City Paper is not for tourists
Tim Johnson may smile a bit when he first sits down to play a hand of bid whist. And when he gets his cards, he might make a quip or two. But pretty quickly, his mind shifts to the hand he’s been dealt. He takes his card-playing seriously. He is, after all, the treasurer of the Metropolitan Whist & Pinochle Club of the Washington, D.C. Area, one of the oldest and most established bid-whist clubs in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Bid whist is a trick-taking partnership game similar to spades and bridge that is played, by and large, by African-Americans. It’s a complicated game that has commanded the devotion of Johnson, 54, for more than 20 years. He’s played so many games of bid whist that one hand blends into another. The details of one particular game, however, are never far from his mind: a grudge match he played 12 years ago on behalf of Metropolitan.
The grudge began after a handful of Metropolitan’s members became “disenchanted” with the club and broke off to form the Uptown Whist Club. Among the defectors was Metropolitan co-founder Tony Blake.
“He made a lot of people mad,” Johnson recalls. “Tony is not always the most pleasant guy in the world. Joe [Moore, Johnson’s partner] and I didn’t particularly care for him. He was so competitive. He did things we didn’t like… treated us real bad. There was a lot of animosity there.”
The split gave way to an extended period of hard feelings. “We didn’t want to deal with the Uptown club for a while,” Johnson says.
Blake says he left for convenience’s sake, not out of spite: “It wasn’t about no bad blood on my part.”
Once in a while, some of the Uptown members, including Blake, would stop by Metropolitan’s regular Friday-night game to play, and, gradually, the rift began to heal.
Back on friendly terms, Metropolitan challenged Uptown to a tournament. Uptown was much smaller, with only 15 members. But they bested Johnson & Co.
Metropolitan demanded a chance to even the score. Uptown accepted, and a few weeks later, each club dispatched six teams to a recreation room in the Springhill Lake apartment complex in Greenbelt, Md. After four hours of play, both sides had won an equal number of games. For the tiebreaker, each group chose its best team. Metropolitan picked Johnson and Moore; Uptown tapped Blake and his partner, Crystal Edwards.
The showdown, however, ran into a venue problem: Uptown had rented the recreation room only until midnight, and management had to lock up. One of the Uptown members who lived nearby offered up her one-bedroom apartment. Within the hour, more than 30 people were crammed around her kitchen table.
“It was jampacked,” Johnson recalls. “It was the ultimate time to represent our club.”
Johnson and Moore had beaten Blake and Edwards earlier in the evening. So they were feeling confident as they sat down for the tiebreaker.
That doesn’t mean the pair underestimated the competition. Edwards, for one, always kept them guessing. When she bids, Moore says, “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is she trying to sell me?’”
They played the best three out of five. “Every hand was touch-and-go. It was that tight,” says Moore, 59.
Johnson and Moore won the first game. But Blake and Edwards took the last three. Moore still remembers what Edwards said as she lay down the final, winning card: “She said, ‘Read ’em and weep.’”
“We were so depressed that night,” says Johnson. “I went home crying like a baby.”
Metropolitan and Uptown never met again. Soon after, Edwards moved back to Roanoke, Va. Blake left the card table for the hand-dance floor, and the Uptown club disbanded. Johnson figured he’d seen the last of them.
As co-founders of Metropolitan, Johnson and Moore came up with the group’s slogan: “We are the best we know.”
And despite the Uptown debacle, Metropolitan hasn’t faced many challenges to its preeminence lately. As far as Johnson knows, Metropolitan, which has been around for more than 20 years, is now the only organized club in the D.C. metro area. So at the second annual D.C.-Baltimore Grand Prix Bid Whist Marathon, a weekendlong event in Laurel, Md., in late April, he’s surprised when the master of ceremonies, Dennis Barmore, gives a shout-out to a hometown team that he’s never heard of: the Kings & Queens Bid Whist Club of the Washington, D.C. Area.
The Kings & Queens formed only a year agothey weren’t ready for the first D.C.-Baltimore Grand Prix last year. For a fledgling organization, however, the Kings & Queens are no fly-by-night operation. The club’s members have come ready to do battle, dressed in matching shiny red jackets and red polo shirts, with their names and club titles stitched in black across the front.
