Bridge with Claus
For decades Claus Buchthal of Chilmark has competed in American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) tournaments all over New England. Although he consistently wins master points, he has never been an "A" player, never one of the stars of the ACBL. Nevertheless, he is a tournament celebrity - a player known, liked, and admired by hundreds from Maine to Connecticut.
Follow him around the ACBL summer regional tournament at Sturbridge, June 24 to 28, where at 95 he is the oldest player competing. Each ACBL tournament event lasts about three and a half hours, and in most days there are three events scheduled. Claus and his Vineyard partner arrive in time to play Thursday afternoon and evening, but Claus's much younger partner announces that ten and a half hours of bridge is too much bridge for one day and that he will skip the Friday and Saturday morning sessions. Claus takes Friday morning off, but finds sitting around too boring and hunts up another partner for the Saturday morning side game.
At his age, Claus's energy is almost incomprehensible, but last fall it was faltering. A defective heart valve was slowing him down and even threatening his life. Doctors judged him too old for open-heart surgery, and so he talked his way into an experimental program at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and last winter he was the first patient in any Boston hospital to have a heart valve replaced through an incision in his groin, a procedure not yet sanctioned in the United States. Two weeks later, he played the ACBL Newton regional, his old self again.
Everywhere he goes at Sturbridge, people greet him - always by just one name, like Cher or Madonna. At breakfast, several players stop by his table: "Good morning, Claus." "Great to see you, Claus." In the hotel lobby, a passerby stops short: "Claus! How are you? Glad to see you here." Waiting for a table assignment in the main ballroom: "Which game did you play in last night, Claus? How did you do?" "Do you have a partner for Sunday, Claus?"
Many of the greeters are players who have partnered with Claus in tournament events. At every ACBL tournament, there is a "partnership desk," where people go to find partners or teammates. It's sort of like a dating service for competitive bridge, Players without Partners. Because Claus does not have a regular partner for Martha's Vineyard club games, he often travels alone to tournaments. Wanting to play in every possible event, he is a regular at the partnership desk, playing with dozens of different partners over the years, some of them several times.
Claus is very strict in choosing partners, querying them extensively about their master point totals and their bidding methods. One woman confesses that she lied, overstating her master points, out of fear that Claus would turn her down. He must be very good at identifying talent, because it is rare that one of his partnerships does not finish high enough in the event to earn master points, but a partner who disappoints Claus does not get a second game. People who win with Claus remember him, ask to play with him again, and tell their friends.
A short, stocky man with sloping shoulders, Claus settles in at the bridge table and peers at his cards with his chin on his chest, like a great gray owl solemnly considering which little mouse to eat first. Wise opponents know they are on the menu.