Bridge In Lockdown

Submitted by English Bridge Union on Wed, 01/09/2021 - 11:26

If you want to understand the appeal of bridge you only have to look at the notable names who are advocates of the compellingly addictive card game. Legendary heartthrob and bridge aficionado Omar Sharif, for example, was famous for declaring: “Acting is my profession; bridge is my passion”.  

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is an avid player -- he often partners legendary investor Warren Buffett -- Winston Churchill was a fan and the game’s current cognoscente include actor Susan Hampshire, cricketer Mike Gatting and broadcaster Sue Lawley. “Just as when I was 30 years old, the sound of the cards being shuffled sets my heart a-flutter and banishes any sense of tiredness,” explains Sue. “Bridge for me is true escapism.” 

It’s a sentiment echoed by Blur bassist Alex James. “Bridge is utterly compulsive once it has a hold of you,” he maintains. “It isn’t too hard to learn and the joy is that you can actually start enjoying it before you get very good. The big problem is that very soon after you start you want to be brilliant…” 

Presenter Victoria Coren Mitchell, who’s better known as a professional poker player, has been playing since childhood: “Sporadically, enthusiastically and badly!” she claims. “Bridge is a really wonderful game,” she adds, “rich with twists and complexities that requires a modicum of effort but definitely rewards it. Like poker – which I’m better at – it is a coded conversation, a formal dance of a game, constantly stimulating and intriguing. Especially if you’re good at remembering which suit is trumps.” 

But you don’t have to be a celebrity (or a billionaire) to enjoy it. My mother, Ann Owen, taught the classic game to hundreds of people in Essex. And I remember her telling me that when it snowed, even when the snow was deep, it was always the over-90s who made it to the lessons. 

Now in her eighth decade and recently returning to the UK after 16 years in Spain, she was delighted to discover her all ex-pupils are still playing at home or in clubs. It’s been fantastic for her to see the years of enjoyment her lessons have engendered and to be welcomed back after years away.  

And now, just like my mum, the game which traces its history back to the 16th century, is enjoying a comeback. According to 2019 US survey up to 20% of non-playing adults would like to learn and already new players are discovering this absorbing pastime and existing devotees adopting new ways to play.   

Suitable for anyone aged from eight to 100 (or over), bridge is, contrary to what many assume, relatively easy to play and enjoy. It’s played by four people in teams of two and, while it involves risk-taking, it’s more about skill than chance. What makes it so engrossing is that it’s almost impossible to master – it’s the only mind-sport in which a computer has yet to beat a human -- and, like chess or, indeed, Excel, the more you improve, the more you want to learn.  

It’s also a great social sport. In England alone it’s estimated several hundred thousand hobbyists play “kitchen bridge” with more than 30,000 also playing competitively in clubs. And because the game combines a mental workout with an enjoyable social aspect, it can claim many mental health benefits including reducing the risk of Dementia. Research by sociologist Professor Samantha Punch of Stirling University found that most players looked forward to each day (as well as each game!). 

It’s no wonder then that dedicated players were devastated when lockdown meant the compulsory closure of bridge clubs – a situation that could continue for months. Unless you were lucky enough to live with three other bridge players, it meant the only way to play was on-line. And that’s what players have done.  

In the last couple of months some 50,000 player sessions were recorded on just one on-line platform Bridge Base Online where you can play just about any level of bridge from complete beginner through to world-class. Even my mother, a technophobe who’d always insisted “there’s absolutely no way on earth I’m going to play on-line!” has now, in next to no time, learnt. 

Just like my mother, Barbara Jordan, is now playing bridge on-line from her home in Oxfordshire. “I play with three friends and we’re aged between 75 and 80. We’re each in our own home with a glass of wine and play using Bridge Base Online with Zoom on as well so we could see each other and chat. Although I’m not great with technology I’m learning quickly and now believe learning how to play remotely as well as in person should be part of every bridge course.”  

