Tough Man Across a Table
Edwin Shrake, 1975
Sports Illustrated, May 18, 1975

Billy Eisenberg will take your money at backgammon or, if you prefer, at bridge. Get smart, play him a little tennis.

It was one of those odd days that sometimes occur in Los Angeles. In the morning it was cold, and a smaze closed the airports. You couldn’t see the hills above the city. The sky was about 10 feet up, and a traffic light a block away was a wink of no particular color, though shaded with orange.

By early afternoon there would be a sudden glow in the smaze, and the day would turn sweat-hot. An hour later the glow would vanish. The tennis players would put on their windbreakers again at Rancho Park, out on Motor Avenue about halfway between the studios of 20th Century-Fox and MGM.

At an arrangement of small wooden bleachers beside one court, eight or 10 people in tennis whites crouched over a backgammon board. The next court down, on a similar arrangement of bleachers, sat a man in tennis clothes, dark glasses pushed atop a thick crop of black hair. From the court came the steady whacking of tennis balls back and forth, and an occasional cry or gasp, but the man rarely looked up. He was studying a stack of index cards covered with symbols and strange jottings that looked like something that might have been found on a stone slab in the ocean off the coast of Peru.

“I don’t know, Billy and I will have to go through this pretty thoroughly,” said Eddie Kantar, looking up from the cards for a moment. By Billy, he meant Billy Eisenberg — the rather short, bearded man who kept grinning as he ran from one side of the court to the other, returning shots as if each one was a pleasure to send back. Eisenberg and Kantar are bridge partners, one of the best pairs in the world. In addition, Eisenberg is a backgammon champion, the winner of the recent self-proclaimed World Championship in Las Vegas. In a two-event Olympiad — bridge and backgammon — Eisenberg would be the solid favorite. But not at tennis.

“I can’t stand it,” said a young man with a tennis racket in his hand and BEACH BUM on his T-shirt. “Those guys will have the court all day for one set.”

“Yeah, Billy has found somebody who plays tennis just like he does,” Kantar said. “This could go on for hours.” The young man groaned. Kantar looked at the cards again. He and Eisenberg have been playing bridge as partners since 1971 when Eisenberg left the Dallas Aces and moved to Los Angeles. As a pair they have won two national championships. Still, they are always searching for a better way. There are plenty of good bridge players, and a professional must be very sharp to survive. On the index cards was a system for bidding and opening leads that was slightly different from the one Kantar and Eisenberg had been using. They hadn’t agreed to try it out, but it was something else to think about.

While waiting for a free tennis court, Eisenberg and his
bridge partner, Eddie Kantar, sharpen their bidding skills.

“You get to know your partner pretty well after a while,” Kantar said. “You can detect tiny mannerisms, you know how he thinks. The problem is when he decides to do it your way, and you decided to do it his way, and you haven’t told each other. That’s the kind of trouble we want to avoid. Billy and I don’t usually have any difficulty in communicating. He has a good memory, is competitive, and is cool under fire. But the main thing is, he knows what’s going on all the time, he has a feel for what’s happening.

“Not many people make a living out of bridge. Bridge tournaments are not oriented toward prize money. They hand out prestige and master points. But a lot of wealthy players want to win so bad they’ll hire Billy or me to play with them. They want recognition. We’ve got recognition, we want the money.”

Eisenberg finished the set and came over to the bleachers. He wiped sweat off his face, beard and tinted glasses with a towel and then dried the modest belly he has developed from years of sitting at tables. “Should I have beaten that guy?” he said. “I was tired until I saw him start to get tired, and then I thought I might have him, but he got me anyhow.”

“Listen, about these cards . . .” said Kantar.

They moved quickly through the deck of index cards, speaking a language that only a bridge expert could understand. Such-and-such calls for so-and-so, which means another thing. Why not do it this way, instead? Because if so-and-so did such-and-such, you’d get it knocked in the dirt. They fell into a mild wrangle about a meeting that was vaguely straightened out.

“The typical answer you get from Billy in a social situation is a definite maybe,” Kantar said.

