Cards, boasts freely tossed in bid whist


April 09, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,SUN REPORTER

When Almaria and Tiffany Clark pulled out their card tournament medals and put them around their necks, they wanted everyone to know that they had come to win.

But the Tuesday night regulars they faced at Windsor Inn Crab House who meet to talk junk and play a lose-and-leave version of bid whist - known as the "black man's bridge" - weren't impressed.

Not by the shiny medals and not by the black-and-gold jerseys.

The sisters spent the next four hours, over burgers that grew cold and drinks that became watery, winning and losing at the game of strategy and chance where even a three of clubs can be the trump card.

Once mostly confined to family gatherings and black college campuses - some players admit the addictive game nearly derailed their graduation - bid whist is enjoying a resurgence among a wider population, according to one scholar of the game.

"I think it's on the upswing. Now there are a lot more clubs where people play, and it's online," said Yanick Rice Lamb, a Bowie resident who co-wrote Rise and Fly: Tall Tales and Mostly True Rules of Bid Whist. "It's been around for a long time, and it will be for a long time to come because the people I know and have met and played against aren't letting it go anywhere."

While the cable station TV One began airing a celebrity bid whist tournament in 2005, the game is especially popular around these parts, where bars, party venues and living rooms become nightly card shark dens. Windsor Inn Crab House in Baltimore started hosting card nights a few years ago.

"Anybody who knows a bid whist player understands that we can play cards all night long," said Tiffany Clark, 32, who formed the Bid Whist Club of Maryland in June with her older sister. "It's just like that. I'm talking about sitting at a table, not sleeping, and then leaving the table to go to work in the morning."

And in cyberspace, players from the area make up the largest membership bloc on, according to the site's founder, Darcy Prather.

This weekend, the three-day Bid Whist Across America tour, which started here two decades ago, will roll through town. Tour founder Dennis J. Barmore of Washington says the 10-month tour features about 2,000 players each year.

Barmore, who played bid whist in the 1980s at Gatsby's, a now-shuttered black club that was on Charles Street, said the game bridges class and generational divides.

"You can have a janitor playing against a corporate VP, and a 30-year-old playing against a 60-year-old, and they all talk smack," he said.

For the Clark sisters, bid whist is a link to their father, Monroe Clark, 56, who is a top-ranked online player.

Tuesday night's rounds were loose and lively warm-ups for a tournament with a more serious, cut-throat feel.

"We are not getting up from this table anytime soon," Almaria, 37, announced, as she organized her 12-card hand and glanced at her opponent. "I think your food is getting cold, so you need to get back to it."

"How much did that cost you?" said Michael Joseph Hall, 54, peering at Almaria's gold medal over his reading glasses. "Y'all supposed to be bid whist players, but you haven't won a game yet."

There are many ways to win bid whist, a game that dates to the Civil War and was popularized by black Pullman porters. Players can accurately predict how many "books" - winning rounds - they will collect, or they can prevent the other team from making their bid.

Winning hands earn points and high-fives across the table.

But there is an air of studied indifference among players during a round, as cards are lightly tossed out or slapped down with a Take that! snap, and books are breezily grabbed up.

Indeed, as Edgar Allan Poe wrote of whist in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "there is nothing of a similar nature so greatly tasking the faculty of analysis."

But Poe never counted on what many consider a key component of bid whist.

"It's not just the technical aspect of it: You have to talk trash," said comedian Myra J. of the Tom Joyner Morning Show. " ... I have had parties where the losers had to get up and go outside and stand on the patio because they were not worthy to play in my kitchen."

It's not quite that bad at Windsor Inn, which is a home court for Marshall Johnson, 64. He brings two decks, to speed the game along. No sense sorting and shuffling cards when someone could be dealing.

Johnson picks up his cards, one by one, organizing by suit, and places his bid.

Trick won, he gathers the cards in a messy stack that quickly grows.

"I always try and keep two suits, and whichever one has the most cards, that's what you bid on," he said. "But sometimes you got to be careful what you ask for."

Asking for too much and missing a bid twice means getting up and getting back to your food.

And hearing someone run his or her mouth.

But for Johnson, who insists that everybody use drink coasters so the cards won't get wet, that is rarely the case: It took him nearly two hours to finish his shrimp salad sandwich.

But then, along came Hall with the best hand of the night.

In poker it would have been a full house. In bid whist, it's a Boston - lingo developed by porters during their Los Angeles-to-Boston routes.

It was a hand so good that Hall put his cards face down on the bar table, peeling them off one by one.

Big joker, little joker, ace of spades and king.

One book, two books, three books, four.

"Y'all can go ahead and get your coats," Hall said, walking away from the table to strut. "I'm so happy that you came."

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