Ganny, my parents and my brother.
My Trinidadian Bridge Ladies: Debbie, Wendy, Edna, Doreen, Jenni, Sue, Sally.
The Italian Late-Night Club: Andrew, Jenni, Alan.
The Brockhurst Bridge Club: especially Chris M., Barbara, Judith, Geraldine, Chris S., Michelle -- and Jonathan, who organizes us.
Even if you don't play bridge, I hope that you will find something here.
Last night I attended the final meeting of the year for the Brockhurst Bridge Club. The school is about to break for Easter; and when the term resumes, our fearless leader and organizer likes to take advantage of the long, light evenings to do some gardening. My history with this club, and bridge itself, is a funny one -- and one that illustrates many of the quixotic aspects of my personality. I come from a bridge-playing family, but didn't learn how to play until I moved to Trinidad. I do not look or act much like a bridge player, but I have found some of my dearest friends around the bridge table and there is nothing that I enjoy doing more with my own family. I play infrequently and erratically, but it is something I love; however, I do not love it enough to really work at it with books and online playing and such. It is just a form of socializing for me. I only like to play bridge if I can be with simpatico people.
Some people like to play competitive bridge, and they go to special clubs for this purpose. They use bidding boxes and other specialist paraphenalia; they challenge themselves (and others) with contract bridge; they remember how to keep score and never forget who is supposed to be shuffling, who is dealing, and where the extra pack of cards is supposed to be; they know how to bid correctly, and furthermore, can correctly interpret their partner's bidding; and most importantly, they maintain a careful and respectful silence at all times.
I am not this sort of bridge player at all. I like a bit of "friendly" bridge -- where the stakes are low, and a certain amount of leeway (for all of the above conventions) is given. I like to talk during bridge, especially if I'm the dummy; I like to talk a lot in between hands. I don't mind a bit of teasing and/or mocking; in fact, I find all forms of levity irresistible. I know that losing can be just as fun as winning -- if it is accomplished in the right spirit, and if the other team is the loser! I like nothing more than bidding wildly, playing loosely, and still somehow making my contract. I love it when I have an opening hand; I hate it when I have less than 6 points and therefore have no role other than to be quiet.
I like to think that I am an intuitive bridge player. Although I am no-part gypsy, with no proven history of extra-sensory perception, I tend to put a lot of stock into how I feel about the game at hand. Although I more or less know the rules of bidding -- but am always getting confused between the American and ACOL systems, hybrid creature that I am -- I also go with my gut on whether or not we have enough points to take it to game or rather if we should play it safe because our "fit" is going to be awkward and wonky. Sometimes I am sure that I really know if my partner has, or lacks, a card.
This style of play tends to work best with a fairly conservative partner -- someone who thinks carefully before he/she bids or plays a card. My friend Andrew and I played spectacularly badly together this summer in Italy. Our characters are just too much alike: we are both over-optimistic and overly aggressive as well. We just want to play too much. Then, when things start going badly, we get even more out of control and start behaving like crazy gamblers -- bidding for even greater stakes in order to recoup our losses. Our partnership gave me new insight into the old maxim that "opposites attract." (I knew that there had to be some explanation for my marriage!)
The problem with intuitive play is that bridge is basically a mathematical game. You count points; you count cards; you assess probabilities. I am rubbish at all of that; but rather than work harder to overcome my natural mathematical deficiencies, I prefer to just pick my partners carefully. I don't really understand chemistry all that well, either, but I'm always alive to the chemistry of friendship. I try to avoid prolonged exposure to anyone whose personality reacts badly with my personality; worse than volatility is a combination that renders me dull and inert. What I want is some vinegar mixed with baking soda: lots of bubbles and lots of fizz.
Just recently, I have been reflecting quite a lot on the subjects of friendship and character. There are some bridge "rules" (guidelines, really) which can be applied to many other situations as well -- if one just thinks a bit creatively! Note: the following "terms" are a bit of Trini linguistic callaloo, but I'm sure that the behaviors they describe are universal.
- Playing Ma Rapsey style (otherwise known as leading with your ACES). Do you lead with your good stuff, or do you hang on to it? There are advantages to both strategies: people who put it all out there make the game more transparent and reduce the opportunities for strategy; on the other hand, as every bridge player knows, sometimes you are only going to get one chance to make your Ace. Hold onto it at your peril, because somebody might just be void or have a singleton. Whether you are a Ma Rapsey or not can be compared to the way you eat your dinner. Do you eat your favorite stuff first, or do you save it? (I wonder if the Myers-Briggs people have thought of adding this one to their personality test? I think that it could be quite illuminating.)
- Don't send a boy to do a man's job. In bridge, this rule refers to the sharp disappointment caused when you send out a trump card -- only to be out-trumped. In other words, it is when you get a taste of your own medicine. It is also when you buy a bargain, only to discover that it is cheap goods; or, you pay for what you get.
- Don't rescue your partner. This one may not be immediately obvious to a non-bridge player, particularly since it sounds like something to do with relationship problems, co-addiction and all that. What it really means is: any action you take is probably going to make things worse. The best course of action is no action at all. I was intrigued to discover, just this week, that The New York Times featured the work of an economics lecturer who studies just this common bridge rule (although he probably doesn't think of it in quite this way). Apparently, in times of crisis -- and not just economic crisis -- doing nothing achieves more beneficial results statistically speaking than doing something. Unfortunately, the study of this phenomenon has also highlighted the perverse, contrary fact that emotionally we tend to feel better if we do something -- even if our action makes things worse. (People rushing the banks for their life savings: We're talking about you!) At any rate, good bridge players (and even pretty bad ones) quickly realize that there will be bad situations -- bad fits, shall we say -- that cannot be dodged. If you don't have any points, you've got nothing to offer. If this is all too vague and insubstantial, let me express it in this way: any attempt at rebidding will get you both into deeper doo-doo.
When I first learned how to play bridge in Trinidad, the four of us (three neophytes, one bridge guru) played outside on a terrace overlooking the sea. It was exquisitely beautiful, if a little humid; it was the Caribbean. It felt a little decadent, and let's just say it was probably outside the norm. Perhaps these early experiences gave me a taste for bridge -- but really, I think it was mostly -- like always, with me -- about the people.