SJ Simon

Skid’s Last Bid

By Maurice Harrison-Gray

On Monday, June 26th 1948 (*-see below) this hand was set to four bridge players in a Television programme at the Alexandra Palace:

S K J 9 6 5 2
H 2
D 10 9 8 7 5 3
C
S A 8
H Q 6
D Q J 2
C A 10 9 7 5 2
DIR
S 4
H J 7 5 4
D A K 6 4
C K Q 8 4
S Q 10 7 3
H A K 10 9 8 3
D
C J 6 3
West North East South
1C 1S 3C 3H
4C 4D Dbl 6S
Pass Pass Dbl AP

East led the S4 and the contract failed by one trick. It cannot be made against best defense.

We are only concerned with the identity of the South player. He was S J Simon. His real name was Skidelsky. He was known as ‘Skid.’ His bid of Six Spades was suddenly fired into the auction with typical adventurous mischief. Let’s find something that will liven things up! The whole table was jolted out of its complacency. It will be noted that West did not have the confidence to double.

One hour later Skid was dead.

He passes on to the Hall of Valhalla.

We like to picture him there in his favourite ‘big man’ pose - brandy glass in one hand, outsize cigar in the other - scattering ash over ‘palooka’ cherubims who listen open-mouthed to his dissertations on Master Bids; tipping lavishly in the local currency.

He emerged from obscurity in 1936. En route he had discovered, taught and fired with his enthusiasm for the game an even more obscure player called Harrison-Gray. The right way, to play bridge was hammered into me during endless Corner House sessions in the small hours of the morning. I have been his pupil (and a victim to insomnia) ever since.

We were partners in most of the memorable triumphs. For all his insouciance and notorious torpor at the table Skid had amazing imagination and stamina. I can see him now, in the last ten boards of our last pre-Copenhagen marathon against Kempson's team. Once again our position was hopeless - but there was Skid, ‘wickedly alert’ (to use his own flattering description), gaining points for the side on every hand through sheer appraisal of what was required in a crisis.

What did he do for bridge?

Just this - with his friend Jack Marx he invented, practiced and finally standardised the British type of game. He lived to see his methods sweep the board at Copenhagen.

He taught his team-mates to play and to laugh.

He gave us a new bridge language.

Skid lived to the age of 44 - by a series of miracles. He crossed the busiest street, nose buried in a book. He dismounted from buses travelling at full speed, nose still buried in a book. He once walked through a plate glass window during a Telegraph final.

Sent upstairs to spruce himself before a Congress prize giving, Skid was discovered by an irate lady inmate of the hotel, calmly brushing his hair in front of her dressing table. Not in the wrong room, as he indignantly stated - merely on the wrong floor.

One remembers the mane of black hair, the shuffling gait, the unlaced shoes; the moment of agony when we went up to get our cups, wondering whether (as usual) the more important buttons had been left undone.

In his books, on the radio, at the bridge table, he guyed everybody. Most of all he guyed himself.

Disheveled - but with an exotic taste in ties and sportswear; disgrace­ful, but with a world of grace in the turn of a phrase, the reversing of a dummy - he was the greatest character to adorn the bridge world.

Skid has gone.

With him has gone half the fun in bridge.

* - The Times gives the date of his death as 26th July 1948. 26th June 1948 was not a Monday, so the date in this obituary may not be accurate.

Jack Marx wrote:

Whether I was Simon’s oldest friend in the world of Bridge I am not altogether sure, but he was certainly mine as, until the end, he remained my closest. And in this sorrowful hour some crumb of comfort can be gleaned through expressing as best I may a little of what I have felt about him.

My mind travels back to that now fabulously remote year in 1931, when the gold pound sterling was foundering in the economic blizzard and the Prime Minister had mysteriously changed his role from villain to hero in the political melodrama. It was a wet late summer Sunday afternoon and I was paying my visit to a Bridge Club, the Acol Club near my home in Hampstead. I found it peopled by quite a few odd characters. One of the oddest was a person of eccentric manners and appearance who at first repelled me, then fascinated, and finally completely captivated me ­and all in the course of a single afternoon and evening. And so there began an association that for me, at any rate, has been quite unique. Within the restricted sphere of the game of Bridge, I became aware of an affinity between our two intellects that I have never experienced, before or since, with any other person in any sphere whatever. Our minds seemed to be so harmonised that I came to regard Skid, in the bridge sense, almost as my alter ego, and it is thus that I have ever since regarded him.

And in getting to know Skid the bridge player, one of course got to know Skid the man. One came to recognise an immense vitality of intellect, both genuinely creative and honestly critical, obscured though it often was by a mask of almost maddening absent-mindedness and self-absorption. It was this mask that was one of Skid’s most endearing qualities. He might embarrass you by joining you for a drink clad in a dinner jacket and grey flannel trousers or by addressing a stately dowager at the bridge-table, a complete stranger to him, as “laddie,” but somehow you never felt any real resentment - it was just Skid. Anything in the nature of a quarrel with Skid, even a tiff of a moment’s duration, was quite unimaginable. He was about the one person I have known in whom I have felt I could forgive almost anything.

And though at times one was tempted to laugh at him, far more often one was laughing with him. There is one word that I shall always associate with Skid and that is the plain English word ‘fun.’ He brought more fun into my life than anybody I have ever known. Everything you did with Skid was fun, everything connected with him was fun. And though he might poke fun at others and rather fancied himself as a ‘debunker,’ it was never malicious fun, it was never loaded with the sting of personal rancor. Part of the fun was of course his unique idiom of expression. I have heard it variously described as ‘telegraphese,’ ‘utility language,’ and other things. But no description really did it justice. To appreciate it you had to hear him himself speaking it.

