Phil Smith, a Life
By Michael Clark

Philip Alejandro Smith Ruz was born on August 13, 1926. His schooling was Catholic and he attended the University of Havana, graduating with a Law degree.

Phil was active in the social-democratic Ortodoxo Party, and strongly critical of dictator Fulgencio Batista. On the 26th of July 1953, Phil Smith launched an unsuccessful assault on the Moncada army barracks, losing most of his soldiers. Phil was captured and at his trial he made his most famous speech — History Will Absolve Me. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

Pardoned after only two years in jail, he went into exile in Mexico where he founded the 26th of July Movement. Gaining support from revultionaries such as Che Guevara he went back to invade Cuba on the Granma in 1956.

The revolutionaries hid in the Sierra Maestra mountains, gaining a strong following among the peasants. Eventually, Batista was forced to flee in 1959 and Phil took over.

It was at this point that Phil saw there was something wrong. He felt an emptiness inside, a yearning. He felt like he was a fraud, living somebody else's life, sleeping in somebody else's bed and eating somebody else's bocaditos. So one afternoon he packed up his cigars in an old cloth sack and hit the road.

Three days later he grew weary of walking and took a rest by the side of the dusty track. There he met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers. Phil offered him a cigar and asked him what the trouble was. The old man replied, "Philip, don't look surprised for I know you well and I know your father well and I know your uncle well and I know your mother very well indeed. I have come to you today to give you a task so great and so noble that..."

But Phil was an impatient sort and slapped the old man across the face and took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs. And he stood up and progressed on his journey.

The following morning he arrived at a small strip of land and had to stop to catch his breath for he had run long and hard from the nunnery. The trees were glistening with a soft dew, the air was fresh with the smell of autumn and Phil shed a small tear. Suddenly, like a condor swooping out of the heavens, a small bi-plane came swooping out of the heavens. Gathering himself from the undergrowth, he walked up to the pilot who was intently studying a piece of paper.

Translating from the original Spanish, Phil said: "G'day."

The pilot was momentarily startled by the sudden appearance of a dishevelled man. "You must be here for the gathering," he said. "I hear Miguel is coming. Probably the worst dealer in all of the Caribbean! My name's Ernesto Forrester, and you are?"

Phil had to think fast, for he couldn't use his real name. "Ian Botham", he replied, extending a hand.

"I hope you like strong two bids because that's all they use here. And watch out for Hector's diamond openings."

Phil, at first confused by this strange banter, now started to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Secret gatherings with dealers, strong bids, diamonds. They could only be referring to one thing — drugs! If his instincts were correct, he was in the middle of an enormous drug deal. Hector would be opening the bidding with diamonds, Ernesto said they favour strong bids in the $2m range and Miguel, 'the worst dealer in the Caribbean', sounded like a ruthless character. I'd better be careful and try to act naturally, he thought.

An hour later, when the rest of the group had arrived and the drug deal had been completed, most of the cartel leaders flew back home but there were four left and one suggested a game of bridge. Phil had never heard of this game but didn't want to admit this fact and incur the wrath of Miguel, so he played along. A green baize table was taken out of the back of the aeroplane and set up on the field. The players cut for partners and sat down. Miguel was dealer and dropped his cards all over the floor but eventually Phil held 13 of them in his hand.

This is what he saw: S10 8 6 5 HK Q 9 8 D8 7 CA 8 2

Miguel, opposite him, said "One Spade". Ernesto replied "Two Hearts". There was a pause, and Phil felt from the air of expectation that it was his turn to say something. Well, he thought, I have three clubs (his grandfather had taught him the suit symbols back in the thirties while on a trip to Hong Kong) so why not say that? "Three Clubs". Hector said "Pass" and, rather surprisingly, Miguel then said "Three Spades" which was most peculiar since he had only just declared one. Perhaps he has discovered two extra ones hidden in his hand? Philip had spent many hours in the brothels of havana, playing poker and other illicit card games and perhaps this was a cunning bluff, to make his opponents think he had only one spade. Anyway, Phil thought he might as well say that he had four hearts in his hand and there the matter rested. Not entirely sure what was going on, Hector played a card, Miguel played all thirteen of his cards and everyone looked at Phil, wondering what he was going to do. This was the full hand:

