Bridge club’s popularity defies national trend

Members of the Columbus Bridge Club play during a recent meeting.
Members of the Columbus Bridge Club play during a recent meeting.

Despite national reports that other pastimes are trumping bridge, the card game still is winning tricks in Columbus.

The 60-year-old Chattahoochee Valley Duplicate Bridge Association’s membership is down from its peak of about 70 members in the 1970s, but the current total of approximately 55 players has stayed steady the past several years, members said.

The players range in age from their 50s to 90s. They gather three times per week, and they welcome newcomers, even beginners.

“We’re doing a little bit of teaching,” said club president Brenda Willis, 69. “As someone aptly put it, there is no Sylvan Learning Center for bridge. Getting new people in to accept the challenge is quite difficult. But curious people and people that will accept a challenge, we’re all for teaching them. It can be a self-taught game. You can learn it online or get different books. Then you need a partner to come and get the table experience.”

The local club is one of approximately 3,200 chapters affiliated with the American Contract Bridge League, comprising more than 167,000 members and supporting 1,100 tournaments. They annually combine to play an estimated 3.5 million tables in person and 1 million online, according to the ACBL website.

Contract bridge is distinguished from other forms of bridge by not allowing tricks in excess of the agreed upon number to count in the scoring. The three most popular forms of contract bridge, according to the ACBL, are:

▪  Rubber bridge, which also is called party bridge or social bridge. It is the most casual form, with the winner declared in a best-of-three format.

▪  Chicago bridge, a rubber bridge that limits the game to four deals.

▪  Duplicate bridge, which requires the same hands to be played at multiple tables, reducing the amount of luck in the game.

“You will learn more playing three sessions of duplicate bridge than you will in 30 years of playing rubber or party bridge,” said said Gary Stern, 73, a certified instructor. “You have the ability to compare, to see every hand and how they did that. ‘I made only two hearts and they made four. Why?’”

At 92, Fay Cannamela is the local club’s oldest member.

“My doctor told me not to quit playing,” she said. “It keeps the gray matter working.”

Indeed, bridge is considered among the activities that can keep folks mentally sharp. An article in the March 2015 issue of AARP Bulletin lists billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates among the estimated 25 million bridge players in the United States, with an average age of 71. The article cites a 2000 study at the University of California-Berkeley that found “strong evidence that an area in the brain used in playing bridge stimulates the immune system. Researchers suggest that is because players must use memory, visualization and sequencing.”

But poker, which boasts an estimated 80 million players in the United States, has surpassed bridge. Sharon Osberg, a two-time world champion bridge player, wrote in a November 2005 opinion piece in The New York Times that bridge players “are well educated (79 percent have a college degree), affluent (the average income is $62,000 per year), primarily white (71 percent). … Of these 25 million adult bridge players, only 3 million play the game at least once a week. This is a huge decrease from the 1940s when 44 percent of American households had at least one active bridge player.”

Cannamela has been playing some form of bridge for about 60 years.

“I like the challenge,” she said, “and I like seeing all the people.”

Willis countered with a laugh, “What Ms. Fay didn’t tell you is that she likes to win.”

Arlene Lowery, 81, added with a smile, “Some of us would like her to quit playing so we could win.”

Cannamela admitted, “When I play this kind of bridge, I’m serious. … I want to be half as good as some of these players who are way above me.”

At 51, Greg Wingard probably is the baby of the group. Most guys his age play poker, but Wingard favors bridge because “no two hands are the same. In duplicate, you’re trying to maximize your tricks on every single hand. So you’re always looking to squeeze that one extra trick out of the hand so you’re better than everybody else.”

Wingard, an actuary at Aflac, said, “bridge takes an investment of time to learn the game, and people have so many other distractions that they probably didn’t have in the 50s, 60s and 70s.”

A duplicate bridge game takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes, Stern said.

Bridge sure has been worth Wingard’s time beyond the game’s entertainment value. At the club, he met the woman who became his wife, Carol, retired from teaching English at Columbus High. And so did Charlie Bradford, 84, who met Jane at the club, and they wed 10 years later.

“It wasn’t a courtship at first because she was married to somebody else and I was also,” Bradford said with a laugh. “She was learning to play bridge when I came here in 1972 with the Army. She was very nice to look at across the table.”

Good looks will make your partner enjoyable to play with, but other characteristics will make you a winning team, members said.

“Determination,” Willis said.

“Awareness,” Wingard said.

“Experience,” Bradford said.

“Absolutely,” Willis concluded, “and just enough courage to come here and accept the challenge.”

Wingard recalled his initial challenge at the club.

“The first time I played I finished next to last,” he said. “I was excited I didn’t finish dead last. Then the next 10 times, I finished dead last.”

He kept coming back, Wingard said, “because I loved it.”

How to join

The Chattahoochee Valley Duplicate Bridge Association plays at 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays in the The Terraces of Green Island, the office complex at 6001 River Road. The game fee is $6, but all first-time guests play for free. For more information, call club president Brenda Willis at 706-718-3776.