How bridge became cool

The world's most sophisticated and subtle card game has got a serious image problem. While poker conjures up notions of fast cars, loose women and all-nighters in Vegas, bridge is more likely to suggest cucumber sandwiches, blue rinses and afternoon naps. That's why Maureen Hiron, The Independent's in-house expert, set out to create a faster, funkier version that would bring younger players flocking to the green baize. Novice Ed Caesar tries his hand
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The Independent Online

Two years ago, Maureen Hiron -The Independent's bridge correspondent - was playing a weeknight club game with her expat friends in Marbella when there was a break in play. Table seven had been asked to speed up a little. The instruction, quite literally, fell on deaf ears. That night, table seven consisted of a 98-year-old golfing Canadian called Sidney Matthews; Edith Gross, 95, a former ballerina who once danced for Adolf Hitler; Lilian Matthews, a Spanish international bridge player, 90; and 90-year-old Lorenzo Runeberg, a Finnish international known as "Ruthless Runie". They had a combined age of 373.

For Hiron, a British international herself, there couldn't have been a clearer example of the way bridge is becoming a dangerously old game. She is not the only one to make this observation. Ever since poker took off in Britain in the last decade, bridge has been fighting an uphill battle. Although, worldwide, 200 million people play bridge, it is an increasingly ageing constituency. And in Britain, despite signs in the Nineties that the game was bursting with life, there are now fewer than 30,000 members of the English Bridge Union, the game's governing body. The average age of EBU members is 55 (for the American Contract Bridge League that figure is over 60).

Who cares, one might ask. But for bridge's legion of ageing players, both in Britain and abroad, the game is worth saving, not merely because of its heritage, but because it forms a rich part of their social existence. For its most fervent acolytes - for whom it's the highlight of a week, or mental stimulation at the end of the day - life without it would not be worth living.

So where has the game gone wrong? Compared to Texas hold 'em poker, currently the world's most popular card game, one can understand why the brash American has ruled the felt these past few years. You can learn hold 'em in minutes. Bridge takes weeks. You win money in hold 'em. In bridge, you score points. The objective of a game of poker is the destruction of your opponents' wealth, often by deceit, and the accumulation of your own. In bridge, the goal is a particularly English idea - the duty to make good your "contract" - or prediction - of how many tricks you can win in that round.

Bridge has an image problem. While hold 'em conjures up hard-bitten men, scantily clad women, and long nights in Las Vegas, bridge evokes cucumber sandwiches, dank afternoons in village halls, and sharp words between bitter octogenarians. In hold 'em, you need balls. In bridge, you are more likely to have a dicky prostate.

Hiron wants to change all that. So she has created a game called Abridged, a simplified version of bridge that gets rid altogether of bidding - the most complex part of the game. To make matters even simpler, the game has colours, not suits. Face cards have been replaced by the numbers 11, 12, 13 and 14. Abridged has already been a huge hit in America, where, after an initial sell-out run, a further 50,000 games are about to hit the shops. Can it do the same in Britain?

"I can see what's happening in bridge," says Hiron. "Because it's become so complex, because the learning curve has become so huge, people have been put off by it. It's only natural. Bridge is a living, breathing game, and it has developed. That's fine for committed players, but it means that to learn the game can be eternal for some people. What I've done is to get rid of the most complicated part of the game, so people can start playing in 20 minutes."

***

Emboldened by Hiron's enthusiasm, some friends and I gather in a basement flat in Kentish Town, north-west London, to get the measure of Abridged. Our Abridged party - two journalists, a PR man and a barrister - are all complete bridge novices. Nevertheless, the point of Hiron's game is that it's for everybody. How hard could it be?

Quite hard, apparently. aBRIDGEd isn't complicated in the way that bridge is complicated. With its primary-coloured cards and numbers instead of face cards, the game looks kindergarten obvious. But there's still a "contract" of sorts to arrive at - by counting pips on the cards - and the scoring takes a little while to get right. The biggest problem I have with the game is that it is almost, but not quite, like a traditional card game. I can't help but translate a 13 of Green, say, into a king of some suit or other.

