FRESNO, Calif. -- Tennis brats John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors could take rudeness lessons from some of America's top contract bridge players.
Syd Levey of Fresno, president of the 200,000-member American Contract Bridge League, said rudeness at the card tables in bridge tournaments has become so bad membership has fallen by 20,000 in the past five years. Bridge publications are full of letters complaining about rude behavior.
Tournament bridge players, who take their cards seriously, have been known to shout and curse at opponents and partners, make obscene gestures and even toss drinks.
'Some of the top players are spoiled brats, very much like John McEnroe. We've got to put a stop to it,' says Levey, who has vowed to push for more severe fines and suspensions.
'They're rude to their opponents, they're rude to their partners, they're rude to the tournament directors, they're even rude to the young kids who work as caddies. It's dog eat dog.
'In the last two tournaments I've gone to there have been cases of rudeness and they have suspended the players found guilty of this rudeness.'
Despite all the bad behavior, contract bridge is thriving. There are an estimated 20 million players in this country.
Contract bridge was developed and promoted during the 1920s by American yachtsman Harold Vanderbilt and his friends who played auction bridge at the Travelers' Club in Paris.
During a steamship voyage from Los Angeles to Havana in 1925, a small group of players fixed the basic rules of contract bridge which have remained essentially unchanged to this day.
The game of bridge earlier evolved from the 17th century card game of whist, which in turn had originated in earlier card games. Bridge, or bridge whist, was introduced by Lord Brougham in 1894 at the Portland Club in London and remained popular for a decade when it was supplanted by auction bridge.
Levey's biggest complaint today, aside from the churlish behavior, is the anonymity of bridge champions.
'During the world championships (in Rye, N.Y., last October), there were almost no stories about bridge even though the United States was winning a world championship,' he said. 'Contrast that with all the feature stories about two Russians playing chess in Switzerland.'
In fact, Levey insists, the bridge world is full of glamor, intrigue, big money, excitement and ruthless competition.
Last year's battle for the McKenney Trophy -- the most prestigious American bridge award -- is an example. The trophy is awarded annually to the ACBL member who amasses the most points during the 12-month competition by playing in tournaments around the country. (This year the McKenney race will be called the Top 500, being a list of the best 500 point compilers in the nation.)
Amateur bridge player Mel Skolnik, who made a fortune in New York real estate and now resides in Newport Beach, Calif., decided to go for the trophy by hiring top professionals to be his partners and teammates in tournament competition. It was his way of thumbing his nose at the elitism and snobbism that sometimes pervades bridge.
'He set a goal,' Levey says. 'He was a -- quote -- non-bridge player, who said 'I'm going to show the bridge players that I can out perform them no matter what it costs me.' And he did.'
Pros, who earn $100,000 plus a year, hire out for $400 a day in small tournaments -- and much more money in bigger tournaments -- to be the partners of wealthy bridge freaks intent on gaining points to qualify as a life master (300 points).
Skolnik spent an incredible $600,000 pursuing the McKenney - sometimes playing 16-18 hours a day -- but he made it, edging out Hollywood producer Barry Crane on the last day of the year in a tournament at Reno, Nev.
Crane, who has won the title six times previously, had offered to help Skolnik in July but there was a falling out and he went after the title himself.
Skolnik called it 'a true contest, exciting, expensive. To combat anyone for nine months at this mental activity, going from 35 to 40 cities and playing almost continuously, was a true contest.'
Levey, an excellent card player ranked 216th in America, says some major changes are in store for the bridge world. The ACBL has commisioned a $25,000 study on the use of computers in scoring tournaments and they have already been used successfully at some competitions.
Levey, business manager of a Fresno area auto dealer, is convinced computers will eventually be used in all big tournaments.
In addition, starting in May, all professionals in the ACBL will have to join a professional organization.
'The reason for this is we would like the help of a professional organization to control the pro players. We've found a lot of problem areas among the pros, especially when big money is involved,' Levey said.
There is also talk of holding pro tourneys with big money prizes to attract media attention. Currently, tournament prizes are merely trophies and honor.
While bridge is traditionally portrayed as a gathering of matrons at afternoon tea, Levey, 54, says the higher levels of competition are dominated by the young.
Three of the four American players who captured the world title were under the age of 25 and at least 12 of the top 20 in the country are under the age of 30.
Americans are the current world champions but Levey says the Italians and Poles remain at the top of the bridge world. Poland finished in the top four at the last world championships.
Levey, on the road nearly every week, is looking forward to the North American championships at Niagara Falls, N.Y., in late March. He hopes, he says, everyone behaves.