D-Day Memories of the Bridge Player in Chief

(June, 2009)   As this newsletter is being published, millions in the U.S. and Europe are reflecting on the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy that marked the beginning of the end of World War II. Among the many heroes of June 6, 1944 was Dwight David Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force and the future 34th President of the United States. 

The main architect of Operation Overlord, Eisenhower was under incredible stress in the weeks leading up to D-Day. He was drinking 24 cups of coffee and smoking six packs of cigarettes a day and rarely had more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. He was also squeezing in bridge games at every opportunity. His lifelong devotion to the game has given him unofficial status as the "patron President" of bridge players.

Ike learned to play in 1913 at West Point and indulged his passion as he moved up the military ranks. He was dubbed the "bridge wizard of Manila" while he was stationed in the Philippines, where he played regularly with President Manuel Quezon. During WWII, an unwritten qualification for service on Eisenhower's staff was an officer's ability to play a decent game of bridge. His favorite partner was General Alfred Gruenther, regarded as the best bridge player in the U.S. Army, and they both took the game seriously. After one particularly disastrous result, they discussed the play of the hand in an exchange of letters that went on for two years.

After the war

Ike's bridge partnership with Gruenther had an impact on world history. After WWII, Eisenhower became president of Columbia University, an undemanding job that allowed him to spend every afternoon at his Manhattan bridge club. One day in 1948, he was called from the table to take a telephone call from President Harry Truman, who asked him to take the position as head of NATO in Paris. When he returned to the game, he told his bridge companions about the offer. "Who will you take as your Number 2 man?" they asked. ''Well, I ought to take Bedell Smith," replied Ike. "But I think I'll take Gruenther because he's the better bridge player.'' Gruenther later became the head of NATO when Eisenhower returned to the U.S. to run for president.

During his years as President, Eisenhower held regular Saturday-night games at the White House. The games were serious competitions, as Ike considered it a "sacrilege" to play bridge with anything less than total concentration. He was calm and thoughtful during the auction, but could become quite animated during the play of the hand. An old bridge friend described Ike's gusto when taking the setting trick: "The card rises vertically in the President's hand, then describes a 90-degree arc. It hits the table with a thump, upsetting ash trays and opponents."

Mamie Eisenhower loved the game, too. She and Ike rarely played together because he yelled at her when she made mistakes, but bridge was always the featured entertainment at her parties. When someone suggested that she invite Vice-President Nixon and his wife Pat to one of the weekend parties at the Eisenhowers' Gettysburg farm, Mamie rejected the idea. "What on earth would we talk about?" said Mamie. "She doesn't play bridge!"

How good a player was Ike?

Eisenhower wasn't an expert by today's standards, but bridge great Ely Culbertson described his game as classic and sound with "flashes of brilliance." Said Culbertson: "You can always judge a man's character by the way he plays cards. Eisenhower is a calm and collected player and never whines at his losses. He is brilliant in victory but never commits the bridge player's worst crime of gloating when he wins."

Oswald Jacoby, Ike's frequent partner in the White House games, said, "The President plays better bridge than golf. He tries to break 90 at golf. At bridge, you would say he plays in the 70s."

Eisenhower showed his knowledge of bridge odds as declarer on this deal, which was the first bridge hand ever published in Time magazine:

Dealer: N       

Vul: Both

♠ K98
♣ 83





1 Pass 2♠ Pass
3♠ Pass 4NT Pass
5 Pass 6♠   All Pass  

♠ 52
♣ K7542          


♠ 64
♣ J1096


♠ AQJ1073     
♣ AQ


The hand was played in 1953 in a White House game. Eisenhower's partner was bridge expert Oswald Jacoby and their opponents were U.S. Chief Justice Fred Vinson and Air Force Secretary Harold Talbott.

The auction was straightforward, with Ike choosing a strong jump-shift response, then using Blackwood. The opening lead was the 3 to East's A. Eisenhower saw that he could avoid the club finesse if he could set up an extra heart trick, but that there could be problems with dummy entries if the trumps broke poorly. He thoughtfully unblocked his K under East's A.

East shifted to the J, but Ike knew that setting up three heart tricks was a better bet than the club finesse, so he won his A. After drawing trumps, he used dummy’s diamond honors as entries to trump two hearts in his hand and then discard his Q on the established J.

One of Ike's favorite hands was an 8-5 freak dealt in 1946 at an Alpine retreat with U.S. generals. As reported in Sports Illustrated, he opened 6D holding KQ1098732 andAKQ63. Gruenther, his LHO, doubled and Ike's partner, General Mark Clark, raised to 7D with the A6 and a small doubleton spade. Gruenther's partner, General Raymond Moses, doubled 7D and when this was passed back to Clark, he redoubled, convinced that his A had to be the 13th trick. Spades broke 4-2 and diamonds 3-0 (Gruenther held 82 and J54 in front of dummy), so the only way to make was to ruff a spade in dummy before drawing trumps. Ike found it and scored up 1610 points plus the value of the game.

Ike's biggest score

Eisenhower's aggressive nature took center stage in this sensational deal, reported by Dorothy Hayden Truscott in the New York Times Bridge Book. It was played in Palm Springs CA after Ike left the White House. His partner was Gruenther and their opponents were two noted industrialists who had far more money than bidding sense.

Dealer: S       

Vul: Both

♠ 9
♣ A108






♠  AJ
♣ Q965            


♠ KQ7653       
♣ K4


♠ 10842     
♣ J732


1 is probably the "correct" bid with the East hand, but the style in the 1960s was to redouble with any 10+ points, and it worked spectacularly here. Ike was always looking for opportunities to act as the "ax holder over an injudicious bidder", as one partner described him, and he took full advantage of this penalty situation, despite his bare-minimum opener. South, who had obviously seen his partner's off-shape takeout doubles before, was afraid to bid any suit and did not understand the foolish redouble, which was intended as SOS. 

Ike led the 6, which should have allowed declarer to escape for down four. However, the desperate South played low from dummy in the hope the lead was from J10xx. Gruenther won his 10 and shifted to a low spade. Ike cashed his two spades and exited with a club, ducked in dummy.

Gruenther won his K and cashed four spade tricks, which squeezed dummy down to  KJ  KQ  ♣A. He then led a diamond to Ike's A, and now a heart through dummy's unguarded KJ gave Gruenther three tricks in that suit. Declarer finally scored dummy's ♣A at the end for down six, redoubled and vulnerable.

It was the biggest thrill of Ike's long bridge career, which he pursued until his death a few years later in 1969. Collecting 3400 points on a bridge deal isn't in the same league as launching a successful military invasion, but for a man who loved our game almost as much as he loved our country, that bridge hand was surely a memory that rivaled those of his D-Day victory.

  -- Karen Walker

Bridge game in the White House Treaty Room at Ike's 70th birthday celebration (October 14, 1960). Eisenhower (left) is playing with William Robinson, Bernard Montgomery and an unidentified fourth.

Eisenhower, right, at his Gettysburg PA farm with his favorite bridge partner, General Alfred Gruenther (1961).

Gruenther (standing, center), garnered worldwide fame as chief referee in the "Battle of the Century", the 1931-32 grudge match between Ely Culbertson and Sidney Lenz. Seated at the table are Culbertson, Lenz, Jo Culbertson and Oswald Jacoby.