Chapel Hill News

Bridge buff ‘smart, foxy’ at 103

Ira Vendig studies the cards on the table during a duplicate bridge game at the Triangle Bridge Club. At 103, the Chapel Hill resident is an avid player whom one fellow club member describes as “very foxy.”
Ira Vendig studies the cards on the table during a duplicate bridge game at the Triangle Bridge Club. At 103, the Chapel Hill resident is an avid player whom one fellow club member describes as “very foxy.”

Ira Vendig’s friends say he’s a very good player at duplicate bridge.

“He plays the best game of bridge of anybody I’ve ever known,” said Evelyn Tuck, his regular partner at the Triangle Bridge Club. “It’s amazing.”

All the more amazing, perhaps, considering that Vendig is 103 years old.

“It’s the way the cookie crumbles,” said Vendig, waiting for the games to begin one recent Thursday at the Parkwood club in southern Durham.

Vendig has been playing bridge since he was a teenager in New York City, where he and some friends took up the then-new game as an alternative to the older, simpler whist. He said it wasn’t hard to learn.

“We were a bunch of, I guess, pretty sharp kids,” he said.

Vendig turned 103 on June 5, and the bridge club had a party for the occasion, with cake – “Chocolate, of course!” Vendig said. He’s spry and active, though he did give up driving after he reached 98.

And his fellow bridge players say he has a dry sense of humor. Forfeiting a queen to a king held by opponent Mary Jo Doherty, who had driven him to the club, he commented, “That’s for the ride.”

Duplicate bridge is a complicated version of a complicated game for which Vendig seems to have a special talent – though, when asked about it, Vendig only responded with one of his characteristically expressive shrugs.

“He just has it up here,” said Tuck, pointing to her head. “He was in a field where he had to use his brain.”

‘12 bucks for the week’

Vendig has spent most of his life in New York, with a varied career including 25 years as a stockbroker. He got his start in stocks at age 17, going to work as a runner for a Wall Street firm, carrying papers around the financial district.

“I figured I’d make a fortune,” he said. “Monday through Friday and a half a day on Saturday, 12 bucks for the week.”

It was 1929, and Vendig was there for the crash.

“I was the latest person hired by that company, so I was laid off,” he said. He got a similar job at another brokerage at $15 a week, but soon lost that, too, as trading died off into the Depression.

Working on Wall Street was “not particularly” exciting anyway. He next got the “lowest job at an insurance outfit and then over the years got a bunch of different jobs. ... I don’t even remember what some of them were,” he said.

Along the way there were some years running a plastics-manufacturing business with his brother, Malcolm, and Army service during World War II. Vendig enlisted as a private, left as a second lieutenant. Retired in the 1980s, he and his wife thought about moving to North Carolina – inspired, he said, by an ad in New Yorker magazine.

“We drove around and looked at six or eight different places,” he said, eventually settling in Fearrington Village. After five years there, though, “We decided everything we were doing was in Chapel Hill,” and they moved again.

A widower for several years now, Vendig lives at the Carolina Meadows retirement community, where he plays his other weekly bridge games, on Wednesdays.

Keeping ‘simple’

Competition is the appeal of bridge, he said. “You can do better than the other people. ... Some days we do very well and some days we do poorly,” he said.

“Not very often,” said Liz McGuffey, overhearing him at the Triangle Bridge Club. “He does real well.”

Vendig doesn’t hear well. Doherty, his driver and sometime opponent, said that’s a disability but for Vendig it can be an asset at the bridge table.

“He will not be distracted by noise, conversation and discussion at other tables,” she said. “Also, he won’t hear his partner muttering if she doesn’t like what he just did.

“Ira is very smart, very foxy,” Doherty said. “It’s too bad he can’t participate in some of the bantering (but) he doesn’t miss much.”

Aside from bridge twice a week, Vendig said he’s not much of a socializer. He reads a lot, mainly fiction, though he said he couldn’t name any particular favorite authors. (“Me and names,” he said.) And he stays active.

“Almost every day I walk between half a mile and a mile, and I don’t eat fancy stuff. Keep things simple,” he said. “As I say, it’s just the way the cookie crumbles.”

Wise: 919-641-5895