As soon as Johnson spies a contingent of female Kings & Queens, he strolls over to scope out the competition. “How many members you got?” Johnson asks.
When he’s told 21, he replies, “We got 57.”
Some bid-whist players like to spook their opponents by staring, some by slamming down their cards. Some players are all talk. Johnson is a mouth and then some. He’s 6-foot-1 with a decent-sized girth. He wears a baseball cap that shadows his eyes. And he’s not shy about dropping references to the breadth of his card-playing experience, or that of his fellow club members.
“We got our own kings and queens,” he tells his new rivals, referring to the champions of Metropolitan’s internal co-ed tournament. (They receive crowns, which they are supposed to wear every Friday.) The two other in-house tournaments are the Battle of the Sexes, in which single-sex teams duke it out, and the Masters, the club’s premier competition for teams of any gender configuration.
Of course, Johnson can’t help but mention to the Kings & Queens that the champions of all three tournaments will be competing tonight.
“We couldn’t bring everybody, because there wouldn’t be room,” he quips.
“Well, we didn’t bring everybody, neither,” replies a Queen named Velma.
“We didn’t want to pull up in a bus and jump out in our red and white and scare no one,” says Johnson.
“Don’t let me get on the phone now!” says Johnson.
“Go ‘head, make our day!” Velma retorts.
In short order, Metropolitan’s sergeant-at-arms, an amiable fellow with a mustache, lays down the gauntlet. “The Metropolitan Whist and Pinochle Club wants to challenge you to a little game after the tournament,” he says.
Kings & Queens President Goldie Perry Sr. accepts on behalf of his group. Johnson proffers his phone number. When Theresa “Miss Tee” Gary, the founder of the Kings & Queens, hears Johnson brag that he won some money earlier in the day, she offers to relieve him of some of his tournament winnings. “We’ll meet you outside with the money,” she says.
She holds her hat out. “This is what I’m going to do when it’s time to collect.” With her other hand, Miss Tee, who has a cast on one foot, starts to raise her walking stick. “And this is what I’m going to do when you don’t give it to me.” Johnson plays along, sticking his rump out for Miss Tee to swat.
After Johnson leaves, a member of the Kings & Queens turns to her partner and says, “I don’t want to play any of those champions.”
Johnson knows that new clubs like the Kings & Queens aren’t likely to last. Most bid-whist clubs don’t. Everybody does just fine when everybody’s playing cards. But when it comes to setting agendas and approving budgets, the bonhomie stops.
Bid-whist clubs are small-scale exercises in democracy. And like good citizens in any democracy, club members harbor a healthy skepticism toward their leaders. For instance, Metropolitan President Bob Nelson recently floated the idea of a new committee to be called the “Trump Club,” a group to be entrusted with procuring prizes for in-house contest winners. The innocuous proposal created a stir among some of the club’s more persnickety members. Was he starting a new club? they wondered. Answer: No. Didn’t they already have a committee that did the same thing? Answer: No. How had he chosen the name? Answer: “Because cards have trump, and Donald Trump has money.”
At a recent meeting of the Kings & Queens, one of the members complained that she didn’t know the club was funding a trip to Midway Slots in Delaware until a nonmember told her about it. “Decisions are being made without the club’s knowledge,” she griped. “People in this room deserve better.” Another member accused Perry of “unilateral” decision-making. “If I can’t make ’em, I can’t be a good president,” Perry retorted. Afterward, when asked whether everyone was still friends, one member replied, “Barely.”
It’s easy to see how such disagreements can tear a club a part. Metropolitan’s longevity is the exception, not the rule. “We’ve been through it all,” says Johnson, referring to infighting, lean times, and shrinking membership.
What holds Metropolitan together is what holds any society togetheradherence to a set of rules. Metropolitan has a constitution, which Johnson helped pen. During meetings, he acts as an unofficial parliamentarian while the sergeant-at-arms runs the meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order.
The constitution is a 20-page booklet handed out to each new member. It lays out club regulations, which touch on everything from the duties of various officers to the club’s official colors, which are red and white. There’s even a brief code of conduct, which former President Vonnie Young summarizes as: “No smoking. Respect others. No open arguments. And no cursing.”
