Bridge Writer

In Scandinavia, where the most important lesson anyone can learn is how to make it through a night six months long, bridge is part of the curriculum. It’s not actually a separate subject, syndicated bridge columnist Tannah Hirsch was telling us, but Nordic schools jimmy it into the classroom as a tool for helping kids develop their logical, mathematical, and communications skills.

Communications? “Basically, that’s what the game’s all about,” said Hirsch, who believes poker might be a more mathematical game than bridge but is, of course, for loners. “Learning to interpret what your partner’s saying and convey information to him.”

In the U.S., bridge is in such decline that the American Contract Bridge League has established an educational foundation to try to get students to rediscover it. “The problem has been that school age and young university students now seem to find computers and video games almost a full-time occupation,” Hirsch said.

The bridge column that Hirsch writes every day appears in about 200 papers, including the Chicago Tribune. If the readership is middle-aged and dwindling, it’s as passionate as ever, as readerships tend to be about every feature of a newspaper except the news. A few years ago, the New York Daily News dared drop Hirsch’s column. It was a mistake soon corrected. “Papers have run the same funnies two days in a row,” Hirsch said, “and the same bridge columns and the same front pages.” In the cases of the funnies and the bridge columns, readers were furious.

Which is not to say bridge hands are never published twice. They are. “The bridge hand per se is not copyrightable,” said Hirsch. “You poach on each other–more than that, there’s a camaraderie among bridge writers. We exchange good hands. Bridge writers send good hands into the International Bridge Press Association–it’s a publication that comes out of England for other writers to use. Tournaments turn up hands. If you’re stuck, you can always dig into the files for something.

“It’s a grind,” said Hirsch. “Like writing anything else on a daily basis.”

When we talked, Hirsch wasn’t sure he’d be coming to Chicago for next week’s North American Bridge Championships. He writes his column six weeks in advance, so he needn’t concern himself with breaking news. “There’s a daily bulletin of the tournament,” he told us. “All the people who play anything they think is any good report it to the bulletin. And I go through that and throw out most of it and use a little.”

So bridge players toot their own horns! we said.

Yes, said Hirsch. “Bridge is an ego game by and large, with no money prizes.”

Then how do people make a living at it? we wondered.

“Ninety-nine-point-something percent of the players don’t make a living,” he said.

Hirsch’s own ego must be remarkably modest. You have almost certainly never heard of him, even if you read him every day. But you are probably familiar with Charles Goren and Omar Sharif, whose names appear atop Hirsch’s copy. Hirsch is nonchalant about this. “It’s reached the stage where I’m ghosting for myself,” Hirsch said. We weren’t sure what he meant. Given that he’s president of Goren International, Inc., said Hirsch, “by ghosting for Goren I’m ghosting for myself.”

Charles Goren is 88 years old. Twenty-some years ago he suffered a debilitating stroke that he did not recover from. Sharif travels. “He sends me a lot of material from Europe,” Hirsch told us. “He doesn’t do the writing, no.”

At any rate, said Hirsch, later this year the column will be rechristened: “Goren Bridge,” by Sharif and Hirsch.

Well, good. How long have you been writing it? we asked him.

“Since 1972,” Hirsch said.

Printers vs. Poles: Who’s Got Solidarity?

Lech Walesa, perhaps inconveniently for some Americans who hail him as a symbol of democracy and freedom, is also a labor leader. He’s coming to the United States later this year at the invitation of Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO.

In November, when Walesa visits Chicago, the Warsaw of the West, the Polish National Alliance expects to take Walesa in hand and show him the town. But there’s a wrinkle. The Polish National Alliance publishes the Polish Daily Zgoda, and the Daily Zgoda is mired in contract talks with the Chicago Typographical Union that are going nowhere.

So when Walesa’s plane touches down at O’Hare, perhaps Robert Healey, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, will be waiting to greet him. Perhaps Edward Moskel, president of the Polish National Alliance, won’t.

“The word is out that Edward Moskel is going to host Lech Walesa, and that isn’t going to happen,” Augie Sallas of the CTU vowed to us. “That just isn’t going to happen.”