Still, the evening flies by. It's a crushing victory for the barrister and I, and although the PR man admits that: "I always thought I would ask someone to shoot me if they ever caught me playing bridge," he quite enjoys it, too. The game still doesn't ooze raw excitement, but it's certainly easy to play, and one can see why it's taken off in the US. But what do the bridge hierarchy, a notoriously conservative bunch, think about this potential revolution? And is their beloved game really in so parlous a state?

"First of all, I think Abridged looks like a fascinating game," says Peter Stocken, chairman of the EBU. "But whether it will take off in Britain is another matter. The history of bridge is littered with the remains of previous attempts to variegate the basic game [the seldom-played mini-bridge being one of them]. The basic game has always prevailed. However, the EBU, in its present mood, which is for change, change and more change, will give its support to anything that promotes an interest in bridge.

"There's absolutely no reason why the average age of bridge players should be going up. It's entirely our own fault for not coming to grips earlier with what we should have been doing. We've come to realise that bridge needs a change of culture, and what we need to do is to create happy, friendly clubs where you can get a good game. One of the blights of bridge in the past, for instance, has been the bad behaviour of some. God knows, I was guilty of it in my youth. It's normally partners getting at each other, and it's incredibly off-putting."

Stocken suggests that to see what the face of modern bridge looks like - away from the crumbly, back-biting stereotype - I should visit Andrew Robson's Bridge Club in Fulham. Robson, one of Britain's finest bridge players, and also one of its most vocal enthusiasts, has been running his club in Parsons Green for 11 years now. He has also agreed to teach this bridge novice a few things about how to play the game properly.

Robson's club is bright and welcoming, chock full of green felt and fast-emptying wine glasses. Although, on a cold Wednesday night, you could hardly describe the 140 or so who pass through Robson's door as hip, few look in need of hip replacements. Paintings priced at £500 hang on the walls, waiting for an idle purchaser - which, given the understated affluence of the crowd who are in tonight - does not seem too ambitious. And, in the week six beginners' class Robson has optimistically enrolled me in, the average age is somewhere in the mid-thirties.

Robson, 6ft 7in in his unseasonal sandals, and garishly clothed in mauve and red, speaks. This man, a bridge genius, has an Intel Pentium processor between his ears. The rest of us are working with abacuses. Things, he realises, need to be explained slowly - especially bidding, which his class are learning tonight. It is the very area of the game that Hiron believes is hampering development.

Bidding is the process in bridge by which you and your partner (sitting opposite each other, playing together) arrive at a "contract" of tricks you think you can win in any particular round. The aim of bridge is to make, or exceed, your pair's contract, so getting the bid right is crucial. But, here's the rub, you cannot see your partner's hand, and the only way you can tell the combined strength of your cards is by the way he or she bids. What makes bridge so instantly, hypnotically interesting, is that each separate bid, or sequence of bids, means, or should mean something to your partner - like passing a cryptic billet-doux only you two fully understand.

Learning this new language, I discover, is a little like learning Russian - not only new words, but a new alphabet. One has to learn about scoring one's own cards - four for an ace, three for a king, two for a queen, one for a jack - and knowing whether one's 13-card hand is "balanced" (equal-ish cards for each suit) or "unbalanced". One has to know, also, what to do with that knowledge. If, for instance, one has 12-14 points in a balanced hand, the best opening bid is "one no-trump". That means that you and your partner must win one, plus a mandatory six (seven in all) out of the 13 tricks to prevail, in a game where every suit is equally powerful.

