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World champion bridge player Eric Kokish is remembered as a master of every element of the game and went on to play internationally after learning to play it in his youth.Handout

Eric Kokish was a world-class bridge player who took home medals at four World Bridge Championships, won two North American titles and went on to become a top coach in the world of elite competitive bridge. Mr. Kokish, who died on June 10 at the age of 76, was also a prolific writer of books and articles about the cerebral game.

“He was the Leonardo da Vinci of bridge. He was a master of every part of the game, from playing to writing,” his friend and fellow bridge enthusiast John Carruthers said. “In my opinion he was the best bridge coach in the world.”

Eric Kokish was born in Montreal on May 19, 1947, and spent his early years in the St. Urbain Street area made famous in Mordecai Richler’s novels. His father, Hugo Kokish, was a Holocaust survivor, born in Vienna. He escaped to Britain just before the war and was held in a camp on the Isle of Man before being sent to Canada. He had been a baker in the internment camp and for a time operated a bakery in the inner suburb of Montreal West. Mr. Kokish’s mother, Lucy (née Feinstein), had escaped from Eastern Europe with her family just before the war and they settled in Montreal, where she met her future husband.

The Kokish family moved to Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce district. Eric taught himself how to play bridge reading a book on a train trip from New York to Montreal, he later said. He went to Monkland High School.

“We started playing bridge in high school,” his wife, Beverly Kraft, said. “We were in the same class for four years.” Eric became president of their high-school bridge club.

The pair went on to McGill University and they both played bridge at the McGill Bridge Club, on Sherbrooke Street. Mr. Kokish planned to be an architect, he said, but he switched from science to arts when bridge got in the way. In his first year at McGill he met Joey Silver.

“I was his first serious partner back in the late 1960s,” said Mr. Silver, who was a few years older. “You could see that Eric had talent. He was very bright and personable. We were quite successful; we played and won international tournaments. We actually won the North American tournament together in 1974, the Vanderbilt.”

Winning a tournament at that level marked Mr. Kokish as a serious international bridge star.

“We were the youngest team ever to win the event,” Mr. Kokish said in an interview with the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) in 2012. “And we did it in Vancouver, in Canada, so it was sort of a special moment.” He said many years later that one crucial hand in that game was his favourite in all his years of playing and coaching bridge.

Mr. Kokish had studied law at McGill, but didn’t take the bar exams. Even in law school he was playing bridge for money. For a while he ran a bridge club, which is a small business, and worked for several years as a research analyst for a British mining company at its office in Montreal.

“I knew nothing about mining. I got the job only because the guy who hired me was interested in learning how to play bridge,” Mr. Kokish said in the ACBL interview. “My boss and I had a wager whether he would learn how to play bridge before I mastered the mining business and I think he lost.”

Mr. Kokish went on to partner with Peter Nagy, in what he described as his best run ever, from the late 1970s to the early 80s. They won silver at the 1978 World Open Pairs and bronze at the Rosenblum Cup in 1982. (Mr. Kokish won bronze again at the Rosenblum Cup in 1990 with a different partner.)

One of his first coaching jobs was with the Brazilian international team in the mid-1980s. Mr. Kokish and his partner had come second to the Brazilians in an international championship, and they were impressed by his play. He worked training the team in Brazil. It was not easy. He recalled that the Brazilian players, though successful, would often yell at their partners if they thought they had made a mistake in bidding or play.

In the simplest terms, bridge is a card game where two partners play against another pair. In tournament play the team that runs up the highest score wins. Each player starts with 13 cards and there are 635 billion possible hands. The hands are almost always different but players learn to see patterns. Partners bid for how many tricks they will take, using a strict bidding code. It helps to be good at mental math.

Though he excelled as a player, Mr. Kokish spent most of the past two decades as a coach for the best bridge teams in the world.

In 1995, Mr. Kokish, Joey Silver and the rest of the Canadian team came second in the Bermuda Bowl, the most prestigious tournament in the world of bridge, losing to the Nickell Team, led by Frank (Nick) Nickell, who runs a Wall Street private equity firm when he isn’t playing bridge.

Soon afterward Mr. Nickell hired Mr. Kokish as his team’s coach. Mr. Nickell paid his players and his coach well and Mr. Kokish travelled with the team wherever they played.

“Eric’s patience and coaching helped make our system better,” said Mr. Nickell in a telephone interview from Maine. “Eric was very good at asking ‘How would you deal with that.’ He was the team’s best cheerleader and coach for 25 years.”

Mr. Kokish also coached other international teams, including those in the Netherlands and Indonesia. The Indonesian experience did not end well. Soon after the Kokish family moved to Indonesia in 1998, riots broke out, a thousand people were killed in civic unrest.

“We took our son with us when we moved to Indonesia for a while to train their teams and he was just turning 10,” Ms. Kraft recalled. “They had set us up in this big house where we trained the bridge players every day and I was there maybe eight weeks and Eric and Matthew were there another two months or so. I was never happier than to see two people arrive back here. It was really scary.”

Mr. Kokish returned to the competitive bridge table in 2017, playing with Fred Gitelman, a bridge legend and entrepreneur who started Bridge Base Online, the International standard for online bridge play.

“After not having played seriously for about 17 years, he and Fred played the Yei Brothers Cup in China,” Mr. Silver said. “Every year it’s a $50,000 tournament, huge prizes and it attracts all the best players in the world. All the first-class teams. They won it. That’s how great a player Eric was. He was a player who just didn’t make mistakes. When a great play was called for he would make it.”

As well as coaching and playing, Mr. Kokish wrote books on bridge, newspaper columns and advice in a bridge magazine for elite players. He also invented the Kokish Relay convention, which helps on bidding extremely powerful bridge hands.

Mr. Kokish’s other interests included baseball memorabilia and his giant collection of vinyl records and CDs, his wife said.

“He liked the old fifties and sixties stuff originally and moved on to Motown and to Leonard Cohen, Dylan and Joni. It seemed that these bridge players all liked the same kind of music,” Ms. Kraft said.

Mr. Kokish was a friendly, open man who always seemed to have a smile on his face. Along with being paid well to coach the best teams in the world, he enjoyed coaching junior teams pro bono. He had this advice for one member of a junior team: “Find yourself a partner you enjoy being with and work on the game together. And try and find the best level of competition you can find. Get your brains beaten out for a while. That’s the way to get better.”

Mr. Kokish leaves his wife, Ms. Kraft; four children, Matthew Kraft-Kokish, Elyse Chazan, Lori Hurwitz and Mayera Chazan (none of whom play bridge); and seven grandchildren.

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