Playing the Brain Game

What are Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Martina Navratilova playing?
The Brain GameBridge Isn’t Just For Grandma Anymore

By Virginia Newman

Poker games such as Texas Hold ’Em and five-card stud are spreading like wildfire throughout the nation, especially among the high school and college crowds. Television and online poker have exploded into popularity, and celebrities often are featured in championship games. But poker hasn’t always been the most popular card game – in fact, bridge used to be everybody’s game. And for its aficionados today, bridge still is No. 1.

Today, there are about 25 million adult bridge players. Of these, only three million play the game at least once a week – a significant drop from its heyday in the 1940s, when 44 percent of American households had at least one active bridge player.

According to the American Contract Bridge League, today’s players are well-educated (79 percent hold a college degree), affluent (average annual income is $62,000), primarily white (71 percent) and older (average age is 51).

As a bridge player, it hits home when some accounts say – rather disdainfully – that bridge’s popularity peaked a half-century ago and now largely claims an audience made up of senior citizens, country clubbers and a hard core of fanatics that includes billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and tennis star Martina Navratilova.

But what about Tallahassee? Our demographics may be skewed to the high side age-wise, as attendance at duplicate bridge games here indicates. If you want to play, you can find a duplicate bridge game going on every day but Saturday in Tallahassee – most at the Tallahassee Senior Center, but some at the Westminster Oaks retirement community. Social bridge clubs still exist all over town – but many of their members are women gaining in years.

The Tallahassee members of the American Contract Bridge League have two duplicate bridge clubs: the Tallahassee Duplicate Bridge Club and the Capital City Duplicate Bridge Club. In duplicate bridge, all tables play the same hands, competing against the other tables to see who played the best hands for a winning score.

On a typical Monday night at the Senior Center, members of the Tallahassee Duplicate Bridge Club sit in a large room, speaking their ceremonial language to fellow players in a hand of bridge:  “heart,” “no trump,” “double,” “redouble.”

Engrossed in their game, the players don’t let anything or anyone come between them and their cards. They have to pay close attention. In bridge, you must play the hand you’re dealt – luck is a factor, but skill and wit are prime.

“For social bridge players, the game provides an opportunity to meet new friends, socialize and have an enjoyable time,” said longtime player Ginny Harrison. “For competitors like me, the attraction is the challenge, and that takes total concentration.”

“What exactly is contract bridge?” you may ask. In this game, two pairs of partners take turns bidding how many tricks, or rounds of cards, they think they will win. Partners signal to each other what kinds of cards they hold and which suit of cards they want to be “trump,” or wild cards that win over all other suits.

In short, bridge is a partnership card game in which two partners bid against another two partners to win the right to play out their hands. The winning partners bid for the number of card tricks (a trick contains four cards, one contributed by each player) they think they can win over their opponents. Then each partnership tries to win (or take) as many tricks as possible.

Many learn bridge simply by diving into a bridge game and playing, letting others teach them how. Others prefer to take lessons. Either way is fine, if it’s done right.

Most bridge games are informal get-togethers among friends. But the really serious players prefer duplicate bridge, in which the World Bridge Federation measures achievement through the concept of “master points.” The American Contract Bridge League’s master point system appeals to members because it permits them to know their approximate overall ranking relative to every other member. There are formulas for computing master point awards for all league-sanctioned events. These formulas take into account various factors, such as the class of the event, the size of the field, the number of sessions and the level of competition, thus ensuring maximum uniformity in determining awards. The master points are “pigmented” to reflect the level of competition:  silver, red, gold and platinum (the highest). There is no “prize” in reaching the various levels, just the satisfaction of self achievement.

As for being listed as a top-tier hot activity, bridge has never been for everyone. It’s too cerebral. It’s too challenging. But it’s also too much fun to dismiss.

When my sister and I were children, my bridge-loving parents taught us to play this four-player card game so they could always have a “foursome” when they couldn’t find adult partners. I kept it up through college, when my sorority sisters kept several marathon games going constantly, players handing over their cards to others when they left for class so the games could go on and on.

Then, as a young married couple, my husband’s and my social lives were entwined with bridge – playing as partners with friends in each other’s homes or playing on my own with other young women who swapped recipes and child-rearing tips between hands. I’m hooked for life and still play as often as I can.

The Tallahassee Duplicate Bridge Club is a member-owned organization of about 200 governed by a board of directors elected by the membership, explains club president Ruth Anne Reese.

“It’s an exciting game,” Reese said. “There’s strategy and there’s deception, and you can play as long as you live. You can’t say that about golf and tennis. You need something to fall back on to keep the brain stimulated.”

Some of the renewed interest in bridge may be traced to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June 2003. It suggested that mentally challenging activities such as bridge could slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Most of the games are at the Senior Center,” said club board member Amy Resnik. “There are certain drawbacks to playing there, chiefly the lack of its appeal to a younger market and the inability to schedule additional games.”

