It must be understood that anyone attempting to chronicle the life of Stephen Hurst must contend with a bizzare divergence between history as the subject would have it known and the accounts of eyewitnesses. As he would have it, his student days were an enormous success, as a computer genius and a card player. His acclamation as Mayor of Durham in 1998 is a matter of public record, but Stephen's claim that this was for the invention of the UNIX operating system has been found to be false. The facts are much stranger.
A prodigal computer genius from a young age, Stephen was instrumental in bringing computers to the north-east of England - an action that almost had terrible consequences. A demonstration of the capabilities of a ZX Spectrum in the Durham market place aroused the ire of a group of burly mining folk, who assumed the workings of the unfamiliar machine to be the work of the Devil. In a hastily-arranged trial, Stephen was accused, tried and convicted of witchcraft, the penalty for which under English law is still to be hanged, drowned, then burned. Realising he had little chance of explaining even a simple microcomputer to the simple townsfolk, he slipped free of his captors and ran. Passing a nearby pub, he decided he might as well die happy. He rushed in and began drinking the local beer, a foul concoction known as "Newkie broon ale". As the mining folk rushed in to recapture him, they found him drinking at such a fantastic rate that the townsfolk immediately forgave him, acclaimed him as one of their own, and proclaimed him Mayor. But that was just one of his many adventures.
Even amongst the eccentrics of Durham University, Stephen always stood out. The gradual erosion of academic dress that has occurred in the past few decades has always taken place more slowly in Durham than elsewhere, but few students kept the standards as well as Stephen. Amongst Durham's narrow cobbled alleys and crumbling high towers, he would be seen to loom ominously out of the fog wearing a top hat and greatcoat, silver monocle glinting eerily in the moonlight. Those who sugested that the enormous height of his custom-made topper was compensation for a certain shortness of stature found themselves unexpectedly reported to financial institutions as deceased, and all electronic records pertaining to them bizarrely erased. Dark mutters were muttered, but nothing was ever proven.
Stephen discovered bridge in his final year at Durham, when he would wager extravagant sums at the bridge table in Rixy's, an exclusive gentleman's club in Durham City. A founder member of the famous Team Muppet, an intrepid group of teams specialists who somehow managed to throw every match they played, he found duplicate less to his taste than high-stakes rubber bridge. His fame spread, although his reputation suffered accusations of coffee-housing and sharp practice from time to time. Nothing was ever proven. Eventually, his name was put forward as a possible addition to the poorbridge.com team. I was instructed to meet him and size him up for the position.
Upon meeting Stephen, he seemed very much the right sort of character to promulgate poor bridge. But I needed to find out if his style of play was also appropriate. "Everyone is talking about a no-play slam that you made recently," I told him. "Could you show me the hand?"
Stephen quickly wrote the hand out from memory, and it was certainly a bad slam - missing the ace and king of trumps!
"I was South, and the play in 6 was not tremendously exciting," he said. "Winning the spade lead in dummy, I immediately led the Q, which East covered, and that was the end of it. Called for a certain quickness of wits to play so quickly, I suppose, but it comes easily to a player of my standard."
The hand had caused some controversy, so I was sure there was more to it than that. Eventually I had the facts of the matter, from the player who had been dummy. The board had taken place against Stephen's greatest rivals in the club. West was a stern retired schoolmaster, thin and dry, and East an ex-soldier, red-faced and blustery, with a reputation for trying to turn the laws to his own ends. Stephen had pushed to this bad slam, and taken very great pleasure in making it, but the play had gone slightly differently.
In fact, after winning the spade lead in dummy, Stephen tranced for a while then led the 4 from hand. "Penalty card" squawked East (quite incorrectly). West started to say that it was not, but Stephen insisted. "No, no, as you say. It shall be a penalty card. Play the queen of hearts, please." Before West could protest further, East had covered, and was grinning at making his king - until West's ace appeared. Then the recriminations started - but who could blame Stephen? His opponents had attempted to apply the law incorrectly against him, and had suffered for it. He called it poetic justice, but was it a fluke, or was he playing his opponents like a master? I had to find out more.
An Impossible Slam
I made my way to the rubber bridge room at Stephen's club, and waving away the liveried servants coming to offer refreshments and cigars, I quietly took up a place kibitzing Stephen. As luck would have it, I soon observed him in another impossible slam, in which he employed a very different technique.
You may note that this hand suffers the same flaw as the previous hand. West led 9, which Stephen won in dummy with the A, East playing an encouraging 10. Stephen cashed A, overtook Q with the king and continued with the J. It appeared to West that declarer was trying to rid himself of a club loser, so he ruffed. This was over-ruffed in dummy. Stephen returned to hand with a heart, and repeated the procedure, leading the 10, again ruffed and over-ruffed. The top trumps now crashed! I was most impressed. As West started upbraiding East for not playing the Q at trick one (denying the king), I took Stephen aside and made him a proposal of employment, on the staff of poorbridge.com. His liking for impossible contracts and his excellent deceptive play made me sure he'd fit in superbly.
And so the poorbridge.com team was strengthened by one.
[Historical note: the second hand in this article was actually played as described by Sir Rodney Smith, in the 1978 Lords vs. Commons match]