Tonight, Robson dishes out half a dozen of these nuggets - individually comprehensible, collectively brain-melting - so that by the time our table gets to play a real game, our heads are spinning. Still, we play, and have a half-decent game. Opposite me, Miriam, a schoolteacher in her late twenties, is already well-versed in bridge nuance. I feel confident with her, and, although our understanding is far from telepathic, we basically make decent calls. To my left and right (or East and West), are Rosie, a pharmaceutical saleswoman, and Barbara, an estate agent, both in their forties. They seem less confident.

As a group we muddle through together, albeit with occasional insertions by Robson. In times of utter confusion, our lofty guru leads us in catechism: "How do we respond to a one no-trump opener if we cannot make game, and have a five-card suit," he chimes. "Bid with two of that suit," we reply, in unison. "Very good," says Robson, beaming.

With Robson's help, Miriam and I prevail. It's a great feeling - not just the winning, although that is pleasant, but the sensation of mastering, at however shallow a level, this complicated game. Not an unkind word has been spoken - we are all equally incompetent, after all - and some form of incremental progress has been achieved. After our lesson (and my triumph), Robson offers some clues to his club's success.

"I think we're unique in teaching from-scratch bridge," he says. "So we specialise in teaching the game, making it simple and fun, and for the club to be a social place to hang out. Bridge is complicated - it does take a time commitment to learn it - but the learning part is actually fun. And once you're over that hurdle, you can play socially forever."

What does Robson think, then, about abbreviated forms of the game, such as Hiron's Abridged. "I haven't seen the details of Maureen's game," says Robson, "but I've always been of the opinion that those [games] only work up to a point. People want to play bridge. That's what their friends play, that's what they're going to be invited round to someone's house to play. Although Abridged might be a perfect way to get children involved with the game, I think, personally, that [for adults] to play less than bridge is to miss out."

Robson would say that - he has, after all, a thriving business teaching people to play bridge - but perhaps he's right. His club is not in the least bit daunting, not at all exclusive. One of the reasons for the conviviality is Robson's "zero-tolerance" policy on rudeness.

"You have to set high standards," says Robson. "I warn people once about their behaviour, and if they won't change, I'm afraid they're not welcome at the club. The members appreciate that. They can rely upon the fact that no one is going to make them look silly, whatever their level of bridge."

Learning in this environment would be easy. But Robson's club, he admits, is atypical. When I tell him I am going to be visiting the Highgate Bridge Club the following day, to see what Stocken calls "a traditional club", he emits a low chuckle.

"Well, that will be... different," he says. "It will be much older, much more serious, much more die-hard. In its own way, it will be much more exclusive."

***

On a crisp, freezing day, outside a scout hall on Sheldon Avenue, Highgate, 50 or so elderly north Londoners are babbling away to each other about the price of cashmere, and filtering into the tropical, 10-radiator room. People carry cushions - "my back, dear" - and fuss about late arrivals. One glamorously coiffured octogenarian drops her score sheet. "We'll have to do without," she laughs, "I can't bend down." Her friend asks if she can turn the heat up. The average age cannot be below 70. The temperature must be over 100.

It's duplicate bridge afternoon at the Highgate club, where 13 North-South and East-West teams compete against each other to attain the highest score at the end of the afternoon. A full complement of 13 tables has turned up. Before the bridge starts, the bridgers cause riotous levels of noise as they gossip. That is until a mediating tap on the microphone from Saul Rafalowitz, the president of the club and two-time winner of the Highgate Bridge Club Duplicate Pairs Saul Rafalowitz Cup.

"Would everyone please be quiet. Sshh, now," says Rafalowitz. "I have an announcement. The Christmas party has limited spaces."

"Are we having a party?" one old girl asks her partner, after cleaning out her ear.

"Please book early so you're not disappointed," continues Rafalowitz.

"Make an appointment?" asks the same pensioner.

"Organised chaos," chuckles Marian Harrison, the club's chairman.

