July 2nd, 2003


Ayn Rand, in *Spades*


The New York Times

June 29, 2003

Ayn Rand, in *Spades*

I'm walking our sushi order back to the cafe table at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia when I notice that Adam Wildavsky is talking to a fan. His name is Kumar, a retired pharmaceutical rep from India by way of Ohio. He's a bridge player like Wildavsky, here for the Spring Nationals, and he's sitting in my seat.

Wildavsky, tall and gaunt with a trim brown beard, is listening to Kumar's questions, nodding placidly in a birdlike dip. He has attached his portable back-support pillow to his chair, as he does to every chair, because he spends most of his life sitting down. He is a computer programmer -- specifically, an adherent to a hyperefficient system called ''Extreme Programming'' -- and he is also one of the best bridge players in the United States. Kumar has just been eliminated from the Spring Nationals' main event, the Vanderbilt Knockout. Wildavsky's team, on the other hand, is moving on to Round 3 this afternoon.

''Kumar wants to know the secret to being a better bridge player,'' Wildavsky explains. His eyes gleam briefly, mischievously. ''Of course, you know what I told him.''

Of course, I do. The secret to success in bridge is also the secret to success in life, and anyone who meets Adam Wildavsky soon learns it.

As it happens, Wildavsky has enjoyed a lot of success in bridge recently. At the American Contract Bridge League's Fall Nationals, his team took the coveted Reisinger Board-a-Match. And then Wildavsky partnered with Ivar Stakgold, a bridge legend, to win the New York Regional Board-a-Match title.

These tournaments, like most major bridge wins, earned Wildavsky merely honor. Occasionally, though, tournament wins earn him cash. Wildavsky made $4,000 when he won the Bridge Pro Tour's New York Open on Dec. 27, 2002. After the win, he was quoted in a Pro Tour press release as saying, ''Prize money will attract younger players and hopefully revitalize the game.'' Then he added, somewhat mysteriously, ''Money is the root of all good.''

Attentive readers will recognize the quote: it's the keystone of Francisco D'Anconia's defense of capitalism in Ayn Rand's very long novel ''Atlas Shrugged.''

Adam Wildavsky is an Objectivist, a follower of Rand's controversial philosophy of staunch individualism, selfishness and unrestrained capitalism. Rand developed Objectivism, in part, to codify the ideal of the heroic man that had emerged in her fiction: a man who is unapologetically self-interested, dismissing all needless emotion and mystic hereafters, certainly anti-Communist, usually very tall and very gaunt, for some reason -- one who creates his moral worth through productive endeavor, be it the building of skyscrapers or railroads, the writing of very long novels or, presumably, the winning of major bridge competitions.

It is this heroic ideal that Wildavsky is trying to explain to Kumar at the Reading Terminal Market over sushi.

''One of Rand's basic premises is that man has free will,'' Wildavsky is saying, ''which is expressed primarily through a single choice: to think or not to think.''

''I know, I know,'' Kumar says. ''That is my problem. I think too much.''

''No!'' Wildavsky corrects him. You should always think, he says. Weak players, he says, follow ''bridge nursery rhymes'' -- and here he waggles his head, reciting, ''Second hand low, third hand high, fourth takes if he can'' -- instead of looking objectively at what the situation requires.

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