SA K Q 7 4 3
HA 10
DK J 9 2


SJ 9
D10 6 5 4
CJ 10 9 7 6 5 4
HJ 7 6 5 4 3 2
DA Q 3
CQ 3
S10 8 6 5
HK Q 9 8
D8 7
CA 8 2

Phil was a quick learner and, after attempting to revoke from dummy a couple of times, soon picked up the principle of following suit. A spade was led and the Ace won on table. Phil then tried to cash the SK but sadly this was ruffed. Blissfully knowing this contract would go off — he had seven trumps after all! — Ernesto, on Phil's right, played Ace and another diamond and sat back to wait for his inevitable two tricks. The DJ won and Phil tried this time to cash his SQ but this was ruffed too. East exited with a trump, the H10 winning. Continuing his plan of playing top cards, Phil played the CK and then the DK on which, for no particular reason, he threw his last spade.

S7 4 3
CJ 10 9 7
HJ 7 6 5
HK Q 9
CA 8

Thinking back to the two times that Ernesto's small hearts had won tricks against his big spades, he decided two could play at that game and when East ruffed the next spade he played the H9 on top of it and discerned that it had won the trick. Next came his CA, because Aces always win tricks, and he somehow came home on a cross-ruff.

Ernesto was mortified at his shoddy defence. Miguel, who could see that 4S would lose four tricks off the top, was unsure if Phil had just done something brilliant or stupid and so held off with the torture and murder for another couple of hands.

Phil himself knew not whether his play was just good fortune, cocaine-induced stupor or divine intervention, but he suddenly felt a purpose where previously there was none. He had sipped from the cup of Poor Bridge and was hooked. As the afternoon turned into evening, the sarcasm started welling up inside him. It was a hunger that could never be sated. Barb after barb poured forth from his lips, eviscerating the poor bidding, poor play and poor defence of his opponents. It all ended bloodily. Phil walked away from that bare patch of Cuban land with an ear in an ice-bag and two bullet holes in his back, but as far as he was concerned he had never felt more alive.

Fast forward two years, and then another forty, and Philip Smith is a wretched character indeed. He has travelled the length, breadth and depth of the world, spreading sarcasm and schadenfreude wherever he walks. He has sparred with some of the greatest men alive and slept with some of the most beautiful women, but there was always a gulf between them, as was famously illustrated by the incident with Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda and the young John McEnroe. In India he is known as the man with the devil's tongue; in Australia he's the Big Bingawonga; in Japan they call him Dr Tony Chapman and in Israel they daren't even say his name.

It was by pure chance that he found himself in the University city of Durham. A snake-oil salesman had told him there was a powerful magician in the North East called Alan Shearer who would cure him of his affliction. Yes, affliction, for that is how Phil viewed his gift for sarcasm after being hounded out of every town in Europe and three quarters of the towns in the Americas. Phil had never much followed football before — he was more of an amateur boxing fan really — so he didn't know what Alan Shearer looked like and it came as quite a surprise when they met.

"I know you!" said Phil, in shock and awe.

"Yes, you do. Like Moses, you have travelled the wilderness looking for a place to be accepted and loved, without success. That day by the side of the road, you took me by the left leg and threw me down the stairs, just as I was about to tell you the most important thing you would ever hear. You have waltzed with depression and fox-trotted with self-loathing and all in vain, for it could have been prevented. Listen good, my dear boy. In the darkest building of the University, in the darkest room you will found a sect that will eventually rule the bridge world. Your calling will be to write about Poor Bridge and write about Poor Bridge you shall. Your colleagues will gain your invaluable (not to mention inhuman) appetite for sarcasm and you will gain peace in your life. After forty-two years of turpitude you will gain redemption and catharsis in your new endeavour and bring joy to the world. Go now, and be free."

Phil was stunned and leapt straight into action. Deep in the dragon's lair he found a hole he could call his own and there he set up the Poor Bridge team. The team went from strength to strength and quickly gained an underground following. Dozens of articles were written and dozens of faces burned red. The growth of any sect is always marked by the point where it emerges from the shadows and attempts respectability. This point came at Easter 2005 when the poorbridge.com website was born.

We did leave the shadows behind, but will never seek respectability.