Lonely hearts let bridge do the trick
Once the preserve of ladies of a certain age the game is now the passion of a bevy of celebrities and the leisure activity of those seeking romance.
Take Abbey Walker, aged 23. It's Friday night and she is preparing to go out. After a busy week listening to distressing stories from people who have been mis-sold pensions, she is ready for a few drinks and an evening unwinding with friends. But Ms Walker will not be spending her evening in a pub, followed by a couple of hours in a nightclub.
She is one of a growing number of young professionals who regard clubs where the fiendishly complicated (to the uninitiated) game is played as upmarket dating agencies.
Indeed, as the manager of one London club put it last week: "We've had two marriages, several engagements and loads of dating."
Andrew Robson, who writes a weekly bridge column for the Spectator and runs a club in Fulham, west London, said a large proportion of his 2,000 members were in their 20s and 30s.
"We have reached this membership without any advertising at all - people just come along. I teach a beginners' class and at 35 I am one of the oldest people there," he said.
"There is no doubt that bridge has become a very young, trendy game. It's marvellous because you have to use your brain but there is also a strong social aspect to it.
"Young people are sick of going to parties and talking about `so what do you do?'. They're bored and they want to use their brains and meet people with common interests."
Mr Robson teaches a fairly straightforward game of bidding and play. It is a good introduction to duplicate bridge, which is played at competition level. Twice a week, the club organises dinner parties and "blends" people of similar abilities for a rubber or two afterwards. "There's a lot of dating as a result of that," he said.
The game, which involves bidding on how many "tricks" a pair will win, is also gaining a growing celebrity following. As well as Blur and Radiohead, Jeremy Paxman (doubtless a fearsome opponent), Stephen Fry, Clive Anderson and pop singer Errol Brown, of Hot Chocolate, are all avid players.
Errol Brown has been playing with his wife, Ginette, for the past 10 years. "It is a very challenging game and you have to use your mind, which is why we like it," he said, although he admitted that he and Mrs Brown do not partner each other because it is such a competitive game and rows can ensue.
Such is the burgeoning popularity of bridge that the English Bridge Union, which has 1,000 affiliated clubs, is lobbying for it to become an Olympic sport - it will be a demonstration sport at the 2002 Winter Games.
Ann Mayhew, an EBU spokeswoman, said: "We do have very good players in this country but because it is not recognised we do not get any funding and have to rely on sponsorship. It is taught in some schools here but in China it is part of the national curriculum because they say it teaches logic and social skills."
And social skills, it would seem, is what bridge in the Nineties is all about. Paul and Alex Fernhead met through the Oxford Bridge Club. "When we first met we didn't play together but then we started playing on the same team and it went on from there," Paul said.
Mike Burtt, a bridge teacher at the Manchester Bridge Club, also met his wife through bridge and said it was the perfect way to meet a prospective partner.
"It is a game where aggression normally pays off but you can very quickly tell if someone is over-aggressive or too timid and how they react under pressure. Once you have played with someone for a couple of weeks you will know everything you need to know about them.
"About 90 per cent of people who meet through bridge stay together - and you don't even have to pay dating agency fees. If you don't like your current partner, you simply find another one."
Damon Albarn and Alex James of Blur
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