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‘A combination of luck and thinking’: La Jolla home to various Bridge games

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Players at the Soledad Club enjoy a game of Bridge.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Unlike in Las Vegas, where counting cards is discouraged; in the game of Bridge, counting cards, having a strategy and planning ahead is considered a skill. And for those seeking an intellectual challenge, it can be just as thrilling as any casino table.

La Jolla is home to a series of regular Bridge games for all levels, and even a 10-week course that takes place twice a year.

According to Bridge for Dummies (see more in box below), there are four phases in Bridge: dealing, during which cards are dealt one at a time until each player has 13 cards; bidding, during which players bid for the number of “tricks” they think they can take, with a maximum of 13 tricks; playing the hand, in which a card is played and other players attempt to play the highest card in the suit to “win the trick” (players have to follow suit if they have a card in the suit that has been led); and scoring to determine who has earned the most points.

“It takes a while to learn, but most find it an intellectual endeavor and challenge,” said La Jolla Bridge Club board of directors president Michael Strong. “There are a number of conventions about when to bid and how to play your cards. Then there is a lot of ‘card-sense’ players have to have. We have doctors here that are very intelligent but just don’t have the knack for bridge. Others are very good at it … they tend to memorize what cards have been played.”

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Further, Bridge is a social game in that players partner off in “north-south” and “east-west” pairings — and partners must communicate their intentions without giving away their plans to the other two.

“It’s a great social game,” said La Jolla Community Center Bridge instructor Scott Farr. “Once you learn the game itself, it becomes a really enjoyable game and a great way to socialize. But it has to do with the adrenaline of the game. You have to deal with the cards you are dealt. It’s a combination of luck and thinking.”

According to The New York Times, at the height of its popularity in the United States — in the 1940’s — approximately 44 percent of American households had at least one active Bridge player. The game’s popularity may have seen a resurgence in recent decades because the now-seniors who learned at home in their youth either continued or learned to play in college, then took a break during working years, and picked the game back up after retirement. Famed players now include Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.

Here is a breakdown of what some of the local offerings are.

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La Jolla Community Center: Drop-in Bridge games are played 12:30 p.m. Wednesdays at 6811 La Jolla Blvd. $2 for members, $4 guests. (858) 459-0831.

“We have a very congenial group that plays at an intermediate level,” said Community Center Bridge co-coordinator Dee Decker. “We have mainly 65-year-olds to 100-year-olds, but we encourage all ages. People tend to enjoy that it keeps the mind active in addition to being with people and the camaraderie of the Center. It’s a great activity for the mind in that it is a challenging game and there are calculations in how you are going to be successful in each hand.”

Community Center Bridge co-coordinator Jean Fort added, “It’s different from other <FZ,1,0,20>groups in that it is people who want to continue playing Bridge, but they are not at a high level. It’s an easy relaxed environment, not competitive. We are warm and welcoming.”

Like many of those interviewed, Fort started playing in college, “which I think is true for a lot of people,” she said, but didn’t play for 40 years, and resumed when she retired.

However, Decker took a different route. “I didn’t play when I was young, I started because I was helping another senior woman by driving her around. One of the places she wanted to go was Bridge lessons. I took lessons with her,” she said. “Then and now, I find the people that come and play inspiring. I’m learning lessons on aging and continue to be amazed at the spirit of people that are playing.”

For those that need to learn the game or could use a refresher, the Community Center offers 10-week courses in September and in February covering beginning, intermediate and advanced levels; and a three-day intensive for those in between. It includes a review of the rules of Bridge, scoring, basic hand evaluation, basic bidding and playing guidelines.

“Bridge is incredibly popular in La Jolla,” instructor Farr said, and added that he teaches weekly classes in other areas of The Village. “But it’s popular everywhere. There are clubs all over San Diego to play Bridge. And it’s welcoming because anyone can learn it at any point in their lives, it just takes a little bit of focus.”

La Jolla Cove Bridge Club: 11 a.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, at 1160 Coast Blvd. $2 a game for members ($25 annual membership), $4 for guests. (858) 459-7000.