When the bridge starts, punctuated as it is by frequent calls from Rafalowitz for "quiet, please, ssshh!" it seems friendly enough. Although the atmosphere is not quite as hands-across-the-water as at Robson's club, it's not razor-edged either. True, there is the odd sharp call of: "Oh, please wake up - you're driving me crazy," [to be fair, her partner had just fallen asleep for the second time] and acid-tinged questions such as: "But, why on earth did you lead with the queen?"

No one at Highgate is particularly interested in Abridged. Why would they be? They have the real thing, and they have been playing it for years. It has made them part of a club - not just the physical premises in Highgate, but a community of bridge-players - that gives them invaluable time with similar people, and mental stimulation. And, in that sense, Robson is right: old-fashioned clubs can feel exclusionary. What's more, it is the mainstay of their appeal.

***

When Hiron conceived Abridged, she knew she wasn't targeting the likes of Highgate Bridge Club. What she wanted were young players. It is a project that has already been welcomed by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett - themselves million-dollar investors in youth bridge schemes - and by the American Contract Bridge League.

"When I used to run a school bridge league in London, it used to cater for 100 schools," says Hiron. "Now there are six. What we have to say is that if young people aren't playing the game, it's our fault. We've made the game too hard."

But just as Abridged will reach an audience traditional bridge cannot, one can't help thinking that people will always want the genuine article. At a time when, every day, our world is rendered more "accessible" - more facile - there has to be a place for a game that resists easy interpretation. For something that makes your brain whirr. I've had two days of bridge and I'm hooked. It's addictive in its complexity, begging you to master it. Still, if Abridged can be a staging post to bridge, and also the road to an enjoyable evening in itself, it will have served its purpose.

"Bridge is by far the best game ever invented," says Robson. "It can take a while to get it, and to jump those first few hurdles. But it lasts a lifetime."

Bridge vs 'Abridged': how the rules compare

Bridge, sometimes known as contract bridge, is a trick-taking card game played by four players, who form two partnerships. The game consists of two phases: bidding and play. In the first phase, the two partnerships bid against each other to form a "contract", or number of tricks they intend to win, in the following hand. The declaration comes with a designation of preferred trump by the bidding team - hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades or no-trump (when all suits are equally powerful).

After the contract has been made, the "hand" or "deal" is played. The goal of any single deal is to win the most tricks with your given cards. At the end of the hand, points are then awarded if the partnership that made the contract achieved their stated number of tricks, with extra points awarded for any tricks superseding that contract.

How 'Abridged' differs

Instead of using a conventional pack of cards, there is a special Abridged pack: consisting of red, green, yellow and blue "suits". There are also no face cards in an Abridged pack - the ace, king, queen and jack have been replaced by 14, 13, 12 and 11. Each of those replaced cards also has a number of "pips" on it - four for 14, one for 11 - so that players can calculate their own hand's strength.

The major difference between bridge and Abridged comes at the first stage. In Abridged, there is no bidding. The contract is calculated by a different method. Players go round the table, first stating their hand strength, and then stating their colour strength (how many of the most numerous colour you are holding). The team with the highest number of points immediately becomes the declaring team, and must estimate how many tricks he thinks his partnership can win. A contract has been arrived at, and play can start.

Where to play

Andrew Robson Bridge Club, 31 Parsons Green Lane, London SW6 4HH; 020-7471 4626

Highgate Bridge Club, Scout HQ, Sheldon Avenue, London N6 4ND; 020-8348 3054

Pirates Bridge Club, Penzance & Newlyn RFC, Westholme, Alexandra Road, Penzance, TR18 4LY; 01736 361 104

Harrogate Bridge Club, 27 Roberts Street, Harrogate, HG1 1HP; 01423 330 578

Alpha Bridge Club, Newlands Spring Community Centre, Newlands Spring, Chelmsford; 01245 456 785

Knutsford Duplicate Bridge Club, Marthal Village Hall, Knutsford, Cheshire; 01625 584 437

For more bridge clubs and organisations, go to English Bridge Union's website www.ebu.co.uk

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