In his Newbery Medal-winning novel Holes, Louis Sachar showed readers that he can turn a weird concept—digging holes in the desert—into a complex page-turner. Sachar’s latest novel is no different. Playing bridge? (Yes, the card game—the one octogenarians play.) With a blind great-uncle? That doesn’t sound like the recipe for a YA hit, but Sachar pulls it off in The Cardturner, also touching on themes that young people will relate to, like teen love and embarrassing parents.
The story follows Alton Richards in the summer before his senior year in high school. He works as the cardturner for his blind Uncle Lester—reading him the cards as they’re dealt during highly competitive bridge games—and along the way, he becomes fascinated with the game. Alton’s gold-digging parents set up the job so that the family might finagle their way into Lester’s will. There’s a mystery involved, too, as Alton figures out the story behind the disappearance of Lester’s perfect bridge partner of lore.
Since bridge is an unusual topic for a teen novel, BookPage asked Sachar—himself a devoted bridge player—to elaborate on his choice of subject.
Why did you think bridge would be interesting to young people?
Most people have the wrong impression about bridge, if they have any impression at all. Few young people have ever heard of bridge, and for those who have, they probably think of it as something old and fuddy-duddy. I hoped to present it as something new and exciting. It is highly competitive and full of limitless possibilities. But probably the best part of bridge, unlike chess, is that it is a partnership game. It’s you and your partner against the world. It’s also something a boy and girl can do together, like Toni and Alton in the book.
Your characters talk about bridge getting in the blood. When did bridge get in your blood? Why do you love the game?
I learned the game from my parents when I was a kid, and even then I was fascinated by it, but nobody I knew played. Then in 1994 when I was 40 years old, a sister of a friend invited me to play at a bridge club with her. We started out playing once a week, but I soon got hooked, and was playing two, three or even four times a week.
In the book, a player notes that “the time you quit learning is the time to quit playing.” Do you believe this is true?
Yes, I'm still learning to play bridge and to write. That's why I enjoy both. Neither gets old to me.
A point of pride for characters in The Cardturner is the accumulation of masterpoints. How many masterpoints do you have?
I currently have over 2,400 masterpoints. However I have less than ten platinum points, which are earned at major national events. My goal is to play in more of those events and to do well at them.
If you could choose three people to sit at your fantasy bridge table, who would they be?
You have to understand, as Syd Fox, my imaginary bridge expert explains in the appendix to The Cardturner, “it's all about the cards.” So while my fantasy dinner companions might include Bob Dylan, Barack Obama and Margaret Atwood, if they aren’t serious bridge players, I don’t want them at my table. Instead I would choose people who most people have never heard of, but who are very famous in the bridge world. I would want to be partners with Eddie Kantar, a great bridge writer who is also very funny, and we’d play against the partnership of Eric Rodwell and Jeff Meckstroth, who are considered to be the best bridge playing duo in the world.
Do you think most teens have a “philosophical bent,” like Alton?
Yes, especially those who like to read. I know I did when I was a teenager. My best friend and I would stay up all night discussing the mysteries of the universe.
Lester and Alton discuss a passage from Cannery Row, in which John Steinbeck notes how strange it is that the “traits we detest”—greed, egotism, self-interest—lead to success. Does the passage apply to Alton’s greedy parents, who want Lester’s money?
It was at a time in [Lester] Trapp’s life (in his early 20s) when he was trying to figure out what to do with his life. What kind of career should he set for himself? Can he be successful, without losing himself in the process? I think it is a quote that would have appealed to him, and would also appeal to young adult readers who will soon face that same dilemma. John Steinbeck is also one of my favorite authors, and one who is very accessible to young readers.
As a first-person narrator, Alton repeatedly makes reference to “this book” that he’s writing—the same book we’re reading. Why did you write from this point of view?
Going back to the first question, I knew my readers might be put-off by bridge, and find it confusing. I thought it would be helpful to have a narrator who was equally confused and uninterested by it, at least in the beginning.
Teens spend a lot of time in front of the computer, or watching TV, or texting. Do you agree with Lester that video games are just “little pixels of light”?
I worry about how much time kids spend plugged into computers, telephones and the like. I think it’s unhealthy for the individual, and also for the social fabric of our communities.
The subtitle of the book is “A novel about a king, a queen, and a joker.” Who is who—is Lester the king, Alton the joker and Toni—Alton’s bridge partner—the queen?
Alton is definitely the joker. I would say that [Lester] Trapp is the king and Annabel [Lester’s old partner] is the queen. Toni is the princess, but there's no card for that.