Now, Patty Tucker tells her students, remember that you can make a frump frimmage if the langoustine declares yowza and it’s a month with an “r” in it.
OK, she didn’t say that. But for somebody who knows not Thing 1 about bridge, what she said sure sounded like something Lewis Carroll would’ve coined if he had played Mad Libs on an exceptionally boring car trip.
Tucker is a bridge instructor who used lots of odd-sounding words during “Learn Bridge in a Day?” — yes, the question mark is part of the title — a six-hour class she and Melissa Bernhardt taught last weekend in conjunction with the North American Bridge Championships at the Westgate Las Vegas.
Funny thing, though: By the session’s third hour, even the words Tucker was using in the oddest contexts — trump, trick, singleton — began to make at least a smidgen of sense.
For baby boomers, bridge is known mostly as what Rob and Laura played when they invited the Helpers over from next door (See: “The Dick Van Dyke Show”). For baby boomers’ kids, who grew up in an age of electronic and digital games, bridge is as alien as one of those weird Victorian parlor games you see in black-and-white British movies.
Even as poker — bridge’s rowdier distant family member — reveled in a fairly recent period of cool, bridge pretty much lost whatever pop culture profile it had to anybody other than the people who played it.
Bryan Delfs, education program manager for the American Contract Bridge League, which hosted the 10-day-long championships here, says that given league membership and participation in organized events, the number of bridge players in the U.S. has grown during the past decade or two.
But, Delfs adds, the number of American bridge players isn’t as high as it was 30 or 40 years ago. Tucker fears that’s a sign that bridge has essentially skipped a generation of potential young players, as board games and family card games gave way to computers, cable TV and other less social electronic entertainments.
“I learned bridge when I was 11, and we’re talking the mid-’60s,” she says. “My family and I grew up playing games and cards. That was our entertainment. We had people over. We played every card game you could think of, every board game you could think of.”
On the upside, Delfs thinks bridge is poised for a popularity upswing as retiring boomers seek new hobbies and new opportunities to socialize with others. Today’s bridge newbies, he says, include empty nesters who are looking for more to do.
“A lot of them learned bridge back before they had families and were married,” Delfs said, “so it’s sort of back to a hobby they loved and enjoyed but didn’t necessarily have time for while raising a family.”
Delfs says the best way to learn bridge is to play bridge. Tucker agrees, and that’s what “Learn Bridge in a Day?” is about.
As the class begins, students take seats around card tables set up in a conference room. Along with four student players, each table is assigned a volunteer teacher/mentor who will assist as newcomers translate the concepts Tucker and Bernhardt — both of whom are Atlanta-based bridge teachers — outline onscreen into tabletop reality.
Tucker, who has offered the class since 2010, says she and Bernhardt are both very much interested in the survival of bridge and getting new players in.
One significant obstacle to that, she continues, is that bridge is “the only game that you can’t learn to play in an hour.”
“Chess is hard, and it’s compared to bridge all the time, and you can learn the basics of chess and sit down to play chess in 20 minutes,” she says. “Now, chess players wouldn’t consider it chess, but you can learn the basics of play. You can’t learn the basics of bridge in 20 minutes or 30 minutes or an hour.”
So, the class distills a beginner’s course in bridge into about five hours of instruction and an hour of free play. Students learn about the history of bridge — Cool fact: Befitting a game in which partners use code to convey information about their hands to each other, spies were among the game’s early adopters — game play basics and strategies beginners can use in various bidding situations.
By design, the class isn’t heavy on the complicated logic that can form the basis of bridge strategies. But, Tucker says, by the end of the class, students can sit down and play.
“They won’t play it well, but they can play it,” Tucker says. “That’s our goal.”
Students range in age from preteen to retiree and are divided up about evenly between men and women. As Hour 1 concludes, most people seem to be getting it. By the end of Hour 2, a few quizzical expressions can be seen. By Hour 3, it’s beginning to feel like chemistry class at midsemester (lots of formulas and nobody said there’d be math).
But students seem to be getting it. More importantly, they even seem to be having fun.
There are in-jokes.
“As my husband says about slam bids, the air is thin up there,” Bernhardt says, eliciting laughs.
There are koanlike kernels of philosophy.
“Bidding,” Bernhardt says, “is a conversation.”
There are uncommon uses for common words.
“I’m the dummy. I’m laying down this card,” says one young player, meaning nothing remotely close to what the sentence seems to convey.
Above all, there’s the sense of many previously reluctant toes being dipped into waters of a game that, should students choose to pursue it, will offer a lifetime of enjoyment and challenge.
Patty Gatens of Las Vegas likes card games and plays pinochle. But she’s never played bridge, and came here at the urging of a friend who, she notes, didn’t show up.
But Gatens stayed anyway. She was grateful the class included volunteer mentors at each table.
“It’s nice to have the help around the table, because it’s like you’re missing little things and you’re kind of lost,” she says.
Las Vegan Nicole McAllister was sitting across from her son and bridge partner Timothy, 12.
“I’m a complete novice,” she says, while Timothy “has some experience, but not much.”
Why are they here? “My husband is an expert player,” she explains. “I would like to understand what’s going on during dinnertime conversation.”
Timothy was enjoying the lesson, too.
“You can’t just put down cards,” he says. “You have to think about what the cards mean and work with your partner even though you can’t say anything.”
The Kiowski family of Las Vegas shared a nearby table. Dad Keith has never played, mom Danielle has played a bit, and daughter Isabel was just learning.
“I enjoy it because it’s a thinking game,” Keith says. “It requires strategy and, as with any other card game, just some dumb luck. But it’s equally nice to not just have a card dealt to you and that’s all you have to deal with.”
Bridge turns out to be a more social game than the games Isabel, 17, is used to playing.
Isabel says she could see playing bridge with her parents. But, she adds, “I don’t know if I’d necessarily be able to find a partner all the time. I don’t work well with others.”
Mom and Dad laugh.
“She’s very independent,” Keith says.
Tucker says teens who already are adept at video games requiring logic, evaluating options and choosing among competing strategies adapt well to bridge and enjoy the game’s challenges.
Another great thing about bridge, Tucker says, is that everybody plays.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are or how bad you are. Everybody plays,” she says. “And there are no socioeconomic boundaries, no cultural boundaries. Everybody can play. All you need is a deck of cards and four people. You don’t even have to have a table.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.