A constitution, however, can do only so much to keep membership up. Over the years, Metropolitan’s numbers have fluctuated from a low of 30 about 10 years ago, to a peak of 70 in the ’80s. In the past five years, the club’s membership has hovered between 50 and 60.
The club’s officers are constantly on guard against attrition. And they don’t hesitate to proselytize. At a Friday-night game in April, Nelson tells a room full of members and prospects, “I want to make this club the first thing you think about Friday morning when you wake up. If you consider going somewhere else, I will tell you it’s a mistake.”
With bid whist, however, new blood doesn’t necessarily mean young blood. At a typical Metropolitan game night, half the folks around the tables are retirees. Quite a few are dressed in typical retiree duds: baseball cap, sneakers, light jacket. A couple come ready for a night out, in pressed shirts and slacks. The older folks slightly outnumber the whippersnapperswho, at Metropolitan, are likely to be in their 40s. The soundtrack, which blares from a boom box, is mostly oldies but goodies. Looking around the room one evening, Johnson estimates that the average age in the room is 50. “Young people,” he says, “don’t have the patience to sit down and play bid whist.”
In bid whist, a hand lasts only a few minutes, and a game can last up to 20 minutes. (To win a game in regular play, you have to win seven points. Each book you bid is worth a point.) But the bid whist tradition is an iron-butted one: Players often sit on their folding chairs for up to four hours. Hard-core whistologists all have stories of bid-whist marathons that have consumed entire weekends. “People would spend the night,” recalls Edwards. Once, during a particularly manic card-playing session, her energy started to flag. One of the other players noticed and suggested that she get up and wash her face. “So I washed my face and came back and kept on playing,” she says. “Most people would quit, but we didn’t.”
Learning the game’s rules also takes some time. Bid whist is harder to pick up than spades, another trick-taking card game, in which spades are always trump (the suit chosen to outrank all others). In bid whist, as in bridge, any suit can be trump, depending on the pregame bidding. And in yet another complication, the ranking of the cards’ face values can be reversed, also depending on the bidding. The best players are master bidders. But even so, there are times when no amount of skill will do. As former D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry, a veteran bid-whist player, puts it, “If you get a bad hand, you can’t make chicken salad out of it.”
Bid whist didn’t always belong to the Geritol set. Many die-hard bid-whist players learned the game as undergrads. Bid whist was especially popular on college campuses in the South and Midwest in the ’40s and ’50s, according to Joe Andrews, author of The Complete Win at Whist. But in college dormitories today, bid whist has lost substantial ground to spades and the simpler hearts.
When the young do take up bid whist, they don’t play the same as their elders. The generational divide is on display at the Grand Prix, where 10 or so buff 20- and 30-somethings turn up to compete. Two players in particular, Troy Briscoe and his partner, Sam Wilson of D.C., provide a contrast to bid whist’s geezer image.
Tall and handsome, with arms toned from more than just shuffling the deck, Briscoe and Wilson are never up from a card table for long. They enter all four tournaments that make up the Grand Prix. During each tournament, as players are eliminated, they leave the tournament halla hospitality room on the fifth floor of a Quality Inn & Suitesand head for their rooms or the balcony for a smoke. Bid whist isn’t typically a gambling game the way tonk or poker is, but Briscoe, Wilson, and a few others, stick around to play a bid whist variation called Five ‘n’ Out for $80 stakes. Some of the younger out-of-towners stay to gamble, too. One of them, a player from New York, makes a scene at one point, screaming, “Show me the money,” while he slams down winners.
Briscoe and Wilson know Johnson well. When they were still teenagers, they used to stop by the Metropolitan’s Friday-night game. “They thought we were old and couldn’t play. Their aim was always to beat us,” recalls Young. “When they would win, they would be braggin’, ‘We knew y’all couldn’t play.’”
The young bucks are more respectful now. In Laurel, Briscoe and Wilson place fourth in the Saturday-morning tournament, but they hardly say a word about it. In fact, they don’t talk much at all when they play in Laurel. Instead of goading with words, they trade more on fierce attitude. Even Johnson has to admit that the tough-guy routine is convincing. “If you didn’t know them,” he says, “you’d think they were some nasty people.”
