Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Evolution of Zero Tolerance

I was kibitzing at Bridge Base on Line recently watching some self styled “Experts” play a few hands. The spectator box had over 100 chattering kibitzers demonstrating how smart they were when looking at all four hands. One of the experts sitting south had just butchered a cold 4 spade contract and of course the chat really flew, indeed questioning his intelligence and minimal bridge skills. I usually ignore all the chat but one particular line really got me: It read “Where is Myrtle Bennett now when we really need her?” A really nice touch if you like bridge trivia.. No one else picked up on this clever comment, so I got to wondering how many of my readers have ever read the story of the bridge pairing of Jack and Myrtle Bennett and Mayme and Charles Hoffman, a landmark event in the long road to zero tolerance.

In the 20’s and 30’s bridge was the great American pastime for men and women. If you were entertaining friends in your home, after some bathtub gin and a fine supper, out came the card tables for an evening of rubber bridge. At the time, women often were more knowledgeable about the game than men. Men usually knew less about the fine points of bidding and got by with their card sense, some bullying and more than a little bluffing, much to the chagrin of their spousal partners.

The Bennett’s had been married about 10 years in 1929 and were living in Kansas City, “Mazura” (as the locals would have said it). They were very demonstrably affectionate to each other and were still very much in love. At the same time, they both had hot tempers and short fuses, so martial spats were not unusual. Jack Bennett was a very successful traveling perfume salesman making upwards of $20,000 a year in 1929. Most weeks Jack was on the road. Myrtle spent most of her time spending Jack’s money on clothes (she was a stunning blonde beauty who dressed very fashionably). When not otherwise occupied she would either be playing golf or bridge at her country club. The Hoffman’s were very much like them, an affluent young couple enjoying the new liberties that the roaring 20’s permitted. They were upstairs neighbors to the Bennett’s in a very upscale apartment building.

On Tuesday, September 29, 1929, the four of them decided that they would play a round of golf. Jack in his plus fours, white shirt and tie and Myrtle in her most fashionable sport suit. After the game they had a couple of “pops” and Myrtle e invited Charles and Mayme back to their house to “raid the refrigerator” and play some bridge for 1/10 of a cent a point. The Bennett’s were enjoying the game immensely because they got off to big lead. But as the lead began to dwindle, the smile disappeared from Myrtle’s face. She got visibly unhappy with Jack’s recklessness and inconsistent play. Suddenly the Hoffman’s pulled ahead and this hand was dealt by Jack sitting South. Everybody vulnerable.




The gold standard for opening a hand in those days was 2 ½ quick tricks, but that didn’t deter Jack, he boldly barked one spade. Charles quickly overcalled 2 diamonds. He had played with Jack before and was not to be kept out of this auction. Myrtle with her good distribution and spade support was happy to bid 4 spades. Mayme not being a Law of Total Tricks babe, declined to take a sacrifice. When it got back to Charles he gave 4 spades a whack thinking his Q of spades was well positioned and that if Mayme did not have a diamond stack he might get two diamonds and a heart. Mayme has a second chance to bail out, but in those days women did not take out their husband’s penalty doubles.

The story is clear that Charles led the Ace of diamonds, and with a single on the board Mayme played a small diamond to get a club shift. Charles next led the club Jack taken by Charles in his hand with the King. Jack had 9 trump and, ignoring the bidding, decided to play for the percentage 2-2 split. When that failed he drew the last trump instead of playing on the club suit to establish club winners. Charles took his trump queen and returned a diamond trumped on the board. Eventually Jack lost 3 hearts for down 2 -500.

After the play of the hand everything went wrong as Jack and Myrtle got at each other’s throats. Going to the offense, Jack shouted "you overbid!" Myrtle replied: "You are a bum bridge player." As the argument escalated in front of the horrified Hoffman’s, Jack reached across the table and slapped Myrtle’s face a few times. Jack announced that he was going to a hotel for the night and then on to make a sales call in St. Joseph in the morning (where he incidentally had a girl friend stashed). In a parting shot Myrtle yelled “Nobody other than a bum would hit a woman in the presence of friends.”

As Jack packed his bag, Myrtle rushed into a bedroom occupied by her mother and grabbed a .32 automatic that was in her mother’s nightstand. As Jack came out with his bag he saw Myrtle with the gun and quickly stepped into a bathroom and locked the door. Myrtle not to be deterred so easily, got off two rounds through the door, both of which missed their intended mark. The bath had another door that led to the living room and Jack exited trying to make it to the front door. Charles Hoffman tried to cool things down, but before he could prevail, Myrtle cut loose with two more rounds, both of which found their intended mark. Jack not only goes down 2 in 4 spades but repeats himself going down to the .32 automatic, never to sort another bridge hand.

Myrtle was charged with first degree murder and a trial was held 17 month later in the court room of Judge Ralph S. Latshaw. Myrtle was represented by a silver tongued orator, James a. Reed, a three term United States Senator from Missouri, by then retired at age 68. He was a formidable lawyer, but then so was the prosecuting county attorney who had a long list of convictions in murder trials. There was extensive courtroom drama with toe to toe battling over the admissibility of almost every piece of evidence. Judge Latshaw rode hard on both attorneys, but in fact became a significant part of this sideshow.

Myrtle attended the trial everyday in a different stylish outfit and cried through out the proceedings. The jury finally took the case after impassioned closing arguments and were out for 5 hours. One juror said that they could have been back much sooner but three of them were trying to learn to play bridge. In the end it was ruled an accidental death and Myrtle Hoffman was acquitted of all charges. One juror stated “ She was only a woman unused to guns. We reckon that if she had been trying to hit him she would have missed. One wag stated that the verdict showed shooting a bum bridge partner was justifiable homicide. Myrtle not only went frree, she got $30,000 in life insurance since her husbands shooting had been ruled accidental.

Back to the hand. No less an authority than Eli Culbertson, editor of the
Bridge World, testified at the trial that there were several ways that Jack Hoffman could have made the contract and saved his life and marriage. There are at least three lines of play that could have succeeded. Some as simple as taking finesses or establishing the club suit with a ruffing finesse before drawing trump and even a strip end play option. Do you see them? Do you think Jack Bennett deserved to be shot? Do you think that Charles and Mayme were the cause of the shooting, since apparently Myrtle only objected to the slapping becasue it occured in the presnce of good friends!

One writer wrote about this story well after the trial and after Mrs. Bennett had settled in as an executive at the famous Carlyle Hotel in New York City. She would occasionally fill in at the bridge table if the guests were short handed. Playing with a stranger one evening who had badly miss-bid his hand, he remarked as he laid down the dummy “I’m afraid you will want to shoot me for this.” Mrs. Bennett reportedly had the good grace to faint.


Anonymous said...

I like to read your Blog very much. It is very useful for bridge players to improve bridge skills. I shall continue to visit your blog to learn new things.

In the article about 'zero tolerance', the date 29/09/1929 (Tuesday = 2nd Weekday) had 4 nines and 3 twos. It is quite easy to remember the date. It was a sad story as bridge players should cherish their partners.

In the second last paragraph, I think "Jack Hoffmann" should be changed to "Jack Bennett".


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and funny post. You have a nice blog! I´m reading older posts, very useful!