My parents played bridge with their friends, but taught us as a family to play five hundred and canasta. I don’t recall being offered a game of bridge at university, where I played poker at night and solo during the day. When my own kids arrived, we taught them various card games, but by then television occupied the evenings, and card games were for special times.
As retirement approached my wife suggested that I learn bridge, which she had taken up again (she had played it as a child with her family, and had played as an adult as well). Why not, I thought, and went off to Grand Slam in Canberra, Bev’s club, for beginner’s lessons. Who knew? It might keep my mind active, and postpone decrepitude.
We were due shortly for a river cruise on the Murray with friends, some of whom played bridge, so it was important that I get up to speed quickly. After a few lessons I reported to Bev that I had got the gist of it, and we went off to the Murray, where we came fourth! And received a little trophy. Not a bad outcome, you might say, until I tell you that only four pairs participated.
Nettled by this setback, I went back to beginners’ classes, and persevered. In due course our teacher, Anne Weber, suggested to two of us that we form a pair, and we did, graduating in due course to supervised play and, in time, to the Open group. That was several years ago, and Paul and I are still partners, with nary a cross word. Bridge has got me in, though neither of us wants to represent Australia, or go far down the competitive path.
Bridge has some obligations. Club bridge night is sacred, and you make every effort to turn up. You and your partner have to remember all the conventions that you adhere to. That’s not so hard after a few years, but you can still forget. You need to concentrate hard for three hours, playing one game every seven minutes. You need to forget about past hands and focus on the present one. You need to forgive partner’s mistakes and hope that he has forgiven yours. You need to keep learning, and playing. And so on.
When people learn that you play bridge the reactions are various. ‘Oh, that’s too hard for me!’ is a common one. ‘Oh, no, it’s too stressful!’ or ‘I tried it once, but didn’t like it.’ One of my family gave it up because he found it too stressful. But once you’re hooked, it’s part of your life.
Why does it get people in? I think it is the mixture of skills that it demands. First you and your partner bid, as do the pair you are playing. Bidding is an exchange of information, along strict rules, and it leads to one or other pair establishing a contract. That is followed by playing, in which you determine a strategy, adapting it to new information that comes along with each play. Quite soon, that board is over, you find out the score, and move on. Ideally, every pair will play every hand, so that you are really competing with all those pairs who were given the same cards as you and your partner.
Oh, and you will almost certainly never play the same set of cards again. The number of possible unique hands in bridge is billions and billions. Success in bridge comes through hard work, application, intuition, and luck. An old friend who is an excellent bridge player, put it to me like this: ‘Don, a third of bridge is bidding, a third is playing, a third is luck – and the other 25 per cent is up for grabs!’
It’s a bit like golf. I used to caddy for my father, who was always worried about his handicap. In bridge I have a ranking and a rating, and I would like both to move up – just as Dad wanted his handicap to go down. You have good nights and bad nights, and you can play quite well and still have a bad night, because others played even better than you, or another pair did a crazy thing and everyone but you benefited.
At least once a night you’ll hear someone say, in an exasperated tone, ‘This is a stupid game!’ That is the moment when you keep your head down and concentrate. Those cards may come to you soon!