Forget the stereotype of finger sandwiches and pleasant chatter. For today’s Columbia-area bridge player, it’s the mind that matters — the strategy behind the bids, the sharpening of the brain as each card moves from hand to table.
“I love the challenge to try to win,” says Belle Fields, who has been playing bridge for 94 of her 102 years. “Usually when you’re my age, you’ve lost something up here,” she says, pointing a finger at the head on which she perches her glasses. “I’ve lost something, but not much.”
Belle gave up driving at age 95 and now depends on the good graces of family members to convoy her to bridge club matches. Although her fellow bridge players praise her talents, she modestly rates herself at only a C-plus, although, she says, “I used to be very, very good.”
One of the area’s most committed bridge aficionados — maybe “addicts” would be the better term — Belle and those of her ilk play two, three, maybe five times a week at the Columbia Bridge Club, a cement-floored building originally intended to be a fireworks store but abandoned before its opening.
Every day, dozens of club members and their regular partners play duplicate bridge, a 200-year-old game that pits two sets of partners at each table against each other as well as every other player in the room. So much for socializing.
One recent afternoon, 40 players gathered at 10 tables, each table appointed with pre-shuffled decks (13 cards per player per game), a Bridgemate electronic scorekeeper and a paper scorebook. The “open game” was open to all players regardless of their abilities. There was a second game running concurrent with the open game that was restricted to beginners.
Players ranged in age from 60 to 102 years old, that would be Belle, with women outnumbering men about four to one. Men tend to favor playing on nights and Saturdays. More players than not wore glasses, some sipped Diet Cokes or the coffee available at the club’s small galley kitchen, but most eschewed the distraction of even a drink.
Behind a counter at the end of the room stood Patrick Lauterbach, the day’s director, the man with all the rules in his head and a computerized device showing who played which card when at each table. At Patrick’s signal, the games began, with each set of four playing the same pre-dealt hand.
Because the American Contract Bridge League sanctions the Columbia club, members pay $7 for a few hours’ worth of hands. The club doesn’t aim for a profit, breaking even each month at approximately 200 tables of four.
Years ago, the club maintained a downtown center, which it too quickly outgrew. It moved to a local senior center where, Patrick says, one could spot a bridge player by the keen look in his or her eye. Bridge players weren’t there to hang out. They were there for the battle.
Then the club found the abandoned fireworks store, a large prefabricated building with restrooms and a galley kitchen. They bought it and moved in, and recently spent about $60,000 to bolster the original parking. The building is far from cozy as its only art is bridge rules posted on the plain beige walls. But the players aren’t there for fancy.
“This is not a game,”
Patrick confided sotto voce, so as not to disturb the players, who had begun the first hand. “It’s a competitive event, and it’s played by some of the most competitive people around. They’re focused, engaged and are using globular as well as linear thinking. It’s good for you, like pushups or pull-ups.”
Mental pull-ups, that is. Most players — also speaking quietly between hands — say they play to keep sharp and to stave off Alzheimer’s or dementia. Patrick himself plays at the club five times a week.
Those at the club still play occasional home games with family or friends, but the club is where they go to master strategies and wage war with playing cards as their weapons. They want to win.
“It’s a great atmosphere for competition,” says Jack Self, president of the Columbia club. “There’s no trash-talking or showboating as in other sports. It’s an intense atmosphere but a friendly atmosphere. If you love the game and you want to play, there’s a place to play.”
Even language is not a barrier, Jack says, “Players must know only about a dozen words of whatever language his fellow players are using.”
During each club game, participants use flash cards printed with colors, numbers and symbols, sticking them down onto the table to play so no one will misunderstand a mumbled bid. Between hands, partners discuss their strategies. Some partners are just meeting for the first time, although most arrive as pairs. None of the partners waste time on idle chatter, moving briskly from one hand to the next.
Frances Lawton plays social bridge twice a month with Charlie, her husband, and another couple but likes competitive bridge too because it’s more structured.
“I absolutely love it — it’s a challenge,” she says.
Table mate Carol Clemenz adds, “It’s not so social, not conversational — it’s serious. But you never quit learning.”
The Columbia Bridge Club has about 240 members, some in their 20s. But those younger folks are rare, so the long game for the club is its summer youth program which began this past year with about a dozen high school students. The American Contract Bridge League, with which the Columbia club is affiliated, encourages youth involvement and sponsors programs and tournaments for young players.
“Since the average age of our club members is probably about 70, we thought that we needed to attract the youth,” says Henry Momand, who is in charge of the program and is now 78. He has been playing bridge since he was in his 20s.
“Young people are so involved in games now on the computer, where they also can learn and play bridge,” he says. “The intensity of duplicate bridge, which is very competitive, appeals to them.”
Among those who participated in the summer program this past year were two sisters and a brother, who Bernetha Henry recruited from her church. “Those three taught their older brother the game so they could play at home,” she says with a smile.
This past year’s summer program was supposed to last two weeks but continued for a month and a half. “They were gung-ho,” says Henry Momand. “Still, bridge is not a game that you can learn in one session — or one summer, even,” he says. That’s why Henry hopes to double enrollment this summer. But he doesn’t expect the youth to become so entranced they’ll sign up with the bridge club and remain loyal members for 50 or so odd years. “They’ll probably drift away and come back as empty-nesters,” he says with a smile.
Henry played as a youth but couldn’t find time for regular bridge-playing as he worked to rear a family. When he retired in 2000 — his children launched and his career put to bed — he recommitted himself to the game.
Cassie Jackson did much the same thing, learning to play bridge in college but giving it up because she seldom won, not having learned the basics well. She put cards aside, only to pick them up again three decades later at a recreation center where friends offered to re-teach her the game.
Now she plays regularly at the bridge clubhouse where she has two committed bridge partners, and she throws a bridge-inclusive Christmas party each year.
“I go places to play for fun, like at friends’ houses, but I enjoy playing at the club because it’s competitive,” Cassie says. “There’s more to it than just sitting down and playing the cards. Part of winning results from luck, part from strategy. But it can be very addicting, especially the strategizing. Of all the card games, it’s the one that makes you think the most.”
Although the Columbia Bridge Club is very popular, the old Southern tradition of “bridge day” with friends is still going strong. Sally Kitchens remembers watching her mother play often as a child, and she and her friends started playing for fun in high school and college. “It was common when someone was engaged for a friend to throw a bridge luncheon in honor of the bride,” says Sally. “You don’t see that anymore.” Sally admits that playing regularly was too much of a challenge during the busy years of child-rearing, but once the children were out of the house she picked it back up again. “It is just a good card game, and if you like to play cards, which I do, it is a wonderful thing.”
Playing bridge with a regular group certainly takes commitment as no one can play if all four are not present. Often if someone is out of town, they will find a substitute for that week so the others can still play. Sally says that even though she plays three to four times a week with regular groups of friends, she still finds herself wanting to play more and does so against the computer game she bought on her iPad. “There is always something new to learn,” she says. “Our group of friends is serious in how much we want to play, but we just have fun with it. We don’t even keep score — each hand is a standalone game. But we always look at each hand after it has been played to see how we could have played it better.”