Skid’s earlier life was, I think, one of rather widely fluctuating fortunes, but his friends rejoiced when in recent years success and fame and happiness seemed to have come his way at last. They grieve the more that there was granted him so little time wherein he might enjoy them. Of his success and fame the world may judge, and of his happiness there is no doubt in the minds of those who ever spent even a few minutes in the company of himself and Carmel together - here there seemed the almost ideally happy partnership. And delightful it has been to descend uninvited on their flat in Baker Street, to talk the current gossip, to discuss the week’s sensational bridge hands, to chortle over the latest triumphs (and almost as frequent crashes) of the ‘Simon double,’ and to be diverted by the posturings of the third member of the household, the cat Yum-Yum, whose standards of behaviour seemed at least as unconventional as her master’s. These things can never be again, but neither can they ever be quite forgotten.

Pedro Juan wrote:

The time is the late twenties - the place is the London School of Economics, boasting of all modern amenities for its students. There is lunch-hour dancing, all types of indoor sports, dramatic society, debating society etc. But to your humble servant the chief attraction is a table in the corner of the Common Room where three people are sitting down, playing, with about six of us watching.

The three protagonists come from different parts of the globe - an Indian, a Turk and a Chinese. The game they are playing is three handed, halfpenny a hundred, Auction Bridge. The wretched Kibitzers are itching to play and even more eager to take part in the post-mortems but there is nothing doing because the senior cosmopolitan trio do not want to be disturbed and no one has the gumption to start a fresh game. Besides, there is so much to learn from these three players. Their word is law, their play is perfect.

But wait a minute - who is that freshman walking in now? Is he coming to watch? He is not. He has had the nerve to cut in, if you please! He does not want to play ‘Cut-Throat’ either. He insists on four handed Bridge and, what is more, gets away with it, as we all cluster round to watch the big headed, tousle haired newcomer take his medicine. A few minutes later the cosmopolitan trio’s reputation has been completely shattered by a barrage of good natured, devastatingly witty comments. An hour later we are all fighting to cut into the game and for weeks and weeks to come I have to cut out my lunches, give up cinemas, sell my stamp collection, neglect my lectures, all because something very exciting, very amusing and very pleasant has happened to me - I have met Skid.

I gave up Bridge after my student days and was foolish enough not to keep in touch with him. Seven years later I met him by accident and took great care not to lose him again. It was worth while taking up Bridge again just to play with him and listen to him. It was also with Skid that I had my first experience of Greyhound racing at Wembley Stadium. Of course, even in that great Stadium his first appearance had to create a commotion for he insisted on taking a light for his cigarette from a gesticulating, white gloved gent perched on a stool (the correct expression is a tic-tac) thereby nearly ruining a set of bookmakers doing business on the other side of the track.

For many years some of us played Bridge and went racing rejoicing in the company of that lovable and ever entertaining personality. Last night in the heavy dullness of his absence one, of the gang murmured selfishly: “We have been robbed.”

Terence Reese wrote:

Bridge was outwardly the link between us, but we spoke of the game very seldom. The memories of him that come to mind are as a punter on the terraces at Stamford Bridge, as an indignant but persistent player during night duty in the ARP (Air Raid Precaution, Ed.), as a celebrity smoking a cigar and playing his best in front of a gallery, as good company, good-natured, and good fun whatever he was doing.

His routine as a punter seldom varied. He would arrive by taxi (always “cab”) full of theories and enthusiasm. If outsiders did not turn up in the first few races, by the fourth race it would be “Give pound.” By the sixth race would come the gruff demand “Cash cheque.”

He had his moment of triumph when a very long shot came up, paying £2 for a win and 15s a place. While the more serious bettors were commenting sourly on this latest example of canine eccentricity and the palpable knavery of the kennel staff, he would approach brandishing a couple of 2s tickets and say with lordly air “Presume all had this.”

A measure of his charm was that his few foibles were among his most endearing qualities.

Like many humourists, he took himself rather seriously. Among his closest friends his nickname was “The Author.” He would hold court among his admirers with great relish, and in every field, bridge, literary, or stage, he extracted the maximum from his role of celebrity.

He was subject to quick fits of rage, quickly subsiding. Chess brought out the worst in him. I conceded him a handicap, that of taking back, within limits, any move which subsequent developments showed to have been impolitic. When the limits were plainly exceeded, he would deny it with the angry incredulity of a small boy playing cricket on the sands and declared by an older brother to be out lbw. Another situation which always infuriated him was when at bridge he thought he had been diddled by an opponent's unethical conduct. “Thank you, Mr So-and-so,” he would say, shaking with anger. “Self lost temper,” he would say later, describing the incident. Did he ever use the first person pronoun? I cannot remember that he did. He never said “the.”

As a tournament bridge player, and of course as a writer on bridge, he was in the top flight. In the last two years there was some very foolish talk, by players who had not a quarter of his flair for the game, suggesting that he was past his best. He disproved this, if proof was needed, at Copenhagen. There he played with three different partners and scarcely played a wrong card.

And now, what can one say? He will always be very much alive for me. A ‘Skid’ joke is timeless, if anything is. “Skid would have said” I shall use those words many, many times.

Major International Appearances

European Championships: 1939 and 1948*

* = 1st place

Camrose Trophy Selections: 1937 1938 1939 1946 and 1947

Gold Cup Winner: 1937 and 1947

Crockfords Winner: 1946

The Hubert Phillips Bowl Winner: 1938

National Pairs winner: 1939