Despite his competitive nature, Johnson says he doesn’t completely enjoy tournaments. Cash stakes, he complains, have a way of ruining a bid-whist game. “People get real cutthroat then,” he says. “People are going to be a little underhanded.”
Tournament rules can also kill the fun of playing in other ways. The losers still have to get up from the table. But the winners can’t heckle them by slapping a winning card, face forward, on their foreheads. They can’t gesture too much at all, lest their opponents accuse them of cheating.
Less sophisticated bid-whist swindlers have a few time-worn tricks for getting ahead: For instance, during bidding, if you rub your ring finger, you may be signaling to your partner that you have diamonds in your hand. Another classic is thumping your chestan obvious cue that you’re harboring hearts. And any unnecessary slamming of the table communicates a hand rich in spades.
Sometimes open cheating is part of the fun. But such antics don’t get any laughs at tournaments. Most players agree that serious competitive play doesn’t compare to the freewheeling fun of casual games. Playing for “funsies,” as Johnson calls it, is its own sport.
Purely recreational bid whist is the raison d’être of the Floaters, a small club of 15 members based in Prince George’s County. The Floaters are the polar opposites of Metropolitan. They have no interest in going to sanctioned cash tournaments such as the Grand Prix or having a club house. They don’t have a Web site, as Metropolitan does. They don’t want any new members. As Floater Larry Vauss puts it, “Too many members is…too much drama.”
The Floaters play often with the Kings & Queens. Some of their members are even related. But that doesn’t stop Vauss from ribbing the other club. The Kings & Queens, he says, take their bid whist a little too seriously. “We laugh at them,” he adds. “We have a life.”
During a hand against the Kings & Queens’ Miss Tee, Vauss teases her about the cast on her left foot. “What are you going to do with that bionic foot of yours?” he demands.
“I’m gonna put it up someone’s ass,” Miss Tee replies.
“You can’t control it,” he says. “You got a remote control? You got to get tags for that shit.”
The Kings & Queens write off Vauss’ digs as sour grapes. After all, they boast, their club beat the Floaters in an informal tournament last summer.
Vauss blames the Kings & Queens for any rivalry that exists between the two groups. “For some odd reason, the Kings & Queens are in competition with us,” he says. “I have no idea what spearheaded that. When we come, it’s like, ‘The Floaters are here. Let’s get them or something.’
“My first thought is that it’s envy. They envy us,” he adds. “We had shirts. Then they had shirts. Now, they have jackets. We haven’t even thought of jackets.”
Just then, a female Floater walks by and asks him if he’s going to play in the tournament in Laurel. When he replies no, she shakes her head and says, “That is so sad.”
When the Grand Prix rolls around, Johnson and Moore head up to Laurel to enter the Saturday-afternoon tournament for the Mid-Atlantic bid-whist title. First place comes with the largest purse of the weekend$2,000. “It’s a rare opportunity for serious competition,” says Moore. “We were dead set on going.”
When Johnson arrives at the tournament hall, Moore, a barrel-chested guy wearing a couple of gold bracelets and a black jersey, has already staked out a table by the door. An earlier tournament is still going on. While everyone waits for the big-money event to get under way, Johnson takes a seat.
His behind is about to hit the chair when he freezes in midair. He squints across the room at a pair of players: a paunchy guy in a gray T-shirt with a bulldog expression on his face and a woman with long dark hair and a visage as untroubled as her partner’s is grim.
They are a little grayer, and a little thicker, than the last time Johnson saw them, but there’s no mistaking Blake and Edwards, the folks who beat them 12 years ago in that one-bedroom apartment.
“This is going to be a tough tournament,” Johnson says.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Moore replies.
Edwards, it turns out, has come up for the tournament on a whim. She and Blake haven’t played together regularly in nearly a decade. They tried their luck once several years ago in Tallahassee at winning the game’s biggest purse$10,000. They placed third. All they got for their effort was “‘Thank you for playing,’” says Blake.
