`Sport of the mind' is truly in the cards

Bridge: Some say the game that became a roaring success in the United States in 1925 is in decline, but others believe it has a lasting attraction.

February 09, 2003|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Columbia resident Roni Flynn, chatting after the second in a series of brush-up classes in contract bridge in Ellicott City one afternoon last week, said she has been playing the card game for 30 years.

"I love the game. I'm retired and widowed, and I play a lot," she told a visitor at the Kiwanis-Wallas Recreation Center.

So why, the visitor asked, are you here for a series of classes advertised for intermediate players?

"The more I play, the less I know," Flynn said. "You never stop learning in this game."

That about sums up the attraction of the game, which became a roaring success in the United States almost overnight in 1925 after Harold Vanderbilt consolidated rules from several related forms of play. Despite the belief of some that the game is in decline, it has a following today lobbying for its inclusion as an Olympic contest.

Bridge, if you believe the obviously partisan World Bridge Federation, is "a true sport of the mind."

Or, as instructor Sue Johnston, a Laurel resident who has taught more than 700 players in Howard County for either the Department of Recreation and Parks or Howard Community College over the past decade, put it: "There's only one `always' in bridge. Always think. Everything else is a `maybe.' "

Barbara Israel, who founded the Columbia Bridge Club - the county's only such club - more than a decade ago and still runs its Monday-night competition, added a dimension.

"It can be played by teen-agers or people over 80. We have both in our club, although mostly it's older people who play. It's amazing that way," Israel said.

Johnston, an instructor certified by the governing American Contract Bridge League and a Silver Life Master, which means she has played a lot at a high level, provided another insight.

"It's the only game I know of," she said, "in which the very top players in the country, and even the world, can and do play with those who aren't nearly as skilled or experienced. And they're usually willing to teach that person about the game."

If you are not a card player, you need to grasp a few basics:

Bridge is a game of partners competing against partners, four people to a table. A deck of 52 cards split into four 13-card suits (spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs) is dealt, after being shuffled, equally among players. The infinite mixes of cards make play unpredictable.

The object is to win a "hand" by capturing at least a majority of 13 possible "tricks," one trick being four cards tossed into the table's center, one by each player. The highest card in the played suit wins each trick; often, one suit that has been determined as "trump" captures cards of other suits.

Playing a card is the second of every hand's two elements. The first is communicating with one's partner in an "auction" that precedes play. Players "bid" sequentially around the table - negotiate, really - with their partners over how many tricks their combined cards might win.

Bidding is done in a spoken code, indicating relative power in one's hand in terms of high-ranking cards and holding extra cards in a given suit. Subtle, complicated and easy to misread, bidding requires schooling because it is done in several "languages" or "systems."

By winning that auction, partners earn the chance to determine trump (or no trump) and score points for capturing all the tricks that they predicted - making their "contract."

Points awarded for winning hands are totaled into games of 100 or 150 points.

Games can be played socially ("party bridge") or competitively ("duplicate bridge" in which identical hands are dealt out at each table).

Bridge is considered a grownup game, and some fret that few youngsters are learning it. A move that has not reached Howard County yet is being pushed by the national organization to introduce the game in high schools.

But Johnston and Israel both said the game always has attracted older segments of the population.

"A lot of people learn it in college, put it aside when they have children, but pick it up again when the children go out on their own and they have more time," Israel said. She said her club, which on a typical Monday gets about 30 players but sees several hundred during a year, loses some in winter to vacations or trips to Florida.

"If you go to 20 bridge clubs," she said, "the average age is going to be around 60, although ours is about 10 years younger than that, and everywhere there are players younger than that."

The game also can be played on the Internet, which is a development some feared would harm participation. But others say Internet play has helped bolster skills while making players yearn for more personal contact with other players.

Want to play?

Howard County offers these options for finding bridge lessons or other players:

Call the Department of Recreation and Parks, 410-313-7279, about classes.

Call the Columbia Bridge Club, 410-381-9445, about its Monday evening play.

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