Almanac

Community - March 2, 2011

Bridge (the card game) is back, big-time

Local clamor for games and coaches.

by Kate Daly

Once considered an older person's game, bridge appears to be gaining popularity in the area among some younger players who are drawn to it for both social and competitive reasons, and then become hooked.

Kathy Harper of Woodside says she has had to turn down customers because she is so busy between teaching her larger classes at several local clubs and smaller group lessons at private homes.

"Every day I get another e-mail from someone interested in taking lessons," she says. The problem is few vacancies. "I don't lose many people because there's so much to learn; it's infinite."

Ms. Harper has been teaching bridge for 11 years. She's an American Bridge Teacher Association Master Teacher and Gold Life Master with almost 300 students, the bulk of whom attend her beginners' classes at the Palo Alto Bridge Center (which is actually in Mountain View).

She says in recent months the membership has grown there by almost 8 percent to 900. The center has 35 tables set up for foursomes, and offers classes, lectures and/or tournament play every day.

"I've noticed people in their 60s and 70s, but I'm getting a lot more students in their 50s and 40s, and even getting a few young men around 26 and 27," Ms. Harper says.

Why the increase in interest? "It's like a perfect storm of baby boomers with disposable income, and all these studies about the benefits of mental stimulation from card games and crossword puzzles," she explains.

It's also the fun factor.

"Four beginners can sit down at a table and have as much fun as four world champions," she says. And there's the built-in challenge. "The game has so many levels ... even world champions make about three mistakes out of every 26 hands."

One of her students for the past five years is Dana Bisconti of Atherton. With three kids in eighth grade and under, Ms. Bisconti says she has "a very supportive husband" who plays bridge with her occasionally. Every other week she also takes lessons with another instructor, Cameron Cotton, who teaches at several local clubs. On the off weeks, she practices with both of her bridge groups.

Ms. Bisconti estimates that, including the time she plays online with her friends on BridgeBase.com, she plays about six hours a week.

"I have an app on my iPhone I play when I'm sitting in a carpool line (to pick up kids at school). It's very addictive," she says.

Twice a year she goes away with a group of 11 friends to a cabin or a resort to play bridge for a few days. "We value our girl time. ... We're all in our 40s with school-age kids and it's a way for us to spend time with friends. I enjoy the social aspect. We're all concerned about our brains, and it's a good thing as we head into menopause," she says.

She is helping run the Menlo Bridge Tournament — not to be confused with Menlo Country Club's bridge tournament, an ongoing match between members that organizers say has just tripled in popularity.

The Menlo Bridge Tournament serves as a fundraiser for Menlo School, bringing in about $5,500 annually. Currently, 74 participants are paying $75 each to play four rubber bridge matches among themselves. In May they will come together to play in a one large tournament.

"We've got more people this year, about 10 percent more with some new additions," Ms. Bisconti says. "They are younger because I'm on the younger side and we recruited a number of friends we wanted to play."

Menlo parent Vinita Gupta plays bridge on a regular basis but prefers to go to the Palo Alto Bridge Center for her practice. "It's not a social game. You're really honing your skills to play in tournaments and get masterpoints. It gets your competitive juices flowing."

Ms. Gupta retired five years ago, and has been playing "serious bridge" for two years now. She competes at least once a week, often playing with pros as partners. Once a week she takes a lesson with her partner, Ed Barlow, a Grand Life Master in his 70s with a national championship title on his resume.

"It's a lot of fun for me because I feel like I'm making improvements," Ms. Gupta says. Before she arrives at the center, she spends at least an hour studying cards "to get into the mindset." Then they will play 26 or 27 hands in three and a half hours, and afterward have a debriefing session.

Christy Kamra of Woodside also plays with her teachers regularly, but online. An empty nester for the past year and a half, she started playing bridge some four years ago. Now she figures she plays bridge about two hours every day, mostly online on Okbridge.com or BridgeBase.com. She particularly likes to play $1 games of 12 hands in 60-minute tournaments called Speedball.

"I have made a lot of new friends around the world," she says. "When I check in on Bridge Base my friends know I'm on and ask, 'Do you want to play?'" She can play with them, practice with a robot, or opt to play with her own partners.

She has two teachers online. One is a woman in her 80s who charges by the hour to play, then afterward calls with a critique. The other teacher prefers to write up his notes in e-mails.

Ms. Kamra says she likes to play in tournaments online because as she racks up masterpoints, "it's a way to keep track of how you're progressing. You're rated compared to others and it's competitive. I just enjoy it."

Go to paloaltobridge.com for more information. The Palo Alto Bridge Center is actually located in Mountain View, at 2639A Terminal Blvd.

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