The long years apart haven’t ruined their game. Blake and Edwards placed third in the Friday-night tournament. They made it to the semi-finals of the Saturday-morning tournament, too. They’re so engrossed in their game now, they don’t notice Moore or Johnson walking in. They go on to place second in this contest.
When Blake and Edwards finally catch sight of their old rivals, they aren’t particularly surprised to see them. “Knowing how competitive they are, we knew there was a chance we would meet up with Tim and Joe,” says Blake.
The reunion is brief and amicable. Johnson and Moore give Edwards a big hug and Blake a hearty handshake. Random seating starts the friendly adversaries playing on opposite sides of the room. As the two teams work their way through the “Sweet 16,” then the “Elite Eight,” they lose track of each other. When Johnson and Moore make the “Final Four,” they don’t realize who their next set of opponents are until they see Blake and Edwards standing by their table. Johnson couldn’t be happier.
As they take their seats, he declares, “You’re taking me back to 1985,” referring to the year he dates their rivalry to.
Johnson starts reminiscing about their grudge match as Edwards deals. “It was the game of a lifetime,” he says. “And I lost.”
“That’s what you live for,” he adds.
“What you play for,” says Blake, as he sorts his cards.
“OK,” says Johnson, as he looks at his hand. “Let me go into my mode nowtournament conditions.”
Every hand begins with a round of bidding. Each player has to bid higher than the last one or pass. The highest bidder, along with his partner, gets the chance to fulfill the winning bid. The high bidder also gets to dip into the kittya pile of six cards (bid whist is played with two jokers) dealt facedownto augment his hand. Under tournament rules, a game consists of four hands.
Johnson wins the first bidding round with a 5 downtown in clubs, betting that he can take five tricks in addition to the standard first six, and clubs are trump. “Downtown” means the rank of the cards is reversed, so lower cards beat higher ones. Blake starts looking hard at Johnson. It’s a tactic of his, says Edwards, to make his opponents nervous. The staring doesn’t do much, though. Johnson and Moore make their bid, giving them 5 points.
On the second hand, Edwards bids a 5 no trump. That means she thinks she can take 11 tricksthe requisite six plus an additional fivewithout a trump suit. No-trump bids are worth double the points.
It’s Moore’s turn to bid. He doesn’t want to run the risk that Blake and Edwards will make their bid and take over the lead, so he outbids Edwards with a 6 downtown. That’s enough to win the bidding round.
But Moore and Johnson, it turns out, don’t have the cards. Blake and Edwards “bump” their opponents and score their points.
The score is now 5 to 6, in favor of Blake and Edwards. After the hand is over, Johnson tries to console Moore about his bid. “Don’t let that child in with no ‘no[-trump bid],’” he says.
On the third hand, Moore wins the bidding round again with a 5 no trump, uptown. He easily takes the first six “books.” Then Blake cuts in with an ace of diamonds, opening it up for him and Edwards to win the next three tricks. “We were fighting tooth and nail,” Blake says later. “We needed every book we could get.” Three books is enough to bump Johnson and Moore, so Blake and Edwards score again, leaving the tally at 16 to 5 in their favor. Whoever wins the fourth and final hand will likely win the game.
Johnson deals. As he doles out the cards, he teases Blake about his last bid: “You know what’s coming next,” he says. “You could’ve bid yourself a 7 no….No need stoppin’ short. What you playin’ for, anyway?”
Blake doesn’t respond. The bidding gets under way. Edwards comes out shooting, with a bid of 7 uptown. (Unlike a bridge player, she doesn’t have to declare a trump suit unless she wins the bidding round.) Edwards starts high on purpose. The only bid that can top hers is a 7 no trumpthe highest bid there is and one that is rarely successful. She might not make it, but with an 11-point lead, she and Blake can afford to push their opponents to the brink.
Johnson and Moore expected as much. They could pass and hope to bump their opponents, or they could go for it and hope the kitty will strengthen their hand. Moore has a lot of hearts and decides to go out fighting. He takes the 7 no trump downtown, knowing full well that if Blake and Edwards win a single book, they win the handand the semi-final game.
Blake looks at his hand and sees two aceswhich become low cards in a downtown bid. He knows that without them, Johnson and Moore will have a hard time making their bid. (Jokers don’t count in no trump.) “If you get a 7 no, I’ll shake your hand and go home,” he says.
