17 June 2012

A Bridge for the Ages

Recently I resumed playing bridge after 30+ years of not playing. It has been a humbling experience.

I learned to play bridge about 100 years ago; about the time they invented playing cards. My widowed mother needed a bridge partner and I was drafted after my older sisters and brother left home. She gave me a book, “Point Count Bidding” by Charles Goren and told me to study it. Most people likely do not realize that Point Count Bidding was first published slightly after the Guttenberg Bible.

The Goren system was largely intuitive. If you had lots of hearts and sufficient points, you bid hearts. Even more points, and you bid even more hearts. A bid of 2 hearts showed a stronger hand than a bid of 1 heart. It was all very logical and understandable.

In resuming bridge playing after a long break, I was surprised to learn that bridge is no longer logical or intuitive. I think it is a bit like learning to speak Polish. I don’t know how to speak Polish but I bought a pronunciation guide when I visited Poland a few years ago. The guide listed the word in Polish, the English translation, and the English phonetic spelling. I could not get my mouth to say the phonetic spelling much less attempt the Polish pronunciation. They don’t appear to use many vowels in Polish.

Bridge is similarly a different language. Bid 1 club and it means maybe you have clubs and maybe you do not. Bid 2 hearts and it means you have fewer points than if you bid 1 heart. Respond 2 clubs to a bid of 1 No Trump, and it means you do not like clubs. Bid 2 hearts to an opening of 1 No trump and it means you prefer Spades. This is why I think learning Bridge is like learning Polish. It does not make sense intuitively.

Everybody seems to have a different bidding system so I find it impossible to know what the opponents mean when they bid. I asked one guy what a bid meant at a recent game. He replied that he and his partner played “precision” and the bid meant something very different than what would have been normally expected. I guess my partner and I play imprecision.

Bridge players today are very serious. When I learned to play, the adults all drank liquor when playing – not the relatively low alcohol wine that is popular today but real whisky, scotch, or gin. It made the game less serious and more social.

At University, I played in the residence dorm bridge tournament. We started playing after dinner and who ever had the most points when dawn came, won. At today’s duplicate games, it is so competitive that taking one extra trick can earn a high or a low board for the competitors and the results are shown instantly on the big screen for all to witness.
At University we had a referee or director, as they call them now. But at Uni, the primary function of the Director was to provide the beer. At duplicate today, the Director is called to discipline players who may inadvertently do something wrong. I prefer Directors who provide the beer.

At Uni, my usual bridge partner was blind, so we played with Braille cards. This gave us a significant advantage when Brian was dealing. When an opponent occasionally remarked that Brian had an uncanny ability to know when to finesse, I usually commented that Blind people developed extra sensory abilities to compensate for not being able to see. No one ever challenged my explanation.

The serious players today rarely smile and never tell jokes. They probably work as screeners at airport security when not playing bridge. I am waiting for the bridge club to post notices that jokes are illegal and will get you in trouble.

There is certain etiquette in bridge. Whenever the non-playing partner puts down their hand, the playing partner always says “thank you, partner” even if the cards are awful and the game to be played will almost certainly be a disaster. I would prefer a bit more honesty like “Oh my God, we are totally screwed.”

While always affecting a level of politeness, bridge players often show barely concealed facial expressions. Some opponents regularly practice the “glare” or the penetrating “stare” which means, “Partner, you stuffed up. You are a jerk.” My partner is much nicer. She occasionally expresses the “surprise” as in “Oh that is not what I was expecting.” The “surprise” is much nicer than the “glare” but it conveys something similar.

Most people playing bridge are old. The only young person at our bridge club is the guy who serves wine and snacks. Bridge stimulates the mind but does not require much from the body. It is perfect for us aging baby boomers.

The problem with being old, is that the memory occasionally fades. Now and then I suffer from a brain malfunction. I forget how many trumps were played or lose count of something. At least the bids are written down. Maybe we need to write down the cards that are played. One time I even forgot what Trump was and thought I was playing No Trump. We did not do very well that hand, but my partner was very understanding and supportive although she looked surprised at times.

Actually, my partner is very nice. The other night we were doing very well. We were on pace to win about 1 millionth of a master point when we entered the last round. Our opponents were a couple including a guy who could not hear and always seems to be fighting with his wife/partner. He bid very aggressively and gave us 3 consecutive low boards eliminating our changes for a meager victory. I wanted to kill the guy; my partner felt sorry for him and hoped his win would make him feel better.

Bridge club facilities seem to be somewhat dilapidated. I don’t think clubs are very profitable. At our bridge club, they recently installed air conditioning since the old system probably dated back to the Mesozoic Era. The other night it was warm and the new units were not functioning, however. I noticed they were not hooked up. Maybe the club is waiting to accumulate more money before hiring an electrician.

So I now realize that playing bridge today is learning a non-intuitive foreign language in which nothing makes logical sense, competing against serious unsmiling people, in a building that could fall down at any minute. No wonder I love it.