Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Friendly Bridge: A Memoir

Dedicated to:

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.


Brave Sir Robin said...

What a nice post! I love the (is it metaphorical, or analogical?) way you assign bridge playing with personalties.

I don't play bridge, no one in my family did, so I just never picked it up. I've always wanted to, but it's not the kind of thin one can do on one's own.

Being from Texas I do, however, play 42. It sounds like a somewhat similar set of skills comes into play.

I'm counted as a pretty fair 42 player, but my Dad is amazing. He can remember every domino played, and what is left without even thinking about it.

I tend to overbid, because I hate to be left out. It sounds like we would make interesting partners. We would either win by a huge margin, or flame out in spectacular fashion.

Either way, I bet we'd have more fun than the others at the table.

The soda bread was good. Very simple and sturdy. A drier, chewier biscuit. I would definitely make it again.

Anne said...

Lovely post. I know absolutely nothing about bridge, aside from its being played with cards and other people. But I do understand the joy of friendly competition, and of sitting in conversation with a group of friends engaged in a common pastime.

I always save my favorite part of a meal for last--at least some of it. I might intersperse it with less tasty things in order to break up unpleasantness, but the most delicious things are always the last in my mouth. After all, what taste would you rather have linger in your mouth at the end of a meal than that of the most delicious part of the meal?

Bee said...


I'm not sure if it is a true metaphor or analogy . . . all I'm saying is that bridge can teach you a lot about a person! Also, that bridge "rules" have a certain wisdom to them that extendes past the game.

Character will out, for sure. I don't think of myself as a competitive person, but Jenni says I am horrendously competitive at games.

My grandparents were HUGE 42 players. I'm sure they taught me, as a kid, but I don't remember it. Now we play chicken-foot dominoes when I'm home with my family. My kids, particularly the youngest, are very sharp.

"I tend to overbid, because I hate to be left out." That is so me, too. I agree with your assessment of our potential partnership. I could never understand when people actually hoped for bad cards so they didn't have to play!

Good stuff first - especially if I'm out. Because I'm usually talking a lot, and sometimes I don't make it to the cold food. My oldest daughter is the opposite -- to a fault.

I wish that I could describe to you my bridge group. Such great characters. I have had better luck making friends with older folks than the women my own age. It has often been thus!

Anne said...

I have had better luck making friends with older folks than the women my own age. It has often been thus!

This is true for me as well, the one major exception being my very good friend Katie (who is older, but by all of nine days). My other friends are mostly older, and my two longest-lasting romantic relationships have been with older guys.

I've wondered if it's because I'm an oldest child, but I have no other data points to support that hypothesis. Do you have siblings?

Brave Sir Robin said...


I love chicken foot!!! In fact, i will almost for sure be playing it this weekend!

Anne - I do the same thing with food. I always save some of the best for last.

k said...

i really want to learn bridge. my mom loves it, but loves it for the social and eating aspect. :)
i play shanghai rummy. that's my card game of choice.

so, where exactly are you in england? i'm in kansas city, missouri. i'm a proud native colorado girl though. what took you to england?

i haven't heard anything new from jonatha lately. i'll have to check around. i'm dying for some new music. i'm in a rut.

bakerina said...

Beth, this is a veritable college education on the intricacies and mysteries of bridge. I feel my horizons expanding just by rereading it. How do you do that? :)

Bee said...

Dear Friends,

It is a sad fact of modern life that almost no one learns to play bridge anymore! I would guess that the average age of bridge player in my little club is about 60. When I was a little girl, my mom used to have bridge lunches -- which always meant great food, plus prizes! On Saturday evenings, they often had 12 people (three tables) and I remember lying in bed listening to the grown-ups hooting and hollering. This early intro to the social aspects of bridge made me quite keen on the game. Trinidadian bridge is really a treat -- first of all, because Trinis are HILARIOUS and second, because you may have a cocktail if you wish. My little Brockhurst club puts away quite a lot of red wine. Do not play bridge with non-drinkers is what I say.
I am not a great player, so my best strategy is to talk a lot and distract the opposition. (This often backfires on me -- but adds to my fun.)

wends said...

I was just talking to Debbie today and suggesting a bridge four in UK in August. And Yes, you are competitive! Anyone who hides her hand from the teacher after 2 lessons is ready to go it alone... Who's the guru?!

Bee said...

Wends -- my first teacher;
so, so great to see you here.

Competitive, really? Little ole Me? (Get Debbie to tell about the time that I kept trying to argue with Doreen because I was convinced that I knew what I was talking about! What hubris!) Doreen was the guru, of course -- not to leave you and Edna out.

Bridge 4 in August sounds like the best thing I can think of. Who's our fourth?