Moore exposes the weakness of his hand from the start; instead of opening with a winneran acehe opens with the deuce of hearts.
“We got to go no further than this,” Blake says, as he lays down the ace.
“Good game, guys,” says Edwards.
Johnson and Moore get up reluctantly. Blake and Edwards move on to the final. “I wish that could’ve been us in the final,” Johnson says later. “That would have been the ultimate end to the tournament.”
Instead, he and Moore have to endure the anticlimax of playing Lou and Terjuan, two young guys from New Jersey, for third place. When one of the young men suggests that Johnson is cheating because he counts the trump cards in his hand by pointing at them, Johnson doesn’t take to the accusation kindly. “I’m not raising my voice,” he bellows at his accuser. “If I were raising my voice, the whole room would hear me.”
Lou and Terjuan eventually call Barmore over to settle the dispute. Johnson agrees not to count his trump visibly, and he and Moore go on to win handily. Johnson almost seems happy. “We set those young boys,” he says.
The title game wraps up about the same time. When Johnson hears Edwards cry out in delight, he immediately walks over.
“Who won?” Johnson asks.
“We did,” says Blake, as he and Edwards hug.
Johnson looks on at the celebration. And to no one in particular, he says, “Should’ve been us.” CP
Bid whist is a partnership game similar to bridge and spades. It involves taking tricks, or bookswhich are made up of four cards, one from each player. The player with the highest-ranking card wins the trick.
Bid whist comes in different varieties. The version played most often around D.C. involves both jokers and a kittya pile of six cards dealt facedown.
Only four peopletwo teams of twocan play at one time. Each player is dealt 12 cards. Each hand opens with a round of bidding. The person to the left of the dealer starts the bidding, which then moves clockwise around the table. Each player must bid higher than the previous person or pass.
A bid is essentially a declaration of the number of tricks the player thinks he can take, in addition to the first six. (The kitty counts as one of these six.) The minimum bid is four books; the maximum bid is seven.
The high bidder wins the chance to make his bid with the help of his partner. The high bidder also gets to swap cards from the kitty to bolster his hand. Finally, the high bidder sets the rules of play with his bid.
There are several different kinds of bids. An “uptown” or “straight” bid means higher cards outrank lower ones and aces are high. An ace beats a king in the same suit, and a king beats a queen. “Downtown” or “special” means that lower cards outrank higher ones and aces are low cards. A 2 beats a 3, and an ace beats the deuce.
The jokers are also ranked; there is a big joker and a little joker. The big joker beats the little joker regardless of whether the hand is uptown or downtown.
Players can bid with a trump suit, which then outranks all others. (For example, if hearts are trump, a 3 of hearts beats an ace of spades.) A player calls a bid with a trump suit by declaring the number of books and the direction of the cards. So a “5 downtown,” means the player is betting she can take five books, with lower cards outranking higher ones and a trump suit. A player calls the trump suit only if she is the high bidderand only before touching the kitty. In a bid with a trump suit, the jokers beat all other cards.
Players can also make a “no-trump” bid, where no suit is trump. In a no-trump bid, the winning bidder simply says the number of books, then “no trump,” as in “5 no trump.” A high bidder who makes a no-trump bid must call uptown or downtown before touching the kitty. In a no-trump hand, jokers are no longer winners; they can be used only when a player runs out of the suit being played.
In regular play, a game consists of as many hands as it takes for one team to score 7 points or for a team to score -7. A team that fails to make two bids also loses the game.
A team that makes its bid gets a point for each book bid; a successful “5 downtown” yields 5 points. If the team takes more books than it bid, it gets a point apiece for those as well. Taking every trick in a hand is called “running a Boston.” No-trump bids are worth double the points; a successful “5 no trump” is worth 10 points. A team that doesn’t make its bid loses a point for each trick bid.
Tournament play varies slightly from regular play. At the D.C.-Baltimore Grand Prix Bid Whist Marathon, a game consists of four hands. When a team doesn’t make a bid, its opponent gets the points. The winner is the team with the most points. Annys Shin
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.