Where bridge is still big

In a suburban office building, players keep their skills sharp

maryland journal

October 09, 2006|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

In a suburban office building with doctors and mortgage lenders, Patricia Wilson's business is booming.

Her clients, mostly in the retired set, swing open the glass doors, pass the front counter and head to the back to pay their $7.

Decks of cards are shuffled, then placed in neat stacks on silver trays. Some of the women pull sharpened pencils and score cards in clear covers from their purses.

With Wilson's approval, the game begins.

Bridge, the card game once so popular it was covered by Sports Illustrated, is played this way, in an office near Towson, at least five days a week. The heyday of the Friday night game of your grandparents, dealt at kitchen tables and in paneled basements, might have passed. But hundreds of players in the Baltimore area still find the game to be stimulating and addictive, flocking to clubs like Wilson's to keep their bidding and bluffing skills sharp.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," says Bette Hollyday, a player from the Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville, placing her bid.

Across the room, another woman stops at a table and asks another regular, "How's your leg?"

But except for these occasional comments, the gurgle of the water cooler and the soft swipe of cards, the room is nearly silent.

"Director," a male player calls out, sending Wilson to the back of the room.

"Pat," a woman calls, summoning Wilson to another table.

Wilson is the combination hostess and referee for the Valley Bridge Club, which she founded in 1963 with a game held at a restaurant at a Towson shopping plaza and moved into her living room for more than three decades.

Tired of folding the tables up after each game and carrying them to the basement, Wilson, a mother of two and grandmother of four, moved into an office above a music store on York Road in Lutherville in 1999. She was there until July, when the lease expired and she moved her operation to the office complex off Cromwell Valley Bridge Road.

Always impeccably dressed in blazers and dress pants, Wilson has softened the office space by hanging framed reproductions of museum paintings and a large mural of the dock at Annapolis. Plants and vases sit on a few antique sideboards. But most of the L-shaped room is filled with square, folding card tables and chairs.

Robert and Fran Black, a Parkville couple married 57 years, sit across from each other at one of them. Robert Black, an 82-year-old retired Army weapons researcher, picked up the game in college in the early 1940s. His wife, 81, learned about the same time from a former boyfriend and his friend, who weren't so nice about teaching. "I'd like to play them now," she says, chuckling.

"Did you know Bill Gates plays bridge?" Robert Black says. "One of his partners is Warren Buffet."

"And then there's us," quips Fran Black.

Players such as Wilson insist that the game is not difficult. But even the book Bridge for Dummies is 381 pages long. The game is complicated, and those who play it say they enjoy the mental challenge. Many of the players have also taken lessons at some point or another.

Wilson offers classes several times a week, with more than 100 students altogether.

Two of her players, Toni Rosenblatt and Carolyn Brooks, met at one of Wilson's classes in Rodgers Forge about 40 years ago.

Rosenblatt, a retired clothing store owner living in Cockeysville, still plays with Brooks, a retired doctor's office worker now living in Sarasota, Fla., when she visits. Together they help with the August tournament that Wilson runs in Hunt Valley.

They say their real accomplishment isn't in how many points they've scored. It's that "we're still speaking to each other," says Brooks.

Bridge, which according to some historians grew out of 16th-century British card game Whist, is played by four people or two pairs. The partners sit across from each other, using tabbed cards to place their bids. They bet for points, not money. They rotate tables after each round. A full game lasts about three hours.

"It's a lot like Spades with four suites," says Aspassia "Skippy" Callas, the president of Maryland Bridge Association, who often plays at the Valley Bridge Club.

In Duplicate Bridge, the cards arrangements are predetermined, so that the players are playing the same hands.

The height of the game's popularity was probably in the 1940s and 1950s. It was once as popular as poker is today, players say. Some tournaments were televised.

Sports Illustrated ran one cover story on the game in the 1950s and two in the 1960s, said Rick McCable, a spokesman for the magazine. But the magazine hasn't covered the game in more than 25 years, he said.

"Everybody used to play bridge," Cassas says. "But there's too much to do now, with women working, with computers and television."

Some bridge players play online, matching up with partners around the world. But, Wilson points out, you miss the camaraderie of club play on the computer.

There are more than two dozen formal bridge clubs in Maryland, according to the Mid-Atlantic Bridge Conference.

The Valley Bridge Club's games usually draw about 60 players. On Tuesdays, Wilson serves a buffet of sandwiches, side salads, potato chips and cake. Wilson serves tea sandwiches and crackers at her other games.

Most weeks, there is at least one game being played Monday through Saturday. On Mondays, there are two. Some people who come to Wilson's club are married or longtime friends. Others are assigned a partner when they arrive.

The Blacks have a rule. They don't speak about bridge once they leave the club. "It's just a game," Fran Black says.

It also helps that they are compatible in important areas. For example, says Robert Black, "Mrs. Black and I agree we hate preemptive bidding - except when its ours."

This particular afternoon, they are not doing exceptionally well.

"That's all right," Fran Black says. "It makes everyone else happy."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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