Billy Eisenberg lives in a town house in the western reaches of Los Angeles. From the outside it looks the same as hundreds of other town houses in the neighborhood. You enter through an iron gate with a buzzer and wander through a maze of wooden fences that turn at sharp angles. Inside, the Eisenberg place quakes with brown and orange stripes, a long chrome lamp swoops into the room and chrome geometrical sculptures stand about.

A visitor, looking over the place for the first time, became especially interested in a sculpture by the staircase. It was a tall thing with pieces of carpet on it, tunnels and hollows running through it, weird little knobs sticking out. It invited scratching. A person could stay there all evening and fool around with it. The visitor was impressed and asked the name of the artist.

“Of what?” said Barbara Houston, who is Eisenberg’s fiancée. “Of what? We bought that at a pet shop for the cat to play on.”

Barbara is a tall blonde, very pretty, with fingernails an inch long. Her photograph has appeared on the covers of Vogue and Glamour. She has a masters and a law degree, studied at the London School of Economics and was an attorney for the House Administration Committee in Washington. At the awards banquet for the recent World Championship of Bridge in Bermuda — where the U.S. team, including Eisenberg and Kantar, was beaten in the finals by an Italian team some of whose members had been accused of cheating (SI, Feb. 10) — Barbara angrily harangued a top bridge official with a show of temper that could have cowed a wolverine, then went back to her table and wept.

“The funny thing is, Barbara did it for me,” Eisenberg said, bringing in wine and cakes. “And by that time, I didn’t care any longer. I play as hard as I can, and if I lose I might hurt for five minutes. After that I forget it. The past is over with, and tomorrow doesn’t exist. All I care about is right now. My sister calls me on the phone and says what are you doing, and I say what do you mean what am I doing, I’m talking on the phone to you is what I’m doing, and what will happen when I put down the phone I don’t know.”

“Billy is so sweet and so lazy,” said Barbara.

Eisenberg’s backgammon victory in Las Vegas was definitely in the category of an upset. “It was sort of uncanny,” he said. “I was talking to an old girl friend, and she said I would be in the finals against a certain guy. The odds were tremendously against it. But this girl is a little bit witchy, has a lot of hunches and intuitions. Many times in the tournament I was one to six to lose on the next roll but I always came through. I sat there watching this folly I had nothing to do with. So now I’m in the finals, against the guy the girl had pointed out, and superstition takes hold. I was losing 17-10 in a 25-point match. The girl comes over and tells me to change dice, to use the kind my opponent is using. What have I got to lose? I change and boom, I’m leading 20-17, and I win. I don’t take that too seriously, but there were some strong powers at work.

“There’s a fine line between recognizable truth and opinion in matters like that. But I feel that in times of high intensity there is the capability to get hot and do well. In tennis a player wants to hit a good shot, but his wanting to may get in the way of his doing it. In back-gammon nothing gets in the way. You want a number. Guys with high intensity can get the numbers they want for short periods of time. That further obscures the luck-skill relationship in backgammon, makes it very exciting, gets people high. I started as a very hard-headed guy who believed if you do the thing that’s right, eventually it’ll turn out right. I still believe that, and act on it, but I have observed frequently that someone will put together an incredible parlay of numbers that seems to go beyond any luck-skill factor.”

Eisenberg grew up in the Bronx where his father was in the garment business. Billy spent much of his youth in poolrooms. “If I had a kid, I’d send him to pool school to sharpen his head,” he says. “In all honesty, poolrooms gave me a good knowledge of my way around in gambling situations. I learned how to hustle, how to make a line, how to determine what’s going on. I barely broke even at pool, but I could beat anybody my age at Ping-Pong and barrel pins, and I was a good gin player. I grew up in an atmosphere that teaches you the way to live best is to have money in your pocket and not do anything. If you had money you could get a car, and if you had a car you could get girls.”