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“We have quite a mix of players,” president Strong said. “We have some that are quite good and take it very seriously, and others that are more social. The average age is probably in the 70s, but we had one member that passed away at 103 last year. It’s more of a senior club, but occasionally we get some college students.”

He added the tri-weekly games have 20 regulars, and about 60 members total.

La Jolla’s dedicated Bridge Club was built in 1939 and has gone through changes in its time. “It started not as a Bridge Club, but a social club with shuffleboard courts on the lawn,” Strong said. “I think at one point, it was a bingo hall, but it switched to a Bridge Club in the 1990s.”

The main selling points, he said, are the panoramic view of the ocean a mere few feet away at La Jolla Cove (sans sea lion smell, thanks to the closed windows); and the party the Club throws for members, during which Bridge is played, followed by food and socializing. “No one has the ocean view we have,” Strong said.

Others interviewed credited the Bridge Club with housing more experienced players.

Soledad Club: 12:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and select Sundays and Fridays; with the most challenging games on Monday and Wednesday, at 5050 Soledad Road. Prices vary based on game. (858) 273-9750.

For game director Kathy Moyer, the unpredictability of each day’s game is part — just part — of the thrill. As game director, she facilitates the play and settles disputes; and credits the players at the Soledad Club with creating a community of learning.

“I enjoy that you can do well or bad one day and play completely differently the next,” she said. “You never stop learning. With some games, once you learn everything, you are at a set place. With Bridge, there is something to be learned all the time. The more you play, the better you get, the more experience you get and the more tricks you learn. It is a challenging game, you need problem-solving skills, planning ahead, concentration and you have to keep your focus on the game.”

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Some of the games are more low-key, at six tables of four; others are well-attended with 22 tables on Mondays.

“The games at Soledad Club are very popular, because people like the location and those that prefer to be more central to San Diego tend to come here,” she said.

La Jolla High School: For more than a decade, following the completion of Advanced Placement (AP) tests, a small but dedicated group of American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) members have taught the game to AP statistics students at La Jolla High School.

“After the students take their AP exams, we usually have three-to-four weeks before school lets out, so we come in and teach them basic bridge,” explained ACBL instructor Jill Seagren. “We only lecture for 10 minutes, then we get the students playing right away. Each hand reinforces a concept we teach.”

The final two days, ACBL hosts a tournament.

“Bridge is a thinking man’s game,” she said. “There are statistics on how the cards are divided to consider and a lot of decision-making involved for these AP statistics students. It gets them to do more thinking.”

How to Play Bridge

Bridge is played with four people sitting at a card table using a standard deck of 52 cards (no jokers). The players across from each other form partnerships as North-South and East-West.

Each deal consists of three parts — the auction, where the four players bid in a clockwise rotation describing their hands; the play, where the side that wins the bidding auction tries to take the tricks necessary to fulfill their contract; and scoring.

Bidding is the language of Bridge. Its purpose is to relay information about the strengths and weaknesses of each player’s hand to his partner. A bid consists of a number and a suit (spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs or notrump (NT), a designation indicating no trump suit). The suits are assigned value with notrump the highest and clubs the lowest. A one heart bid means the pair intends to take six tricks plus one, or seven tricks total, with hearts as trump.

In the bidding phase, the dealer makes the first call, either a pass or a bid, and the auction proceeds clockwise until it is ended by three successive players saying “Pass.” The final bid becomes the “contract.” This means that one pair has contracted to make a certain number of tricks (six plus the number indicated in the bid) in a particular suit or in notrump.

The first player to name the suit of the final contract — or the first to bid notrump, if that is the case — becomes the “declarer.” The person to the left of the declarer makes the opening lead, and the declarer’s partner, the “dummy,” places his hand face up on the table. At this point, the “dummy” becomes an observer while his partner, the “declarer,” plays the cards from his own and the “dummy” hand.

A pair fulfills its contract by winning tricks equal to or more than the number bid. A trick consists of four cards, one from each player’s hand, played in clockwise order. When a pair does not make its contract — does not take the tricks required by the level of the bid — there is a penalty.

Source: American Contract Bridge League


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