This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Generations of Today magazine.
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The Game That Won Greg’s Heart and Mind
After four decades of playing bridge, Greg Caucutt’s passion for playing and teaching it remains as strong as ever
By Michael Ransom
Greg Caucutt began playing bridge in the mid-1970s as stress relief from his programming job at IBM Rochester. Bridge, like chess, is called a “mind sport,” and because of its complexity and the mental skills required, it needs one’s total concentration. Greg recalls that after a long work day, “Playing bridge was almost like taking a drug that freed my mind from everything else. The cards were all I could think about.” He calls bridge “an addictive thing” because it is so much fun to play. And play he did (and still does)—locally, regionally, and nationally. Today, more than forty years since playing his first bridge hand, Greg acknowledges that the trophies and awards are nice, but most important are the memories that are made along the way.
The game of bridge has its roots in the seventeenth century card game whist, which was popular among the English nobility of the time. The game as it is played today was invented by Harold Vanderbilt in 1925. It is a trick-taking card game using a standard fifty-two-card deck and played by four players. The players across from each other form partnerships as North‑South and East‑West teams. Duplicate bridge, which Greg plays, is a competitive form of bridge in which the same hands are played successively by different partnerships. By comparing results against other pairs holding the same cards, the “luck factor” of getting good cards is reduced and skill becomes the greater factor. An estimated twenty-five million Americans play bridge socially. For those seeking competition, the ACBL (American Contract Bridge League) sanctions more than twelve hundred tournaments a year. The basics of bridge can be learned quickly, but mastering the game (i.e., learning its subtleties to compete at the top levels) can take a lifetime. Warren Buffett, an avid bridge player, likens playing the game to running a business. He has said, “It’s about hunting, chasing, nuance, deception, reward, danger, cooperation, and, on a good day, victory.”
Growing up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Greg became hooked on cards as a young boy when watching his adult relatives play Five Hundred at family gatherings and envying the fun they were having. After he and his brother Keith learned the game, they began teaming up against their mom and dad, usually following dinner on winter evenings after the dishes were done. Greg learned bidding, trump, no-trump, tricks, and other bridge fundamentals from Five Hundred. He learned bridge from an IBM friend and coworker, Dave Hoffman, an excellent player, who took Greg under his wing and taught him the “right way” to play. What also helped Greg was reading cover to cover the book Five Weeks to Winning Bridge by Alfred Sheinwold, which he borrowed from his mother-in-law. It addressed all aspects of bridge, and he says it “became a bedrock for me.”
To improve in most endeavors, one needs to compete against those better than you. In the latter 1970s, Greg began participating in bridge sessions in downtown Rochester, where the best in the city played. The weekly Monday night games were run by Parks and Recreation at the North Hall of the Civic Center. The Friday night games were held at the Holiday Inn and later moved to the Kahler Hotel. Greg says, “I’ve always liked solving puzzles, and to me, every bridge hand is like a new puzzle. We played about twenty-six hands per evening, so there were many new things for me to try to figure out at each session.” The bridge crowd was a tough one back then and had its share of “bad actors,” but Greg held his own and kept improving.
One of the ACBL’s most significant roles is sanctioning of club games and tournaments to award masterpoints. If an event has the ACBL sanction, then the highest-finishing players are awarded specified numbers of masterpoints, which can be recorded with the organization. Most players value the increase in their masterpoint total as a measure of their success at the game. Initially, Greg’s goal was to become a Life Master, which, at the time, meant he needed to accumulate 300 points, and he began charting his progress toward that goal. (Today, the Life Master requirement is 500 points.) The most challenging aspect of becoming a Life Master was that at least 25 of the 300 points had to be gold points, which could be earned only by winning at regional and national tournaments. Minnesota, for example, holds only one regional tournament per year, the Gopher Regional in the Twin Cities. Greg was closing in on his gold masterpoints goal in 1983 when he went to the Omaha regional tournament with his partner, Charlie Nauen, a law clerk in Rochester. In that tournament he earned enough gold points to get the 25 “difficult ones” he needed, but he remained short of the 300-point goal.
Not long after the Omaha tournament, Charlie and Greg played in the Gopher Regional. On the day of the Swiss Team event (where each team has four players), one of the team members had to drop out, so Greg, Charlie, and their third team member, Phil, began debating whether to continue playing. The tournament provided a partnership desk where players looking to join a team could register. When Phil checked at the desk, he saw only one person there—a sweet, innocent-looking elderly woman from Wisconsin. Phoebe was her name. Phil did not want her as his partner. He said, “She doesn’t look like she’d be any good. It would be a waste of money and time.” Charlie and Greg countered, “Come on, we’re here and we want to play. Let’s give her a chance.” So, Phoebe joined the team, and she played exceptionally well. They beat Hugh McLean’s team in their very first match—Hugh was at that time the premier player in the Twin Cities—and they continued on to finish first among the eighty-plus teams. In that single event, Greg won 28 gold points! He recalls, “I had been scratching for years to get 25 points. A month after I reached that level I got 28 in one tournament. Incredible!” He remained a few masterpoints short of 300, but later that year at a regional in his hometown, he needed only a match win to surpass that requirement. He called his parents to come and watch, and they were able to witness his attaining Life Master. Greg says, “That was a big thrill.” In August of last year, Greg earned the Diamond Life Master designation, which requires 5000 masterpoints and has been reached by only two percent of the bridge players in the United States.