♣In addition to playing with the club, where she can earn American Contract Bridge League master points, Reznik also teaches “Easy Bridge” weekly at Jack McLean Park and Recreation Center to newcomers or those who feel the need to brush up on their game. Participant Morris Sholkofsky started coming to Easy Bridge lessons to provide brain stimulus after a head injury, and his partner, Joe Labat, said he decided to take the course because he didn’t play for many years, then wanted to play again. Doris Linthicum and Riginor Moore are military wives whose husbands have retired and they now have time to play.

Tom Erickson is the owner and manager of Capitol City Duplicate Bridge Club, which also is affiliated with the American Contract Bridge League and is a site for amassing master points. In addition to the club’s competitive duplicate bridge games scheduled throughout the week, social bridge games also are available. Fridays from 9 a.m. till noon, “Early Bird Bridge” and “Party Bridge” games are open for all levels of experience. The cost is certainly affordable, at 50 cents’ donation per session. On Wednesdays from 12:30 to 3 p.m., experienced players can play for 50 cents per session.

“As people become seniors, bridge keeps your mind busy and working,” Erickson said. “It’s wonderful aerobics for the mind and keeps you sharp.”

You don’t have to be a duplicate bridge player to enjoy the game. Ask Margie Mixson, wife of former governor and Lt. Gov. Wayne Mixson, who has played with the same circle of friends for 15 years.

“It’s so much enjoyment,” she said. ”It’s entertaining, sociable, and it does so many good things for the brain.”

Ask John Mooshie, a longtime public relations practitioner who played in college and then didn’t even think about it for decades until one day, while out on the golf course, his fellow golfers were discussing their recent bridge game.

“I got the fever,” Mooshie said. “I took a few lessons, started playing again and picked it right back up. I play duplicate bridge at least once a week now.”

I can certainly provide my own testimonial to that. Back in 1964, when our family first moved to Tallahassee, I was a stay-at-home mom with small children and limited social contacts.

Invited to a card party held around the pool at the old Holiday Inn, I was very happy to meet other young mothers who liked to play bridge, but I never dreamed that we were starting what would become a 42-year tradition.

Time has sort of blurred some of the details, but my bridge partner that day was Connie Morris. Our table had so much fun that we decided to schedule another game at Connie’s house. Within a few months, our foursome had expanded to eight players – or, as they say in the world of bridge, two tables (of four each).

And a bridge club that came to be simply known as “The Bridge Group” was born – and still thrives today. Over the subsequent four decades, the players sometimes changed – four died, some went through divorces, others moved away or dropped out. Personally, as my career began to require frequent travel and I struggled to manage children, home and a demanding job, I was forced to leave the club.

But I never left the bonds of those friendships. The group is a support system beyond description.

Gail Hock, one of the members who has played for many decades, said that “the Bridge Group are the ‘first responders’ when help is needed – arriving with food, gifts, flowers, TLC. We are more than club members, we are friends for life.”

Unfortunately, none of the members’ children plays bridge.

What happened? Why has bridge’s popularity steadily declined over the last 50 years? It’s probably too easy to connect this decline to the advent of television, but television may have served as a replacement for bridge night. To compensate for increasing competition from technology, some sort of marketing by the various bridge organizations might have kept bridge visible, but until recently, apparently no marketing was done. Gradually, bridge came to be perceived as “a game my grandparents play.”

A check with sorority and fraternity houses in town came up empty, with representatives saying that bridge isn’t being played around campus these days. Leon County school officials say bridge is not offered in after-school programs.

It’s worth trying to bring back some of the glory of bridge by getting young people engaged in the game, and some progress has been made on that front. Local affiliates of the American Contract Bridge League plan to participate in a recently developed youth marketing plan to encourage kids to learn to play bridge. The marketing plan will provide T-shirts and kits as incentives. The league also has launched a Web site,, where young people can learn, play and obtain information about tournaments, clubs and special events to a background of rap music.

And bridge has so much more to offer. It’s an elegant game, full of strategy and tactics. It embodies cooperation, logic and problem solving. And, if the bridge-in-schools program gets off the ground, the winners might get very lucky – billionaires Buffett and Gates say they will play the best team.“It would be fun for me and Bill to play the champions,” Buffett said. “And it might spur them on some.”


Want to play? Here’s how in six easy steps

  1. Bridge requires four players. Each player sits opposite his partner at a square table. It is played with a standard deck of 52 playing cards. One player deals all the cards clockwise, 13 to each player.
  2. The game has two main parts: the bidding and the play. Each partnership bids for the number of tricks it thinks it can win.
  3. There are four suits (types of cards). Each suit has 13 cards, and they are ranked: spades (highest), hearts, diamonds and clubs (lowest). The ranking is for bidding purposes only. In the play, all suits are equal, unless one suit has been named as trumps, which is a sort of designated “wild card” that beats all the others.
  4. The cards of each suit are ranked from the ace (highest) to the two (lowest). The ace is always high, unlike some card games, such as poker, where it also can be low.
  5. The object of bridge is to win tricks for your side. A trick consists of four cards, one from each player (the bidding winners lay one hand down face up for all to see while their partner plays out the bid). So there are 13 tricks to be won on each deal.
  6. After four cards have been played, one player has won the trick with the highest card or a trump card. Play continues this way
    for all 13 tricks. The team that takes the most tricks wins.
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