The Eisenbergs moved to Long Island when Billy was 17, and he took up pinochle. For a couple of years Billy and some friends played pinochle with his father nearly every day. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, pinochle was preparing him for the intricacies of bridge, just as the poolroom had prepared him for a gambler’s life. As a sophomore at Hofstra, with a sort of uneasy notion that he ought to go to law school and get a proper job, Eisenberg was coaxed into joining a bridge game one afternoon. He said he didn’t know how to play. “Never mind,” said the friend. “The people you’re playing with don’t know how, either. They’re pretending. You pretend for a while, and pretty soon you’ll know how.” So Eisenberg sat in the game, acted as if he knew what he was doing and kept passing until he caught on how to manage the cards. “Bridge captured me,” he says. “It’s still the only card game I would play without money being involved.”

Eisenberg began reading all the bridge books he could find and playing in every tournament he could reach. He began going to the trotters regularly until he lost 79 races in a row and decided cards were more in his line. Then he got wiped out in a disastrous gin game by an opponent who cheated. “That really soured me,” Eisenberg says. “I had the convenient idea that if I hustle you into a game, knowing I’m better than you are, and I beat you, that’s a legitimate way to win. But cheating is wrong. Thinking about it, though, I couldn’t see any difference morally between hustling and cheating, except as a matter of degree. That tore me up.”

It ate at Eisenberg so deeply that he went to work on Wall Street, trading municipal bonds. The job bored him. He often slept at his desk. After a year of that, he returned to bridge, managing a bridge club. In 1968 he moved to Dallas to play for the Aces, a professional bridge team. The next three or four years were some of the best and the worst in his life. The Aces won two world championships, but Eisenberg was unhappy in Dallas. He felt he should perhaps be doing something more significant than playing bridge for a living.

“When I moved to Dallas I felt I was copping out, I felt guilty,” he says. “It was such an easy life, being paid to play bridge. Perfect for somebody who’s loose and doesn’t want to work. But I started drinking too much at parties. The people would be talking about guns, and I didn’t want to hear about guns. The people were warm and nice, but they were very different from me. My life-style made them uneasy. I tried to adapt to them, but they didn’t care to adapt to me. After we won our second championship in 1971, it was a big letdown. We had reached our goal. We were big-shot bridge players. Once upon a time that was all I had wanted. But now that I had it, so what?”

Eisenberg knew he had to leave Dallas. The question was: New York or Los Angeles? “In New York I would be in the midst of everything,” he says. “The limelight is funny. We all want it, but when it’s on you there are obligations that you may not want to meet. In New York I would be trapped in a world of bridge. I would be the king of an anthill. I had no illusions of its greatness. In L.A. I could play tennis 12 months a year, take an apartment and hang out by myself if I didn’t want to be hassled.” He took his suitcases to Los Angeles and drew unemployment for six months while he pondered what to do next.

Cavendish West is a bridge and backgammon club on the Sunset Strip. The smaller room just inside the entrance is reserved for backgammon, while the larger room beyond is full of bridge players. At two o’clock on a weekday afternoon, the place was crowded. The bar was open, but most of the players were drinking ice water or fruit juice. Eisenberg dropped in for one of his regular backgammon games. He had managed Cavendish West for a while after he elected to get back into action.

“I knew I had to do something,” he said. “I couldn’t just lie around all day and feel guilty. But I still had a terrific conflict in my life — whether it was O.K. to make a living out of games, or whether I ought to do something more meaningful. I’d play bridge begrudgingly now and then. I wasn’t sure what I wanted lo do, but I didn’t want to lose my art. Then one day I decided to stop feeling guilty about being lazy and lacking discipline. As soon as I accepted my nature as it really is, I felt good again. I realized games are both a part of life and a means to an end. It was only the way I was looking at this silly thing that caused the problem. Why shouldn’t I enjoy the fruits of my success? I enjoy winning and having people think I’m good. So it wasn’t what was really going on that was creating the trouble, it was my fear of facing myself. If I was uncomfortable, it was my fault. I was responsible for my own little world.

“My values changed. Money used to mean security and freedom. Now I have a sense of security beyond money. I know if I feel good and don’t get upset, good things will happen. Those good things rub off on other people and make them feel good, too. If you worry about yesterday’s loss, you’re putting yourself in an uncomfortable place and worrying about your self-image. If I lose a lot of money, I might cuss for a few minutes. An hour later I’ll say how dumb I am. The next day I laugh about it and say life goes on. When you’re winning it doesn’t occur to you that you can lose. Today I might be the best backgammon player in the world. I’ll win four or five straight sessions. It’s like they’re printing money for me. Then I lose. What happened? They quit printing the money! I can enjoy winning now with no hangups, and losing hurts less than it used to.”

