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The Dangerous World of the Novice Bridge Player

You Magazine, 21 Jul 2021

Forget the travails of a budding chess player in The Queen’s Gambit, the lot of a novice bridge player is way more fraught. I cast my mind back to the time a relative suggested I should consider bridge lessons. I was working full-time as the mother of two lively young boys. “It’ll be great for when you’re a widow,” said my relative - a dubious selling point. My husband was thankfully in rude health and I hoped such a day was in the neverland of the future. Further exhortations continued with comments like “you’d really love it”, “there’s lots of young people there,” followed by, “it’s very sociable, you know.” And so I started lessons in a local, well-respected club.


Akin to Dougal and Buckaroo in Father Ted, my card-playing stretched to playing Patience, Rummy and Beggar My Neighbour. Hardly the sport of kings. Other novices in those early lessons looked at me pityingly when I confessed that, no, I’d never played Whist or Forty-Five, as many of them had. 


But I was stubborn, and throughout the weeks as the numbers dwindled, I, my playing partner, and two more friends stayed the course. We learned the basics of balanced hands, bidding and making contracts. We learned the language of voids, singletons, and doubletons. The atmosphere in that upstairs room of the club was relaxed, the teacher showing vast amounts of patience away from the intensity and silo-concentration of serious players downstairs.


As lessons drew to a close, our teacher suggested we brave the Monday night, ‘below stairs’ game. This was where the newly initiated began. Thursday nights were the domain of long-standing players and not for the faint-of-heart.


On these Monday nights, playing for real, I came to understand why there were few young people – coming in from work, getting children organised, and pitching up in a vaguely presentable fashion for 7.30 was quite a feat. At the end of the night my head would buzz with the hands I’d played, and all the mistakes I had made.


I rashly agreed to play with another partner and move onto the hallowed Thursday night. There was a new dimension to these games, an edginess I hadn’t encountered before. Even among long-standing pairs, a player might barely conceal irritation with a partner who’d missed a trick. There was no chat, no murmurings, just high-octane focus.


Our opponents regularly upped the stakes and ‘doubled’, in an effort to make points if we didn’t make the contract bid. Often, they were male players who also played poker. And then there’d be the mortification of having to call the director to sort out penalties when we reneged. 


It seemed to me that there was an abundance of retired school teachers in this cohort of players. Some, long-retired, I imagined. One rainy Thursday, players darted into the club from the carpark outside, raincoats sodden, umbrellas in hand. The room smelled of wet coats as we opened play. I’d like to say that I wasn’t on my A-game this particular night but the truth was I was trying as hard as I could. The problem was I was taking far too long in my play. I could sense the rolling eyes, and hear the not-so-quiet sighs. “You play very like Mrs. Hogan,” one lady ventured. (I’ve changed her name to save her the embarrassment of being twinned with a novice). A pause ensued to be followed with, “She was hellish slow as well.” I took it on the chin and resolved never to speak to a newbie like that should I ever become accomplished.


That match over, my partner and I moved onto the next table where we encountered a stiff-haired lady with a notoriously short-temper, wearing a tweed suit and screamingly sensible shoes. My efforts at speedier play were not successful here either. Soon, I could hear the lady’s feet scuff the floor in irritation. “For God’s sake, would you ever hurry up?” she exploded. I don’t know what possessed me, but I answered back just as loudly. “There’s no need to be so rude,” I said. “I’m a novice as I’m sure you were once.” I finished with, “You’re not in the classroom now, you know.” I’d no idea if indeed the woman had even been a teacher, but judging from her reaction, I guessed she had.


Eyes bulging, she leaned down, grabbed the umbrella at her side, knocked over a chair, raised the umbrella and made to hit me with it. I got to my feet and had to run as she chased me through an aisle of tables. The other players looked up, startled. I escaped into the corridor outside with my assailant in hot pursuit. Her language was entirely unbecoming of a bridge player, as she hurled out expletives.


As one of the directors tried to restrain her, the other tried to disarm her. Dusting myself off, it occurred to me that this lady might have been better off sticking to the game of Patience – a thought I kept to myself. As for me, I’m happy to say that I went on to have many less violent nights playing bridge – a game I hope to go back to very soon.

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