"He's gone," Josie sighs over the phone, rubbing her temples in mild exasperation. "No, I don't know any more, I'm afraid - that's it."
Behind the modest facade of a north London town house, the Acol Bridge Club seethes with conjecture. The club's long-standing managing director has resigned mysteriously and, despite a hastily written notice assuring us that all is well, the members are restless. Some approach Josie Clovis - the catering manager and the most senior member of staff available - with complicitous smiles, and others with more insistent appeals, but the energetic, dark-haired thirtysomething remains poker-faced: every bid for her confidence is parried with steely guile. Not a trick has been won and yet, lurking beneath the Acol's discreet sheen of respectability, the sinuous bluffs and covert machinations that bridge demands are already in evidence.
The English Bridge Union estimates that there are more than two million bridge devotees in the UK alone, either playing at home or in clubs such as the Acol which, along with the Ace of Clubs and the Young Chelsea, is among the biggest in London. The Acol takes its name from the road on which it was established, a net curtain's twitch from their present residence. In turn, the sexagenarian club lends its moniker to an internationally recognised system of the card game first thought to have been imported from the Middle East a century ago.
"I could go to any club in the world and say `I play Acol'," insists Josie, "and people would know what I was talking about." Word has it that Omar Sharif learnt to tell his "finesse" from his "suicide squeeze" at the club's green baize tables, but, despite the presence of a Rothschild on the daily score sheets, you're unlikely to find Harold Pinter, Charles Saatchi, Lady Antonia Fraser, Melvyn Bragg or any of the other self-confessed bridgerati under the club's fluorescent lights, this or any other evening.
Not that the faded charm of the Acol doesn't have an appealingly louche edge. "There's another side of bridge you've not asked me about," Josie whispers conspiratorially. "People play bridge for money every day here and I've seen people come in and lose hundreds in an afternoon." More vice would appear to be on the menu tonight. Concurrently running sessions of "Chicago" and "Supervised Rubber" suggest a speakeasy orgy of cardiganed S&M, even if the only partner-swapping visible takes place at the gaming tables, fully clothed.
For pounds 85, new players are given club membership and six two-hour introductory lessons, with two free rubbers supervised by a professional. After that they're free to blame as many partners as they want. Josie's outgoing presence may have dominated the Acol since 1994, but she took the game up only this year and, though she admits to being a natural card player, she insists that there is steep learning-curve. "Some first-timers who turn up don't even know the difference between the suits," she laughs. "And after six lessons they're hooked."
Proceed with caution, however. In graduating from the coached games to the more competitive sessions, you'll pay a heavy toll for proficiency in the pastime that the international bridge playboy Zia Mahmood called "almost as enjoyable as sex".
While the four participants under supervision settle into their rubber, happy to defer both to partners and to the avuncular wisdom of Jack the professional, the 60 men and women gathered by the bar in anticipation of "Chicago" exhibit the fidgety hands and furrowed brows of bridge junkies itching for their next hit. Furthermore, Josie remarks that "Chicago" pales beside the gung-ho antics of the "duplicate" nights when every pair competes against every other, playing with the same pre-dealt hands.
"That's when it's really competitive," she emphasises. "They're not allowed to speak during a hand and have to bid with a special board, so the first word out of their mouths as they finish a duplicate session is the last hand they bid on. I try to get them off the subject, but it's impossible."
The serious world of duplicate bridge - at its highest level - differs from sitting-room rubbers mostly in the complexity of the bidding systems. The Byzantine codes devised by the world's best pairs enable them covertly to communicate to one another the strength of their hands. Though only diluted versions of such codes trickle down to the clubs, the palpable tension of playing with a partner is common to players of any ability.
Wary of ending up bridge widows and widowers, wives and husbands will often join bridge clubs with their spouses, but, says Josie, relationships and bridge partnerships are best kept separate. "People often have a bridge partner who has nothing to do with them personally. If your husband, say, makes a mistake at the table, you're more likely to be rude to him. And the next thing you know, a couple storms out of the room, arguing all the way home about the hand."
Jack Newman, one of the Acol's various professionals, sees the demystification of bridge as one of his tasks. "I'm sure people have misconceptions about the game, but they probably just feel intimidated," he reflects, "and I'm here to put people at their ease." What's more, he claims, the bridge bug doesn't discriminate between victims. Whether socially, competitively or intellectually motivated, "a whole cross-section of society sits down to play bridge together".
And it's this inclusive attitude that's attracting more and more younger people to the Acol, pushing the average age of the members down to the mid-thirties, claims Josie. "It used to be a game for older people, people with time on their hands. But the young demand a different kind of service: a glass of wine or beer and a chat with their friends."
The thought of young, go-getting "achievers" annexing the Acol doesn't seem quite right. All evening, the tight-lipped enquiries about the fate of the Acol's ex-MD continue. The faint whiff of suburban intrigue is what seems to give bridge its irresistible charm, a thought confirmed by Josie's final disclosure. "I've seen someone come back and argue with a director over a hand she had three months ago," she declares. "This thing takes over your life."
The Acol Bridge Club and Academy, 86 West End Lane, London NW6 2LX (0171- 624 7407).