Tony French, who runs two Essex Clubs, has also embraced on-line technology, replacing weekly club sessions with internet tournaments. “Lockdown has advanced the role of technology in bridge forward 10 years,” he explains. “And best of all I can see it helping elderly players continue playing for much longer, keeping their minds happily engaged.” He is also enthusiastic about how technology can help teach bridge in the future. 

Tony has helped many of his members participate including Ann Brandon, a member in her 80s, who had never considered playing bridge on-line before but now plays two club sessions every week. Ann’s sister, Janet, who’d been forced to give up her beloved games when ill health prevented her from making the weekly journey to play is now back partnering Ann once again and playing every Monday night at Tony’s virtual club.  

Another benefit of the growth in online playing brought about by lockdown, is that it’s been instrumental in removing geographical boundaries as counties across the country set up matches with players as far apart as Sussex and Yorkshire. Kiat Huang from Lincolnshire, one of the grass-roots organisers says: "Personally, it’s felt great to create platforms that have brought people together from all over England to play the game we love."  

There’s gratifying news about up-and-coming younger players too, with a new generation of bridge players learning the game in schools. Val Poter, who supports youth education at county level in Essex, tells us that in one recent initiative packs of cards were shared with pupils, prompting one year six student at Halstead Primary to admit “I didn’t want to come to school today but when I remembered the bridge class I came anyway. My favourite sport was rugby – but now it’s bridge!”  

Another 11-year-old asked her teacher – “Are we allowed to play bridge at break?” Of course she was. “I’ve never seen the class so enthusiastic and involved and it’s brilliant for their mental maths,” reports one teacher.  

As well as improving the children’s mental skills, learning the game has also helped families foster closer relationships. As children told their grandparents about bridge, card games have crept back into the rota of shared multi-generational pastimes. The age gap was overcome – bridge bridged the gap – and with on-line bridge we now see the older generation teaching the younger generation to “game”. It’s the perfect solution to social isolation issues. 

This influx of enthusiastic young players augurs well for Britain’s prospects on the international circuit too. We already compete well -- the British Ladies team were runners-up in 2017 and third-placed in the 2019 World Championships – and this year sees the launch of the On-line World Youth Championships. At the time of writing the England Team is doing well.  

“Playing in the World Youth Championships Online is a fantastic experience, with international immersion and cooperation,” says one of its members Charlie Bucknell. “It provides an excellent opportunity to meet like-minded juniors around the world who are just as enthusiastic about bridge. Representing your country in any instance, online, or at the table, is something to be proud of and the thrill of playing at the top level cannot be understated.”  

In England competitive Bridge is run by the English Bridge Union with local county information available on its website. Gordon Rainsford, the organisation’s Chief Executive, encourages everyone to give the game a go. “There are plenty of opportunities to learn the game with willing volunteers in the County Bridge Associations being able to point aspiring players in the right direction,” he says. “There are also lots of ways to learn online. Whichever route, or combination of routes, is chosen, players will learn a game which will give them enjoyment and friendship not just for lockdown but for the rest of their lives” 

And, once lockdown is completely lifted there will be a return to Café Bridge, a recent trend where games are held as a charity social event, often raising significant sums – one village event in Worcestershire raises around £1,000 annually. I ran a Café Bridge session myself back in January with 64 players eating, drinking and playing in four local Chelmsford cafés. They are great fun and hugely popular. 

Possibly the only drawback to the game is that it often proves utterly addictive. As current World Champion, Norwegian Boye Brogeland, says: “Bridge is condensed life. You need to solve a variety of problems, make a huge number of decisions and face emotional ups and downs.” The only difference with bridge is that – win or lose – you’ll always have fun taking part.  

 

To learn to play visit www.funbridge.com;orwww.nofearbridge.co.uk and click the L-plates. You don’t even need four players to play on-line as most bridge platforms will offer robots to fill in for one or more missing players.

The English Bridge Union is at www.ebu.co.uk.

Victor Lesk, who writes the internet based BriAn software, promotes all the Café Bridge sessions in England at www.brianbridge.net

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