To demonstrate, Eisenberg grinned as he paid the $200 he had just lost in the game at Cavendish West.

Shortly after Eisenberg jumped back into the gambling world, he entered a backgammon tournament in Las Vegas. “It was a bargain,” he says. “I could invest $100 on myself at an auction. A player maybe one and a half times better than me would sell for $2,000. I stood to win a lot. I figured maybe this was a game I ought to keep up. Clearly, there’s more money in backgammon than in bridge. The amount of prize money at backgammon tournaments is greatly exaggerated, but there’s plenty to be won in all sorts of ways.

“The best I ever did financially at a backgammon tournament was once when I had been up playing cards for three days and didn’t even want to go. I got into the finals and hedged it by betting on my opponent. I tried like hell to beat him, but no matter who won the match I would win a bundle. I lost the match and went home happy. The gambling situations in backgammon can get very complicated, with players owning different pieces of each other.”

Eisenberg began giving backgammon lessons to movie stars, like Jill St. John. People started coming around wanting to play him. “In Hollywood what it becomes is, you’re baby-sitting — playing or giving lessons — but you’re creating something new for the person on the other side of the board, so that person’s life becomes more interesting. But I found myself feeling guilty again about backgammon — I was hustling and I didn’t want to. But why? If the other person wants to play me, it’s his choice. I’m entitled to make a living.”

Eisenberg looked around the room. “To me,” he said, “backgammon is using the tools I’m learning a little better than someone else. Ultimately, backgammon is a pure hustle.”

Of all games, Eisenberg prefers bridge. In fact, he talks of bridge as being a spiritual experience, a game that offers revelations. “Until bridge, there was nothing I gave my all to except basketball when I was a kid. Basketball would have meant more if it hadn’t required immediate transition into physical activity. Bridge allows me to be introspective, to learn about myself and others. At the bridge table I have a lot of energy. I think about other things in relation to what is going on at the table. Bridge is an art form. It’s a microcosm of life. You learn to put your ego aside and cooperate and grow as a human being. When you understand it you have the feeling you’re doing something worthwhile.

“Some bridge players are oblivious to the people around them. They’re not perceptive of their partners or their opponents, but they play correctly and mechanically. At the other extreme are players who are very good at the psychological aspects. The best players are a combination of the two.”

When Eisenberg starts blowing plays at the bridge table he shifts his mind into third gear. “I play at three speeds,” he says. “The first speed is normal, disciplined, trying not to make mistakes. The second is accelerated — times when I’m uncanny, can do no wrong, a peak experience. The third is when I’m a little off, can’t get my attention on the game. That’s when I try to get out of the way. Nobody is right all the time, and when I’m error prone I move back and depend on my partner to carry us.”

At the Eisenberg town house, Barbara had cooked dinner. Lasagna, pizza and brownies, served with white wine. Eisenberg leaned back on the couch, grinning, and patted his stomach. The color TV was on, the stereo was on, several people had drifted in, and everybody was talking. Eisenberg had been working on a book about his gambling life. His coauthor wanted to call it Broadway Billy but Eisenberg rejected that as not sounding right. L.A. Town House Billy wouldn’t cut it, either. (They later settled on Winning, Losing and Living.) Ah, the busy-ness of the evening. There was to be a backgammon game later. Eisenberg and Kantar had another match coming up in the Grand National bridge tournament in a couple of days and it had not been settled what to do about the system on the index cards.

“What the hell, why not try it?” Eisenberg said.

“Billy and Eddie are opposites in many ways,” said Barbara. “But they complement each other.”

“Eddie thinks I’m lazy and a little unreliable, partly because I don’t work at bridge every day,” Eisenberg said. “But I’m a spontaneous person. I don’t have to play every day to stay in form. I’m comfortable taking it easy, just letting things go on in my head.”

The phone rang, and Barbara went to answer it. When she came back, Eisenberg was asleep on the couch.

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