published Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Bridging age gap: Once-popular card game seeks young players but is not finding them locally

Allison King studies her cards Monday at the Bridge Center.
Allison King studies her cards Monday at the Bridge Center.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

SCHOOL TEACHES BRIDGE TO STUDENTS

The Blue Aces Bridge Club for youth at Lamplighter Montessori School in Cordova, Tenn., is one of dozens of schools nationwide that offers bridge clubs for elementary and middle school students. The club -- the only such bridge club in Tennessee -- has seven members, says Elise Rodriguez, school librarian and club moderator.

It was created in 2007 after the founding of School Bridge League that was largely funded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Since then, additional youth bridge organizations, most notably youth4bridge.org, managed by the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL), was founded.

"The ACBL has made a phenomenal commitment to young people playing bridge and covers their 'playing fees' at all national tournaments," Rodriguez says. "The youth games are for students 19 years and younger. Currently, our student players are 8-13 years old."

And they love the game, she says.

"It is quite the phenomenon to observe young people coaching each other on opening hands, responding bids and more," says Rodriguez, whose son is a member of the team. "We play weekly during the school year."

Families are involved, as well, including a grandmother who volunteers weekly as a coach and player. Parents volunteer as chaperones at tournaments and some families have learned to play bridge.

  • photo
    Tom Tomisek, Winnell Goodner, Jody Solis and Dwight Pease, from left, play a hand of bridge at the Bridge Center.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

For Lynn Chapman, playing bridge for 45 years has turned the card game into much more than entertainment. It's a lifestyle.

"We have shared so much over the bridge table -- having babies, raising those babies and now grandbabies," she says. "We've solved the world's problems, kept up with the happenings at schools, churches, etc. We've been through marriages, divorces, losing our parents and even one of our own members."

While her monthly bridge game began when its eight players lived in the same neighborhood, folks have moved to new homes during the decades since they began. Yet the game didn't falter.

"Over the years we have relocated but have stayed together," she says.

A staple of living room get-togethers nationwide in the 1950s and '60s -- along with cigarettes and martinis -- bridge is a complicated game that encourages logic, sequencing, probability and memory. So it's no shock that billionaire business magnates Bill Gates and Warren Buffett enjoy playing.

Bridge is a mutation of the card game Whist, played widely in the 18th and 19th centuries and so popular, it's mentioned by writers such as Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen in their novels and short stories. In the 1890s, a variant called Bridge Whist was created and that eventually became Contract Bridge, a version of bridge still being played. There are many other versions, including rubber and duplicate bridge.

But the age-old game is suffering from the symptoms of its old age.

"I'm afraid it's a dying game," Chapman says.

Young folks just aren't interested in it, so when current players -- many of whom are well over 50 years old -- are no longer playing, there's no one coming along to pick up the cards. In the Chattanooga area, younger players are rare, say local seasoned bridge enthusiasts.

"I think they have too many other challenges -- entertainment and social options," Chapman says.

Chattanoogan John Friedl, 68, says that, despite efforts by members of the local bridge club, the Bridge Center, to teach lessons to students at Chattanooga State Community College and the McCallie School, only a couple of students have shown up "one or two times" to play.

"It's hard to say why kids aren't playing bridge in the same numbers as my generation," says Friedl, a retired constitutional law professor at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "I learned from my dad, who played regularly (and) from a couple of aunts who played.

"I'd say today's teen generation is more into computer games, which didn't exist when I was young."

Because they want young people to keep bridge going, Gates and Buffett donated $1 million to help fund School Bridge League, a national nonprofit group started in 2006 to promote school-taught bridge for students in grades fourth through eighth, according to schoolbridgeleague.org.

"Gates and Buffett recognize that the mental skills developed at the bridge table are more valuable than the ability to navigate Super Mario through a maze with a joystick," Friedl says.

"What I like most about bridge is the mental stimulation and the challenge to continually improve," he says. "With bridge there is no such thing as perfection, so I'm constantly striving to be the best I can be, to learn from my mistakes, to improve my memory and focus my attention."

A 2005 study by Christopher Shaw, a retired business professor and bridge player, found that a group of bridge-playing fifth-grade students in Carlinville, Ill., made larger gains on standardized tests than their classmates.

"My intuition says bridge is a really good tool to develop critical thinking and inferential reasoning, plus it gives them a lifetime recreational skill," Shaw told the New York Times.

While dozens of schools across the country participate in School Bridge League, the website lists only one school in Tennessee -- Lamplighter Montessori School in Cordova -- as a member.

  • photo
    Teresa Moore gives a lesson before bridge games begin Monday at the Bridge Center.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Chapman, 60, of Chattanooga, started playing when she was a young teenager.

"I began playing ... when my parents would need an extra person to fill a table with their bridge group," says Chapman, regional director of field operations for Showhomes. "I thought it was a boring thing that old people did and remember thinking that, when I was grown, I wasn't going to spend time doing such a boring thing."

She changed her mind once she got to college.

"Everyone was learning to play bridge," she says. "I already knew the basics, so it became a great way to meet people. Later, as a military spouse stationed overseas, everyone played. When I moved to Chattanooga in 1980, my neighborhood had three bridge groups. I was so excited when I was asked to join one."

It's not the case today, she says, and she never sees young people playing bridge.

Friedl describes local interest as moderate.

"There are some areas where the bridge-playing population is quite a bit larger, but we do manage to draw enough interest to support about 20 to 25 games each month," he says.

Like Chapman, Friedl also began playing bridge in college, "then didn't play again for years until their kids were grown and they had more free time."

"I play because it is a great mental challenge and something I can continue to work at and improve," he says. "It's also something you can do at any level.

"I look forward to playing, particularly when I'm in a competitive high-level game," he says. "It involves a great deal of memory, but also keen analytical skills and a lot of subtle nuance. Since every deal is different, you can't just memorize a lot of rules."

  • photo
    Sue Riddle watches for Ray Templeton’s next move at the Bridge Center.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Ann Keown, of Chattanooga, who retired in 2006 as vice president of government programs at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, plays regularly to keep her mind active and healthy. The 71-year-old says she read that it's one of 20 activities that helps slow down the symptoms of Alzheimer's.

"I play two or three times a week," she says. "Bridge is a very intricate, exciting game because it's challenging to learn. One must learn the basics before they can play with much skill. At some time, the pieces begin to fit together which makes you more comfortable in playing. However, there are also setbacks that make you question if you are moving forward."

But even older players are learning new tricks, including technological ones.

Ann Dendy, an associate broker at Prudential Realty Center, has been playing for half a century in "The Bridge Club" in Rossville, Ga. Nine members, ages 69 to 90, are replaced when someone moves or dies, Dendy says.

Dendy, 77, who considers herself a good player, has recently begun playing online.

"I am totally addicted. I play almost every day" she says, explaining that it gives her the freedom to play at a whim.

"Once you friend an online player, you can search to find when they're playing," she says. "If one of those friends is online, I can find the table where they are playing and usually can get in a game with them."

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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