Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bridge Too Far

The International Friendship Club here in Puerto Vallarta is a sort of senior center away from home for expats. It organizes a very active program of charitable fundraising, volunteer work, classes and social activities.

I noticed a month or so ago that the weekly schedule includes bridge classes on Mondays and "social bridge" on Fridays.

I've tried two or three times in the past to learn the game, but never with any real study or structured coaching. If you enjoy bridge, the results I always achieved won't surprise you.

To a player with almost no knowledge of even the simplest bidding conventions and no natural ability to remember cards played, the subtlety and intellectual challenge that make bridge fascinating for so many present themselves as mystery, frustration and failure.

But now in the spirit of embracing the kind of mental exercise that everyone says is so helpful in staving off geriatric memory loss, woolly headedness and maybe even dementia, I've decided to try again.

So far it's not going so well. I'm not quitting, but I keep wondering if I waited too long.

I started by borrowing a book from a neighbor, Bridge Basics by Audrey Grant. It was a relief not to have to choose a book myself. Ms. Grant alone has written 45 of them, and there seem to be hundreds if not thousands of other manuals.

There's also a boatload of instruction and commentary online, but even the articles with titles that sound as if they might be pitched to novices are full of alien concepts and nomenclature.

Luckily, Bridge Basics really is for beginners. I read it carefully and labored through several dozen sample hands. It didn't seem like rocket science, and the following Monday I headed down the hill to the IFC clubhouse.

Pam was busy that morning. She let me know that if they ever change the classes to some other day of the week, she will be busy that morning too.

The classes turned out to be very unstructured. We set up a dozen or more tables in a tiled courtyard, take seats at random, and play. A couple of bridge masters circulate to answer questions about what to bid.

Sadly for me, their advice is nearly always based on detailed knowledge of bidding "conventions," or codes mutually agreed on between partners who play together regularly.

At my rock bottom level of expertise, a bid is only a statement of what trump suit in which I think my partner and I could take a specified number of tricks. But if both partners know the codes, bids can convey or request a universe of other information about what's in their hands. If only one partner knows the codes, bids can lead to fiascos and dirty looks across the table.

Advice from the bridge master based on a code rule I don't know sometimes helps me win a hand. But I have no way to internalize the rules he plucks from nowhere. And it's clear from listening to him that even if you know all the codes by heart, there's more art than science in choosing the one to follow in a given situation.

Thinking that only more experience than one weekly session will help, I downloaded an app called bridgebaseonline and began playing with a trio of robots. They don't glare at me when I screw up, but it's still humiliating to realize from their bids that they and I are not playing the same game.

I have taken to hitting the "redeal" button repeatedly until I get a hand that only an idiot could fail to win.

I still often lose anyway. Worse yet, I'm afraid my bad habit will spoil me for actual bridge if I ever work up the courage to explore the app features that would let me share a virtual "table" with real people.

Anyone for Candyland?


  1. I loved the idea of bridge if not the conventions which I ever learned. I always had a plan: get a good hand and then pass to my partner so I could be dummy! I delighted in preparing the snacks and adult beverages and taking a quick dip I the pool( if one was handy)! Once, I won a 6Diamond hand, had to pay and mercifully
    won. If not I may be alone at this age of my those days my 10 year old son played galaxies 'round his mother.

    This took me quickly down memory lane!

  2. Nancilynn must have read my manual on bridge, for her approach was my strategy, too. How much fun it is to lay down one's hand and relax while your partner does the heavy lifting of actually trying to win the thing!