Lech Walesa might be the last ace in the hole the CTU will ever have a chance to play. It’s a union back on its heels. Last year the CTU finally came to terms with the Tribune, ending a four-year-long strike-lockout that demonstrated how comfortably the Tribune could get along without its union printers. Now the CTU is besieged on other fronts.

The Tribune settlement had been complicated by a danger some CTU leaders took very seriously: any concessions made to the Tribune might be imposed by the Sun-Times against its printers under a “favored nations” clause that both papers had negotiated with the CTU to keep either from getting a leg up on the other.

Finally Morton Bahr, president of the CTU’s parent organization, Communication Workers of America, stepped in. He sent Sallas a letter that declared Tribune printers should not be forced to go on suffering on account of “some phantom war” with the Sun-Times.

“If the Sun-Times wants to take us on, we’ll fight that battle if and when it comes,” Bahr said.

Well, it came. Sure enough, invoking “favored nations,” the Sun-Times this month redefined jobs, shrank the CTU’s jurisdiction, and–with no visible regard for seniority–slashed the salaries of all but 53 of the 140 printers who worked there. The chairman of the unit chapel, Marshall DeGolyer, a Sun-Times printer 40 years, opened his paycheck last Wednesday and saw he’d gone from $634 a week to $323.

The Tribune settlement was supposed to have been crafted by a federal mediator’s wise hand to prevent such a thing from happening. Now it remains to be seen whether the Sun-Times can make it stick. Over the Sun-Times’s objections, U.S. District Judge William Hart ordered the two sides into arbitration, which begins August 11.

The Daily Zgoda, by comparison, is a bump on the map of labor turmoil. The CTU represents ten journeyman printers there, a couple of apprentices, and seven editorial workers. While Aloysius Mazewski ran the Polish National Alliance, peace and harmony reigned. But Mazewski died last year, and new president Edward Moskel has his own ideas about unions that aren’t Solidarity. The CTU offered a wage freeze, but the paper wants to cut wages and move some work out of the shop. The contract expired June 6.

The big dailies don’t pay much attention to the drama of labor unrest when it’s in their own shops. But if Sallas plays his Walesa card, they’ll cover that.

“I told Morty Bahr, we need help,” says Sallas. “He said, I’ll get you a letter from Lane Kirkland when you want it.”

We’d like to be able to tell you how Edward Moskel sizes up the situation, but first he’ll have to pick up the phone when we call him.

Tribune Turnabout

The other day the Tribune reported happy news. Second-quarter profits for the parent Tribune Company were up 18 percent to $75.3 million. You don’t make that kind of money by being free and easy with your spare change.

Last April, for example, the Tribune had to contemplate the unpleasant act of surrendering a sizable lump of cash. A panel of three arbitrators had just awarded a Franklin Park newspaper distributor $1,883,000 of the paper’s money. That’s seven times what the newspaper had offered in 1988 before taking away the dealer’s Tribune routes.

Certainly the Tribune didn’t feel like giving some guy in the suburbs who was mad at them all that dough. So the Tribune didn’t. Two months went by. When the distributor, Frank Rus of the Leyden News Agency, finally went to court asking for his money and interest, the Tribune immediately countersued.

According to the Tribune’s suit, “the arbitrators exceeded their power.”

What a remarkable change of heart! Back in ’88, when the Tribune was gutting all those distributorships that had delivered the paper for decades, offering them a few dollars and confiscating their Tribune business, the dealers banded together and went to court.

The Tribune was highly indignant. This matter does not belong in court! the newspaper’s lawyers declared; by the terms of the dealers’ own contracts, arbitration is the one and only arena in which they can pursue their idea of justice. A federal judge agreed and sent the distributors packing.

In one arbitration after another, the Tribune has continued to insist that the distributors breached their contracts by going to court in the first place. But the arbitrators have not been showing the Tribune’s arguments the respect they deserve.

So now, for its own sake, the Tribune has thought twice about courtrooms. Better an open mind than an open checkbook.