Getting the Ruffians Off the Street

To Islanders reading newspapers and attending meetings, Art Flathers is a brilliant, unorthodox guy who pens intemperate letters and roars from the right. Peering over his glasses, this massive man resembles nothing so much as a bull readying to charge.

Vineyard bridge players see a whole different person. A retired General Electric executive living in Vineyard Haven, Flathers has carried handicapped people to the table, accommodated many playing partners, and loves nothing more than to help acolytes become experts.

At a recent regular Monday afternoon class, Flathers is teaching to seven students. Three of them sit with him at an 800-year-old oak table. A fan turns overhead. You’d swear the portraits are watching intently from the wall.

While Flathers and his trio play Board One, four other students play Board Two in the sun room, everyone preserving the hands intact after playing them. Then the foursomes exchange boards and play another hand. Finally, cards from both boards are placed face-up for discussion. Play and instruction continue, two boards at a time, for several hours.

The roaring bull is absent. Gently chewing on something, Flathers takes notes with a felt-tip pen, writing numbers and letters so dainty you almost need a magnifying glass to read them. Though he has given his students a convention card filled with his bidding and carding practices, plus fifteen pages of single-spaced notes, Flathers doesn’t land on people who deviate from his system. “I don’t know that that’s necessarily a wrong bid,” he says at one point. Advising a player to draw trump, he murmurs, “Get the ruffians off the street.”

Flathers would like nothing more than to get everybody off the street – and into the bridge room. Plainly put, American bridge is in trouble. Many people who played post-dinner bridge at college “smokers” have moved on to something else. Today’s youth are playing video games or e-mailing each other. Fortunately, Vineyard bridge is an exception. There are three Island clubs – extraordinary for a community of 15,000 – and missionaries galore.

“About thirty years ago I taught twenty people to play bridge,” says Larry Levine, a retired Vineyard businessman who winters in Las Vegas. “They had a great time, but they were disappointed when the lessons ended. ‘If you like bridge,’ I said, ‘you’ll love duplicate bridge.’ That’s the competitive kind.

“So we moved down to my basement. At one point, the game grew to seventeen tables, and I had to open my garage. All of a sudden, people had a whole new set of friends.” And many moments of mirth. One night the Reverend Read Chatterton looked heavenward for guidance on which way to finesse. “No fair!” cried Levine.

Word about duplicate bridge spread quickly. Barbara Donald, then a teller at Martha’s Vineyard Co-operative Bank, greeted customers by saying, “Are you playing bridge tonight? Need a partner?” She became a matchmaker supreme, a regular Methodist shothunen.

Vineyard bridge is a scene you won’t see elsewhere. There have been barefoot players, dozing dogs, and extraordinary characters. Grandson of a president, the late Woodrow Wilson Sayre won the title Most Outrageous Character to Play Vineyard Bridge. A philosophy professor, amateur actor, and political aspirant, he sometimes wore mismatched socks or walked into the water fully clothed. Woody even climbed Mount Everest partway without guides or sherpas and published a book called Four Against Everest. Friendships can be formed on “the feathery edge of danger,” he wrote. Playing bridge with Woody teetered on the edge of lunacy.

Donald MacIver, who reminded people of the Peter Sellers character Chance the Gardener in the film Being There, lived in a shack and raised wild mushrooms when he wasn’t playing expert bridge. Yet another late great, Rae Gabis, a society lady from Philadelphia via Russia and England, moved permanently to the Vineyard in the 1960s. Like a dowager queen, she hired a moving van and perched in a chair set up behind the driver. Her chauffeur must have dozed off after driving all night, because the truck hit a utility pole and rolled over. Buried in cartons and clothes, Gabis dusted herself off and picked through the wreckage, completely unscathed.

“She had gorgeous white hair, dressed immaculately, and read without glasses at ninety-eight,” Edgartown’s Bea Brown recalls, “but she had difficulty getting partners, because she was so tough on them. When my sister needed a partner for the summer-ending tournament, I matched her up with Rae. My sister was every bit as tough as Rae, so they were pussycats to each other. And they won.”

Barbara Donald’s son David directs a Tuesday duplicate bridge game at Christ United Methodist Church in Vineyard Haven, and Bill Blakesley runs the Thursday game, founded by Margaret O’Neill, at Edgartown’s Council on Aging.

Their 7:30 p.m. starting times (ending typically at 11 p.m.) discouraged some senior players. Eleanor Hughes to the rescue: in 2001 she obtained a charter from the American Bridge Association, the historically black group created when some tournaments were segregated in the 1930s, and founded the Bridge Club of Martha’s Vineyard. Open to all players, the BCMV game starts at 9:30 a.m. on summer Saturdays at the Tisbury Council on Aging. With patient directors such as Ann Funn, this leisurely game introduces many newcomers to duplicate.

In addition to the clubs, there are untold social games at senior centers and private homes. And then there is the Flathers game. Seven years ago a friend who had been disabled by a bacteria complained that she couldn’t stay awake for the night games. Flathers immediately signed up two more players, and the four of them got together in the afternoon. Two years ago, he expanded to eight people. “It’s less the teaching than the mix,” Flathers says. “It’s a pleasure seeing people improve.”