Meet the bridge crowd

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

It may have a stodgy reputation but bridge is taking over Irish sittingrooms, writes ALANNA GALLAGHER

IN DÚN LAOGHAIRE, Co Dublin, a well-heeled crowd congregates to worship its newfound faith: bridge.

Billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are lifelong fans of the card game, passionate players who compete in tournaments and online under the names “T-Bone” and “Chalengr”, respectively. Sean Connery is also a fan, as were Hollywood royals such as Omar Sharif and the Marx Brothers. And in the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is joined by one of the greatest stars of the silent era, Buster Keaton, playing a cameo at a game of bridge.

Until Buffet and Gates professed their love of it, the game had fallen off the radar. People continued playing but quietly. The new B crowd, most of whom are in their 30s and 40s, have been drawn to it because it’s cheap to play, says Paul Porteous, general secretary of the Contract Bridge Association of Ireland (CBAI).

“All you need is a deck of cards and three other players. You can even play online with others. It has the suspense of poker, the intellectual qualities of chess and the excitement of athletic sports.”

It can also teach a way of thinking that will be useful in business, Buffet told CBS News in the US. “You have to look at all the facts. You have to draw inferences from what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard. You have to discard improper theories about what the hand had as more evidence comes in sometimes. You have to be open to a possible change of course if you get new information. You have to work with a partner, particularly on defense.”

Clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author David Coleman has become so “hooked”, he’s teaching his children mini-bridge.

The secret to enjoying the game is to start early, says Porteous. Buffet and Gates have invested $1 million in creating a bridge programme for schools in the US. The CBAI launched a pilot scheme in secondary schools and now teaches bridge as one of the life-skills modules in 18 transition-year programmes in secondary schools, including St Conleth’s, Belvedere College and Wesley College and High School, Rathgar. Porteous has been playing since he was 17. Now 61, he learned as a boarder at St Patrick’s College, Armagh. “Bridge is a pension plan,” he says. “Learn how to play today and you can play all through your life and into old age.”

In bridge, two pairs of partners play and take turns bidding on how many tricks, or rounds of cards, they think they will win. Partners signal each other what kind of cards they hold and which card suit they want to be “trump”, or winner over all other suits. “King to three; king queen to five; queen to three” is bridge speak for a hand of 13 cards, spades, through hearts, to diamonds and clubs, a language that is going to become more familiar as the card game is dusted down and introduced to a new audience.

Interior designer Mary Ryder took up the game a year ago and is a self-confessed a bridge fanatic. She has great fun playing with other beginners. It’s like “mental cocaine”, she says. “Once you start there’s a whole ‘rush’ aspect to it.” She is hooked.

Really? To cards? Really, says Ryder. “People play on all different levels. I get just as much enjoyment out of it as old hands do.” It helps, she says, if you like solving problems, have good card sense and a pictorial memory.

Derick Mulvey is a theatrical agent with MacFarlane Chard, looking after clients such as Saoirse Ronan, Bronagh Gallagher, Angeline Ball and Frank Kelly. A relative newbie to playing bridge, it is not “as fussy or as staid” as he had expected. Ryder introduced him to the game and he now holds bridge afternoons on Sundays. “I start at four in the afternoon and kick everyone out before 11pm. It’s social, provides a medium for conversation and allows you do something while being entertained.”

His interest is such that bridge parlance has seeped into his everyday life. “When you start using bridge terms in real life you know you’ve become a bridge geek,” he says, admitting to using terms such as “finessing” in his day job. “It means getting away with it,” he says. “It is a sort of grander term for spoofing.”

Psychiatrist Stephanie Bourke’s parents were avid players. During her teens and 20s she avoided engaging in their pursuit but has recently discovered bridge for herself. It was a revelation, she says.

“I understood that my parents had years of fun developing and learning the game. From a mental-health point of view it is a structured game that uses learned skills, it is social and stimulating, offers contact and has huge positives to it. If you keep it up you can play forever.”

She plays with her husband and has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to persuade her friends to join her.

Bridge keeps you sharp as a tack, says Peter Pigot, a third-generation player and teacher whose family is considered bridge royalty. He teaches classes privately in Dún Laoghaire. His father, also Peter, and grandfather, David, both represented Ireland in the game’s European championships. Peter snr played with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

According to CBAI, research into the game has shown that bridge can boost your immune system, while those who play regularly are two and a half times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

“Bridge is a sexy game with a stodgy reputation,” says American artist Theresa Nanigan, a poker player who has recently converted to the church of bridge. “The complexity of bridge takes time to understand and is part of the reason you don’t see many twentysomethings rushing to sign up.”

When she was in her 20s, Nanigan “was far too busy working in Manhattan to have any kind of a hobby” and would have been put off by the game’s turgid reputation. But its approval ratings are recovering, with soirees popping up among the time- and cash-poor.

“It’s more social than chess, and on a night in or out there are plenty of opportunities for humour,” says Pigot.

American railroad tycoon Harold S Vanderbilt is credited with creating the modern game of contract bridge. According to Sports Illustrated, the game was devised one autumn evening, in 1925, aboard the liner Finland, while Vanderbilt and three friends were on a cruise from San Francisco to Havana. The game was popularised by Ely Culbertson, who introduced it to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

In Ireland the ratio of bridge players is 70 per cent women to 30 per cent men, according to Paul Porteous – good odds if you’re single and looking for smarts in your woman. The competition season has just started, but you need to grapple the basics before you reach those dizzy heights.

Look on your local notice boards to find classes taking place in your area or contact the Contract Bridge Association of Ireland, which runs classes countrywide using trained teachers. Most novices will do two sets of classes; one before Christmas and one after.

See cbai.ieor peterpigotbridge.comfor more details on classes

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