The new deal

A younger crowd is discovering that bridge is not just a card game for the older generation.

January 03, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

In spite of multiplexes, PlayStations, chat rooms, Walkmans, video arcades and laser tag, an old-fashioned game - perhaps the most addictive card game in the world - is making a comeback.

Not that bridge ever completely went away. Some 20 million Americans still play social, or party, bridge. But serious interest in the game has been on the decline since the '60s.

At its peak, the American Contract Bridge League, the governing body of organized bridge, had 200,000 members. Then membership started dropping off by 1 or 2 percent a year.

Now that's changing.

The most important reason may be the Internet. In the recent past, the World Wide Web lured youngsters away from bridge. They were spending their time in chat rooms rather than learning how to bid and make a slam. Now the Web - what Brent Manley of the ACBL calls ``a fertile ground for recruitment'' - may be the game's savior.

There are more than 600 bridge-related Web sites. Playing on them means you don't need to get your own partner and two opponents. You can wear your pajamas or smoke while you play. (Clubs and tournaments have strict no-smoking rules.) Novices can get into virtual games with world experts. These aren't, by the way, computer games but a network of real people playing against one another, kibitzing and talking about the game.

Thirty-three-year-old Mark Switlick of Woodstock never had any interest in bridge, but a friend kept after him to learn how to play.

``I just poked around on the Internet until I found a game,'' he says.

The game Switlick found was at games.yahoo.com, and even a beginner could jump right in. (He had read a few basic books to get started.) After a couple of months, Switlick felt confident enough to move out of virtual play and join a bridge club - in his case, the Columbia Bridge Club.

``I'm getting to the point where I'm no longer just trying not to mess up but I'm being competitive,'' he says.

Sooner or later, Internet players end up at www.okbridge.com, where often as many as 1,300 people are logged on at once. The site, supposedly the original and largest competitive bridge site on the Web, has 14,000 members from some 90 countries. (Your partner, in other words, could be playing in Argentina.) It costs around $100 a year to join OKbridge, but you can try it out first with a free guest membership.

The major online services like AOL also have their own networked bridge.

``We're getting a lot of new and younger players through the Internet,'' says Cathy Feiock, who runs the Bridge Club of Baltimore. ``People love it.''

Feiock welcomes anything that draws people into the game because they often end up want-ing to move from their computers to the social atmosphere of a club, where you can get into a game for as little as $3 to $5. Her business, she says, has grown 20 percent a year since she opened seven years ago. She's had to move from her original location in Cross Keys to larger quarters in Pikesville.

While her bridge club has a separate novice section, experts also play there. Feiock offers classes for beginners, as many clubs do, and has started an ``Easy Bridge'' group Tuesday mornings. ``It's low key, and players can learn the conventions as they play,'' she says.

Feiock has found that many of her new members aren't Internet players but aging baby boomers looking for something fun and challenging to do as they contemplate retirement.

Fifty-one-year-old Ellen Men-delsohn, who plays at the Bridge Club of Baltimore, started up again two years ago. She hadn't played much for 20 years; but, she says: ``More of my friends are playing. Our children aren't home any longer, and we aren't working or we're working part time. We have more time for bridge.''

Bridge organizations, however, aren't passively standing by and hoping people will get interested in the game again. They're actively recruiting inexperienced players and making it more pleasant to play competitively.

A few years ago, the ACBL realized it needed to introduce tournament bridge to a whole new generation of potential players and, at the same time, improve the game's negative reputation.

The organization recently started an active junior program, including an effort to bring classes and games into high schools. (The ACBL convinces schools with the argument that bridge improves concentration, logical thinking, math ability and social skills.)

It's a thinking person's card game that involves team play, strategy, trumps and tricks. The purpose is to score points based on bidding and the hand you've been dealt. But unlike, say, a game such as gin rummy, it's complex - what chess is to board games, bridge is to cards.

Today's tournaments have rates just for junior players - those 26 or under. Most tournaments are now set up so you can play against your peers, which wasn't true 20 years ago. The major ones all have novice sections.

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