faster. Then he tells me that the game he's just reenacted occurred in 1969.

He isn't all memory and logic, however. "I wasn't superstitious until I got involved in serious bridge," Baze says sheepishly. First, it was a special rock that he kept in his pocket. Then, in the mid-1960s, he decided that a particular song -- The Mamas and The Papas' "California Dreamin'" -- was lucky, and he would sing it to himself as he walked to a bridge club or tournament. One time, he had his hand on the club's doorknob when he realized he had forgotten to sing it. He backtracked and began his approach over again.

These days, on the eve of a tournament, he'll repeat the words "win tomorrow, win tomorrow" before going to sleep. And for the past 15 years he's used the same red Parker pen, a gift from a friend, to keep score. "I used that pen on the first day of a tournament and won," Baze says. "So now, if I forget to bring it, I'll leave the bridge table and get it."

I ask more questions, but his answers come quickly, more abruptly. There's an air of impatience in his voice. "Are we about done here?" Baze finally asks. He's not being rude. It's just that there's something he's itching to do.

Nina Schuyler, '86, is a Bay Area writer and a contributing editor at California Lawyer magazine.