Greg has played against some of the top regional and national bridge players. He remembers by far the best and most well-known was Barry Crane, a Hollywood director and producer who made many Mission: Impossible, Mannix, and The Six Million Dollar Man TV shows. Crane won thirteen national titles, including six victories, a record, in the National Open Pairs, and with his partner, Mrs. Kerri Shuman, won the World Mixed Pair title in 1978. He would be asked often why he didn’t write a book about his bidding system because it was so effective. Barry’s reply would be, “The book wouldn’t make any money, and I don’t have time to write it because I’m too busy with making movies.” At a tournament in 1983, Greg and his partner Charlie played nine hands in a row, head to head, against Crane and Mrs. Shuman. He recalls, “At that point in my career, I felt I was in bridge heaven. Barry and Kerri were really nice, and we played well, but we lost a close, high-scoring match.” Two years later, Crane was murdered in Hollywood, and the crime remains unsolved. At the time of his death, he had won more bridge titles than anyone else in the history of the game.
Several times, Greg has played in the Omaha, Nebraska, regional bridge tournament. Warren Buffett (who lives in Omaha) and his bridge partner Bill Gates frequently compete in it. Greg hasn’t played against them, but he did get a chance to talk with Gates. During one tournament, Greg was walking down a hall and passed Gates, who was standing by himself. (Most of the Omaha crowd gathers around Buffett.) Greg wasn't going to miss this opportunity of a lifetime, so he introduced himself to Gates and mentioned working at IBM (Microsoft’s nemesis for many years); they spent most of their conversation talking about bridge rather than computer technology. Greg remembers Gates as “an unassuming, easy-to-talk-to guy.”
Many things about bridge drew Greg to the game. He likes the challenge, he handles pressure well, and he enjoys winning. Because the results are tangible; after a single match or a weekend tournament, you know how you did. Most of all, he likes the team aspect of duplicate bridge. Greg learned chess, but he found it to be “too personal.” He would rather win or lose as part of a team than as a solo player. He says, “I particularly enjoy the times when your mind and your partner’s mind begin thinking as one.” Despite the competitiveness, Greg enjoy the social aspects of bridge. When he worked at IBM, it introduced him to a circle of friends outside the IBM sphere, which was a nice connection with the rest of the town. He says, “Today I have many good bridge friends not only in Rochester, but also in the Twin Cities metro area and out of state from as far away as California.
Genny Rice and Greg have had a running bridge game at least once a month since the 1970s. Genny’s husband, John, died shortly after Greg retired in 2001. They committed time to learning some new bridge conventions, improved dramatically, and went on a tournament-winning roll. Genny remembers a tournament in the metro area where people were looking at the scores being posted to see who won. She overheard someone say, “Caucutt and Rice—who are they?!” In the coming years, people learned who, and how good, they were. Greg compliments Genny on her good attitude and her bridge skills. He says, “She’s consistent, which is one of the things that separates the top players from the others, and always civil. We rarely get upset with one another. When one of us makes a mistake, most times there’s a good reason for it, and we both realize what the reason was before any blame is cast.”
Greg enjoys telling this story about Genny and himself at a national tournament, where they played many great players: “During one of the games, four chocolates were passed to each table as favors for participating in the tournament. When we moved to the next table, Genny noticed that one member of the team hadn’t eaten his chocolate. Genny, never shy, asked him if she could have it. When he said yes, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. On the way to our next table, I said to her, ‘You know you just kissed the best bridge player in the world.’ Genny didn’t know Bob Hamman’s status, but even if she had, I think she would have kissed him just the same.”
Giving back is important to Greg in many aspects of his life. In bridge, he does so by teaching and mentoring; he cares about the game and helping others learn to play the right way, just as he had learned to do. Playing defense is the most difficult part of bridge to learn. Greg developed and taught two, ten-week-session classes on that topic in 2003, repeated it in 2009, and is teaching it again this winter to nearly forty students of the game. A few years ago, he taught an eight-week class on a new bidding system that has become the standard across the country. Also, Greg is a frequent presenter on various topics at the Rochester Duplicate Bridge Club’s monthly, thirty-minute mini-lessons. Greg is pleased that the Club (rochestermnbridge.net) is doing well and attendance is strong.
Enjoying time with family—his wife, Amy, their three children and spouses, and their five grandchildren—has always been Greg’s priority. He considers himself lucky to have a second family, too, his bridge friends. He plans to enjoy both families, and all that bridge has to offer, for many years to come.