Cumberland Times-News

February 14, 2008

Fortunately, bridge remains just a game

Betty VanNewKirk, Columnist

I've been playing bridge again, a couple times a month after several years of none at all. For me, bridge is like a mystery story - it takes all my attention for a while, but once I have closed the book or put the cards back in the box, there's no carry-over to get in the way of serious thinking.

I began playing bridge when I was about 12 - but it was a very different game from the duplicate that is so popular now. Point-count had not been invented, and we were supposed to have two quick tricks in order to open the bidding.

Four members of the family would sit down at the card table on a wet Saturday afternoon, and play a hand or two before Mother excused herself to tend to something in the kitchen, and someone else would take her place.

Then Daddy might be called to the telephone, and someone else would sit down in his seat. Mother would return, to be offered Daddy's chair. That kind of musical chairs would continue until dinnertime called it quits. The scores were added up, and North-South was declared the winning team, but everyone had occupied one or the other of both places in the course of the afternoon and no one could be declared a winner.

We didn't pass cards under the table, or try to peek in each other's hands, but we were lenient about what would be major sins in serious bridge games.

Aunt Bessie, for instance, was not sent from the table when she announced, "I can't bid, Partner, but I can help.'' Cards led out of turn were taken back without penalty, and credit was given for honors even after the hand had been completed. We played cards strictly for pleasure.

For a number of years, through college and grad school and marrying Bill, there was little time for bridge. But when Bill got a job with Kimberley-Clark at Niagara Falls, we found ourselves in a community of young-marrieds, with new degrees, little money, and short-term contracts in big industry. We had a busy social life, mostly made up of baby showers and bridge games at someone's kitchen table.

One couple with whom we played irregularly seemed oddly ill-assorted. He was a brilliant chemist, handsome and self-assured, always dressed - once he took off his lab coat - in carefully coordinated outfits, tan or blue or green, with an embroidered monogram on his shirt pocket.

Florence seemed to have a closet full of muddy cotton prints, like old-fashioned wallpaper. She talked very little about herself, but it was obvious that she adored Peter - and he knew it.

Peter was teaching his wife to play bridge. He was an old hand at the game - able to pick up the hand dealt to him, fan it without sorting, and put it back on the table, to be bid from memory. He also liked to "claim'' before all the tricks had been played - but I stopped that by saving the right card and taking the setting trick.

One bridge game Bill and I played with Peter and Florence was particularly memorable. I don't remember who dealt, but at some point I bid a heart and then, getting no response from my partner, sat back while our husbands bid back and forth, deciding whether to go to game in clubs or spades.

Peter reached four spades, and I took another look at my hand: Biddable hearts, four diamonds headed by the ace... but the boys had never mentioned diamonds; they must be in Florence's hand! Then, as Peter was ready to reach for the dummy in Bill's hand, I chirped in with five diamonds.

Bill gulped. Peter glared, picked up the hand he had left face-down before him, and doubled. Then Florence put down the dummy - a fistful of diamonds that she hadn't mentioned because she didn't have the ace! Thanks to my singleton spade and Florence's short clubs, we made our bid.

I didn't always bid that rashly, but I don't play bridge often enough to recognize a weak two-bid or a Jacoby transfer when my partner resorts to them.

I don't remember how many points are needed for a major-suit game or a little slam. And there are a few times, like that one in Niagara Falls, when instead of bidding the count in my hand, I bid Florence's timidity and her husband's arrogance.

Fortunately, bridge is just a game.

Betty VanNewkirk is the historian for the Frostburg Museum.