Bridge Lessons

The game of Bridge, the game of my parents, has finally hunted and overtaken me. Retirement can be a time to pick up new hobbies and try new activities.  Retirement can also be a time to revisit past challenges.  Looks like, despite my better judgment, I’m learning to play Bridge, which illustrates all of the above.   And it’s more than a bit ironic since I’ve spent my entire life vigorously avoiding the game.

My parents were avid Bridge players.  My mother played with the ladies in various groups and clubs over the years, and both parents enjoyed Bridge parties with other couples.  It was seemingly polite social activity, but make no mistake —–they were both highly competitive and loved nothing more than crushing their opponents.

My first encounter came when I was about seven years old.  My parents determined (since Bridge requires four people, two more than them) that they needed a ready pool of Bridge players, presumably to hone their skills for the kill at Bridge Club, and looked no further than their offspring to inflict Bridge lessons.   Thank God Almighty I am the THIRD child and have two older brothers.   Tom and Jim, who must have been about 12 and 14, were led to the card table like sheep to the slaughter.   My dad claimed my younger brother as his partner and Jim took the news like a prisoner receiving a week of hard labor.

I quickly deduced what was about to transpire was not going to be pleasant and wisely decided to go underground in my room the remainder of the evening.   Not even Mary Poppins (the sole record I had, volume turned high) could drown the distinct sounds of irritation (parents) and misery (brothers) coming from the living room.  I heard sounds of shouting and crying and words like “Trump” and “No Trump” and “Three Spades” floating down the hall.    I heard Dad bellow, “Mary, Jim trumped my ace!!!!”  (Dad spoke through Mom when he was particularly agitated or flabbergasted.) I did not know what this meant, but I knew it spelled big trouble for Jim.  I thought I heard Jim whimpering. It was about this time I formulated my life-long goal of avoiding Bridge at all costs.

Family Bridge lessons were perpetrated over the years but I always managed to evade them.   There were a few close calls – for example, when I was older and Mom hosted the bridge ladies, one of whom cancelled at the last minute.  My mom sweetly suggested she could “give me a quick lesson” so I could fill in, but I knew better than to take that bait!   I understood it would be a slippery slope if I capitulated, so I quickly manufactured urgent errands and fled.

You can imagine my reaction, then, when one night in November our good friends proposed a pleasant game of Bridge.  Now, Renee and Stan (names changed) are dear friends who host us in their lovely home when we visit Annapolis.  They have been more than generous to our family and we love them dearly.  Anyone else, upon mere utterance of the word Bridge, I would have refused immediately.  But I knew this was music that I must face.   My time had come.

So there I was seated at the table, with Renee as my partner.  She is affable, warm and outgoing, but with that same steely competitiveness as my mom.  Renee loves to play Bridge. She rattled off the rules and described the basics of strategy, and I tried to listen (through the buzz of anxiety in my brain and the chattering of teeth) while simultaneously controlling the terror in my belly as bad memories came flooding back. As the night wore on, I relaxed a little (once I realized Renee wasn’t going to yell at me) but it also became clear I am not a natural.  I was hoping one or both parents had genetically passed on knowledge or skill that would render me a prodigy once I got going, but sadly that was not the case.  In fact, I was rather a dolt.  I loved when I was “dummy,” which is a perfect role for me, and could just lay down my cards and cheer Renee on.  As part of my training Renee usually told me exactly what to do every step, which worked really well.  Until, she suddenly announced that I should play a hand with no help – and I still hadn’t a clue what I was doing.  Renee was gracious enough to remain calm but did say things like  “Now, why would you do that?”  It was clear I was no Goren.   I counted and recounted on my fingers the points in my hand, the bidding made no sense to me, and I could only think about playing one trick at a time.  Forget counting cards or any grand strategy for winning a round. It was pure survival.

We played Bridge a few more times while we were there and I was starting to get the basics.  But Bridge makes as much as sense to me as my son’s electrical engineering class.  There are the basic rules, and then the more advanced rules, and then the rules that good Bridge players just somehow know, and then there is the larger strategy that very good Bridge players have a mind for.   Renee assures me that Bridge is a complicated game and I will learn with practice.  I’m not so sure, but for Stan and Renee, and for Mom and Dad, I’m going to keep trying.

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