Bridge is a game of wits, winning and even friendships
Published 12:32 pm, Monday, November 20, 2017
Is there such a thing as justifiable murder? Apparently there is if you talk to bridge players, especially women. Two friends of mine said that early in their marriages, they and their husbands took up the game of bridge, all the rage at that time, 40 or 50 years ago. Both women quit the game after a session where a husband (not theirs) very publicly berated his wife.
“He was so rude,” friend A said of her experience, “that his wife burst into tears. I vowed never to play that game again.”
Vitriol must still be a problem because the American Contract Bridge League has this statement on its website: “Another goal is to encourage players at all levels to recognize the importance of being more friendly to each other, especially to newer players.” Somehow, that ominous statement does not deter men and women from throwing caution to the winds and tackling this very sophisticated cerebral endeavor.
Today, friend B, Anne Gilhuly, who once was so horrified by how couples treated one another at the bridge table, is back to the pursuit she abandoned years ago. She takes lessons from Greenwich resident Steve Becker and plays at least twice a week at the Greenwich YWCA, a bastion of dedicated, serious bridge players. Every Monday and Friday mornings, the parking lots at the Y are crammed with cars, their drivers inside seriously studying the cards in their hands.
On a recent Friday morning, Gilhuly was one of 44 women at 11 tables, minus the four or five men who usually come to these classes (in tournaments, it’s mostly men who compete). At one end of the room, Becker picked up a stack of yellow “boards” and placed one on each table. These boards are simple four-hand card holders indicating who the partners are and who the dealer is for each round. Gilhuly met Becker years ago at the Stanwich Club where he once gave lessons in a game that has defined him for the last six decades. Bridge is in his genes, although he did not pursue the game until he was pressured to do so by his classmates at Queens College who knew who his father was -- B. Jay, the fabled master of the game who won 40 national championships and three world championships.
A syndicated daily bridge columnist for King Features for 35 years and a weekly bridge columnist for the Greenwich Time, Becker directs the Y’s Friday morning classes that run about two-and-a-half hours. When nine rounds are completed, he randomly selects the five most interesting “hands” from among the players and explains how each hand could have been played to advantage. Monday morning players, usually composed of 25 percent men, play a competitive duplicate bridge for three and a half hours, with Becker again as director.
Greenwich obviously enjoys bridge. Of the several hundred men and women who play bridge in town, 250 of them play duplicate bridge, where the same bridge hands are played at each table, Becker says. You will find games anywhere and everywhere every day of the week, from the YW and the Woman’s Club of Greenwich, to private homes and some of the town’s country clubs. It is even taught at Continuing Ed classes at the high school. That’s because, besides its cerebral challenges, bridge is also a social game, points out Cathy Weisenburger, as she waits for her partner Cathy Sutton to appear on a Friday morning. “We’ve become such good friends over the years because of bridge that we celebrate birthdays and special events together.”
Certainly on Friday mornings there is a good bit of chatter going on, so much so that the room fairly hums like background music, unlike the tomb-like silence of tournaments where someone’s sneeze can throw your concentration off.
“It’s a complicated game,” says Connie Cowen, who has been playing for at least 13 years and who, like all the women I have spoken to say, they’re “still learning.”
“It’s competitive, for sure,” she admits, “but it’s also cozy. We have fun. True, you have to have an agile mind, be able to shift gears quickly. You have to have a banker’s mind, and use your brain cells.”
That’s what attracts Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to this game of intrigue. Both of them share the same teacher, Sharon Osberg, a formidable competitor. A recent article in the Washington Post notes the popularity of the game in the investing world and, at times disheartening to the neophyte, is the observation that a successful player must be adept at strategy and tactics. How hard can a game of cards be?
“It's part science, part math, part logic, part reason,” Osberg once said. Watching the women at the YW, you realize it’s also “about hunting, chasing, nuance, deception, reward, danger, cooperation and, on a good day, victory.”
The rules seem simple enough, but it is a devilish game to play well. You can spend a lifetime studying a game fraught with subtleties. In this most egalitarian of card games, the players sit at a card table across from each other in two sets of partners -- North-South and East-West. The dealer takes a deck of cards, minus the jokers, and deals out 13 cards to each of the four players, who then sort their hands by suit: spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs. There is even such a thing as no-trump. Each deal consists of three parts: the auction, where the four players bid in a clockwise rotation describing their hands; the play, where the side that wins the bidding auction tries to take the tricks necessary to fulfill their contract; and scoring. Duplicate contract bridge is the main form of competitive bridge. Trust, communication and patience are the essential attributes of winning.
“Millions of people play bridge,” says Rich DeMartino, of Greenwich, a former president of the American Contract Bridge League and a board member of the league from 2001 to 2015 representing New England. “We have 8,000 people just from Connecticut in the ACBL among its 167,000-plus registered players.”
That number has held steady for too long a time, something he is determined to change. There is so much more going on in people’s lives now, says DeMartino, who won a national championship in 2010, as well as five national championships, that it’s difficult to attract younger players, although I have met several 40-something women taking a bridge lesson at a local country club.
DeMartino and Becker occasionally partner and both claim master’s points, a big to-do in the hallowed halls of ACBL. Winner of at least 40 regional tournaments and two national tournaments, Becker remembers when “there were at least 40 to 50 students at virtually every college in the United States playing bridge” back when he was a collegian. He and his younger brother, Michael, were known as the Becker Boys in bridge circles, and won several tournaments when they were quite young.
In the 1930s, bridge was so popular among all age groups that books about strategizing bridge hands appeared on best-seller lists. One book, and a very popular one, was a mystery, “Cards on the Table,” by Agatha Christie. Christie had four detectives join four other players at two tables in separate rooms. Inevitably one of them is murdered.
Was it because of a no-trump? Was the victim not fully attuned to his partner? Did he not memorize what was in the tricks? Why did he not pass? Auction, duplicate, contract, dealer, declarer, overcall, two-spade bid, cue-bid. So many rules and vocabulary to learn!
I’d rather garden.
Rosemarie T. Anner is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts and Style.