MILL CREEK — Paul Soloway was cremated with a deck of world championship bridge cards in his right hand.
His ashes will eternally rest in two of his coveted Vanderbilt bridge trophies.
Considered the best bridge player in North America for nearly two decades, Soloway lived a fairly anonymous life in a pleasant Mill Creek cul-de-sac. In the bridge world, however, he was a giant — known to everyone and admired by many.
“You could call him the Babe Ruth of bridge,” said Brent Manley, editor of the Bridge Bulletin. “Babe Ruth had the home run record for a long, long time and he was kind of a larger than life character. Paul was the same way. Everyone knew his face. He won so many things.”
Since 1991, Soloway had been the top-ranked bridge player in North America by the American Contract Bridge League. When he died in Seattle on Nov. 5, he had 65,511.92 masterpoints, the system used to rank players. He was more than 6,000 points ahead of the second placed player. Many players spend their whole lives trying to rack up the 300 points needed to be considered a “life master.”
Soloway, 66, won five Bermuda Bowl world-team titles, the Olympics of bridge. He played with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and traveled around the world playing the game he loved professionally. Soloway was so good, people paid him to play with them.
Bridge was Soloway’s oxygen, according to his wife of 30 years, Pam Pruitt.
“If he couldn’t play bridge, he didn’t want to live,” she said tearfully. “It was everything. It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t important, but I was secondary.”
In recent years, as his health deteriorated from diabetes, heart problems and related illnesses, Soloway played through pain. He began competing to win his fourth world championship 28 days after undergoing open heart surgery. In order to play in a national tournament in Cincinnati while undergoing treatment for a serious infection, every day he checked himself in – and out – of a nearby hospital.
“Paul would spend two-thirds of the day in the hospital and a third of the day at the bridge table,” said his longtime partner Bob Hamman of Dallas. “We just glued him back together and sent him into battle. That’s the way he was. He was a guy who only knew one way to play and that was all out.”
Soloway spent his final month in a Seattle hospital, dealing with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which is a drug-resistant staph infection; kidney trouble; and, eventually, a heart attack. Doctors amputated both his feet and a finger and stuck a tube down his throat to help him eat, but Soloway expected to get better and be back at the bridge table soon. His last phone call was to Hamman to let him know that he planned to play at a national tournament in November with their team. Since he couldn’t keep his body upright, he planned to play in a wheelchair with straps holding him to the chair, Pruitt said.
Propped up in a hospital bed, he played bridge on a laptop computer. Too weak to press the keys, Soloway directed his wife to push them for him. Toward the end, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, he mumbled about bridge.
Throughout his illnesses, bridge was what kept him going, said Pruitt, 55, a stock trader and former Mill Creek mayor. For the last year and a half, as he flew around the world playing bridge, she went with him. At night, she’d connect him to a portable dialysis machine and help him through his medical regimen.
Regardless of how poorly he felt, when it was time to play, he’d get on his red scooter and lose himself in the game.
“He was like a fish being released into water,” Pruitt said. “He was back in his world.”
Soloway grew up in Beverly Hills and learned bridge from his parents. While studying business at San Fernando Valley State College, he frequently skipped class to play bridge. After six months at a “real job,” he quit and traveled the country playing bridge, hustling in bowling alleys and betting on sports games, Pruitt said.
In 1962, he joined the American Contract Bridge League. Fascinated by the numbers and puzzles of the game, he quickly earned his first masterpoints. For the rest of his life, he carried the card noting those first points in his wallet. He’d sometimes show it to beginners to inspire them and prove that everyone starts on the bottom.
“The No. 1 thing that distinguished him from a lot of people who were really great was that he was very approachable and very much a regular guy — as opposed to how isolated some of the great players were,” said Bill Hagen of Seattle, who played with Soloway in the ’80s. “He would respond to a question from a great player or one of the people who approached him at a tournament equally. He was just a good guy.”
Soloway met Pruitt at a bridge tournament in Eugene, Ore., in 1977. They married a short time later and he moved to Mill Creek to join her.
After playing a few times in the shadow of her husband, Pruitt quit bridge, but never stopped admiring her husband’s skill and passion for the game.
They never had children, but Soloway loved his dogs, naming several after bridge terms.
In addition to Pruitt, he is survived by his sister Alison Greenberg of Los Angeles. Soloway’s family requests that donations in his memory be made to the peritoneal unit of the Northwest Kidney Center in Seattle.
Soloway didn’t want a memorial service, but he didn’t rule out a celebration of life, Pruitt said. She scheduled the event to coincide with the North American Bridge Championships on Nov. 24 in San Francisco.
“The bridge world has lost something,” Manley said. “There just won’t be anybody like him. There’s never been another Babe Ruth since he quit playing and died. There won’t be another Paul Soloway.”
Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Contract Bridge League: www.acbl.org
World Bridge Federation: www.worldbridge.org
Great Bridge Links: www.greatbridgelinks.com
About the game
Bridge is a partnership game using a standard deck of 52 cards dealt equally among four players. The players bid in a coded language to describe their hands to their partners and then play to make their contract. Generally, one suit is determined as “trump,” leading to the expression, “Play your trump card.” … The primary goal of members of the ACBL (American Contract Bridge League) is to achieve the rank of Life Master, requiring 300 masterpoints earned at club and tournament games.
— From the American Contract Bridge League