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It was 1989 and donations had been secured from the Cavendish Club, the American Contract Bridge League and private sources to fund the first pair from behind the Iron Curtain to tour the US and play in select bridge tournaments. Included in their itinerary was the famed Cavendish Club in Manhattan, which I happened to have been managing at the time.

My partner (in life, not bridge) and I were delighted to have them as our house guests for the duration of the prestigious Cavendish Invitational.

We soon discovered that their English was marginally better than our Estonian, which was limited to the standard toast. It was to be a week of images rather than words, but we quickly learned how informative and binding images could be.

From the beginning, our two guests from the Baltic States displayed the stuff that Old World Europe is made of. They would rise to their feet whenever spoken to, bow graciously, light cigarettes and hang up coats for the women, and offer gifts they had brought with them – Russian champagne, toys for the children, bridge mementos and souvenirs of their beloved Tartu.

From what we learned from the illustrated book they gave us, Tartu is a charming university town founded in the year 1030. Except for a smattering of modern buildings on campus, it could easily be MGM’s choice as the set for the film ‘The Student Prince’. Against a background of canals, locks and pristine historical homes, the students wore their symbolic blue caps of the university or the green caps of the agricultural college.   The townspeople don the traditional costumes and perform the traditional dances of their village for many of the organized social affairs and cultural events.

Hillar Sula sported an Amish-looking beard, offsetting his ruddy cheeks and rotund build. Being a light-hearted spirit, he was a lover of vodka (and even more of scotch, which is difficult to come by in Estonia) and the strong Russian cigarettes. He was a foreman at a factory that manufactured delivery trucks.

Ain Otstavel was as large as his comrade, with a deep, contagious belly laugh that could charm the gods. He didn’t smoke, and during his trip he broke his fruit juice regimen only once – for a celebratory beer after the tournament. He taught agricultural engineering (meat production) at the college in Tartu.

We had great fun introducing our gentle giants to the extraordinary city that was New York. We revelled in their discovery of piano bars, video stores, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, Broadway shows and jazz in Greenwich Village. When we took them to Zabar’s to pick up brie and fondue chocolate for the Invitational’s cocktail auction party, they explored enthusiastically, repeating the one Estonian word we heard many times during their stay, “Fantastico.”

The Cavendish Special Events Committee had somewhat pruned the highly artificial components of the Soviet’s bidding system, but its major strengths had been left intact.

The Estonian pair was hardly noticed or kibitzed the first day. Not only were they an unknown quantity, but they weren’t particularly flashy, especially in that star-studded field. After each round they would ask for the opponents’ autographs and wish them the best of luck, via an interpreter who had been brought in for the occasion. They never argued or discussed bridge at the table. They had a job to do and just simply set out to do it.

Without winning a single 1st or 2nd place stanza award, they slowly and steadily won IMP’s every round, climbing from 16th to 12th to 9th and then 4th place going into the last stanza.

The finals proved to be even more exciting than the famous Granovetter-Rosenberg finish a few years earlier. The Soviets had gained even more ground, but on the last board, Marty Bergen and Larry Cohen, using an aggressive pre-emptive style, jostled them into a grand slam missing the ace of trumps! This brought them into first place over the Estonians by a margin equivalent to less than an overtrick. “Fantastico!”

Their share of the second place purse allowed our friends to return to Tartu as hometown heroes, but not before shopping at Times Square for electronics and videos that were difficult to obtain on the other side of the Iron Curtain. We helped them pack their excess baggage and farewelled them at the airport with hugs that you knew were warm and genuine. The gentlemen from Tartu had won our hearts and almost won our tournament.

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