My Bridge Mentor (Lem Harkey)

When I moved to Lawton in the summer of 2002 after graduating from OU, I didn’t know a single person there. I wanted to get involved in the community, so within my first week of living there I did two things — found out where the pickup basketball games were and called the local bridge club.

The basketball deal worked out great. The YMCA had competitive runs every Tuesday and Thursday, and they gave me a discount on my membership because I would write blurbs in the newpaper promoting their youth camps and tournaments. (That’s probably an ethical violation but it was 18 years ago and I needed the discount.) I made friendships through basketball that I’ve maintained all these years later.

Whereas I’d played pickup basketball my whole life, bridge was a different story. My parents and grandparents would play friendly games on occasion, and I learned the basics from them. I still have fond memories of sitting on my grandpa’s lap and telling him what I thought his next bid should be. He’d tell me whether I was right or wrong and why.

By the time I was 13 or so, they’d let me jump in on the games sometimes. But these weren’t competitive games, they were just for fun. I remember getting in trouble for doubling my grandma (in bridge terms, this is the equivalent of betting that she couldn’t make her contract) even though my bid was correct.

We played rubber bridge, which basically means that whichever team gets the best cards will win. Competitive bridge is played under a different format, called duplicate, which is far more skill-based. When I moved to Lawton, I had never played duplicate bridge and didn’t know how any of the scoring worked. I also knew nothing about the myriad special bids used to communicate to your partner to arrive at the best contract in the more competitive system.

I looked up the bridge club in the yellow pages, which was the last time the yellow pages were useful to anyone in humanity. I got ahold of the bridge club’s director, Bev Drzka. She offered to play with me since I was new to the city and new to the world of duplicate bridge.

The stereotype of bridge players is that they are all old ladies. I’m here to tell you that this is entirely accurate. There were a couple of older men mixed in, but it was 90% old ladies. And those old ladies are awesome. They immediately embraced me and treated me like a son.

After playing with Bev for a couple weeks, she told me that Lem Harkey thought I had potential and wanted to play with me. She said he was an excellent player who could teach me a lot, so I was excited to play with him. Several of the other ladies, however, said he was a mean old man and told me they’d have my back if he was ever mean to me.

He had no tolerance for shenanigans, something the old ladies would occasionally dabble in. He’d curtly tell them to quit gossiping and start playing, and he’d nip any illegal table talk in the bud immediately. But since I didn’t do any of those things I never faced his wrath. Lem was never anything but perfectly kind and patient with me.

Part of his reputation came from his demeanor. He had a perpetual scowl on his face, which didn’t have anything to do with his mood, it was just the way his face rested. He was also a large African-American man, so it’s possible there were racial reasons behind some of the animosity towards him.

I played with him for almost two years and learned almost every bid I know today from him. His teaching method was quite unique, but it worked. If he wanted me to learn a new bid, he’d just bid it, knowing I’d have no idea what his bid meant. We’d get a terrible score, sometimes tanking an otherwise very good session. But then afterward he would explain the bid to me, and I’d never forget it because of how bad a score we got. I remember giving him a bewildered look after one such hand, and he just grinned back at me and started chuckling. “That’s called a splinter bid,” he’d say. “Now you know it.”

After awhile, I started giving him a ride home from the weekly bridge games. We’d also occasionally travel to Oklahoma City or Wichita Falls, Texas for a tournament. During those car rides he shared a lot of stories from his fascinating life.

Lem was a fullback at the College of Emporia in Emporia, Kan. If you haven’t heard of that it’s because the college has been closed since 1974. But when Lem was there he led the nation in rushing with 160 yards per game and was drafted in the sixth round of the 1955 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s one of only three Fighting Presbies (yes, that was their nickname; the college was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church) to play in the NFL.

A College of Emporia football game from around the time Lem Harkey played there. I couldn’t find a photo of Lem playing, and this photo was undated but he was one of only three people from the school who went on to play in the NFL.

While Harkey was picked in the sixth round, the Steelers’ 9th-round selection that year went on to have the more prolific pro career. Pittsburgh picked Johnny Unitas but cut him in the preseason before he latched on with Baltimore and began his Hall of Fame quarterbacking career. Harkey played a couple of seasons with the Steelers and San Francisco 49ers before hanging up his cleats.

Racism affected his competitive bridge life, as Blacks weren’t allowed to join the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL). Harkey was a member of the American Bridge Association (ABA), where he accumulated thousands of masterpoints and found success in tournaments all over the country. When the ACBL integrated, Harkey and other ABA player were given only pennies on the dollar for the points they had already accrued. Nevertheless, he still had so many points that when I played tournaments with him, we were automatically placed in the highest level of competition.

I had virtually zero points and was a long way from being good enough to play against such stiff competition. Lem could have partnered with someone much better and would certainly have had better results. But he never complained, or even talked down to me when I made a mistake that cost us points. After the tournament, he’d let me know some of the more intricate plays or bids that our opponents made to beat us, and how I could start to incorporate those into my game. I can’t even describe how much I learned from Lem over those two years.

Unfortunately, Lem’s health began to deteriorate pretty quickly. Some of that had to do with his football career, which had given him bad knees and a bad back. His legs were incredibly swollen and he had more and more trouble getting around. Eventually he moved in with his daughter in San Antonio, and I never got to play with him again. I talked to him on the phone a couple of times, until he wasn’t in good enough shape to do that either.

I’ll never forget the phone call I got from Lem’s daughter while visiting my family in Oklahoma City for July 4 in 2004. She said, “I just wanted you to know that my dad passed away the other day. He didn’t have a lot of friends but he sure loved you and thought an awful lot of you.” Lem was 70.

After Lem passed I again partnered with Bev. After moving to Oklahoma City I’ve largely just played online. Francine and Will have been my two most frequent partners there, and I’ve learned a ton from each of them. But that’s all built on the foundation that Lem taught me.

He’s been gone for 16 years now and few of you reading this will have ever met him or even heard of him. But he was a great man who had a hard life, and he taught me a lot about bridge, perseverance and character. He always stayed so calm at the bridge table, even when I royally screwed up a bid or our opponents were doing something that seemed kind of fishy. I’ve thought back to moments like that during similar times at the poker table. Lem has undoubtedly helped me make money at poker even though he passed away before I even started playing.

For whatever reason, he’s been on my mind a lot recently. He’s a man worth telling you about.

Love you and miss you Lem.