• Karl Thunemann

Bridge is Appealing, but I Am Not a Player

I first encountered bridge at the tag end of my Berkeley days, when my fiancée and I played the game with a couple she had known for a couple of years. Two things could be said about me as a beginning bridge player. First, I was not very good. Second, I was ill-tempered, and given to hurl the stacked, played cards across the room after losing a hand I thought I should have won.


Our friends must have been very forbearing, as our friendship lasted for decades (though eventually without bridge). This tolerance was more than matched by my fiancée, Faith. Our marriage is in its sixth decade, though it has been at least thirty years since we played bridge together.


Frustrating as I found it, bridge had great allure. It was a complex game, but not infinitely so. I loved games, and I was smart. And it’s not as if I was trying to master chess, which still seems extremely complex. The highlight of my bridge-playing career came after I found a job as a reporter and editor for a weekly newspaper in Kirkland, WA. Faith and I played frequently with one of my older colleagues, Betty Howe, and her son John. Betty would refer to herself as an “ersatz grandma.” We would play in Betty’s cottage in the neighborhood dubbed Poverty Gulch by some people in the newsroom. (How times have changed: Kirkland has obliterated its Poverty Gulches and gone totally upscale.)


John dubbed us “the Kirkland Deuces,” playing off the Dallas Aces, whose syndicated bridge column then ran in the Seattle Times. As the Deuces, we would play not just for pennies, but for a tenth of a penny per point.

Our children would wrestle with John. He was big and strong, and an only child. The children had uncles, but they were at the edge of our lives. So, these evenings had an avuncular presence. John dubbed us “the Kirkland Deuces,” playing off the Dallas Aces, whose syndicated bridge column then ran in the Seattle Times. As the Deuces, we would play not just for pennies, but for a tenth of a penny per point. None of us was especially good. Still, none of us threw our cards when we lost.


The children would wander off and go to sleep on Betty’s bed. We would carry them out to the car when the playing was done. It seemed as if it would last forever. But children grow up. Betty retired, sold her cottage, and moved to a succession of ever-smaller quarters that weren’t so conducive to familial bridge parties. Faith lost her interest in bridge. I rarely played any more. Sometimes I imagined taking it up, having a partner. But it was only a fantasy.


I tried to teach our son to play bridge and pictured us forming a partnership. But one day I had a vision of us driving home after a match, and his saying, Dad, I think I should find another partner. I do not know if Zack now plays bridge, but he is an excellent chess player.


When Faith and I moved into a residential senior co-op in 2013, I might have taken this as my opening to take up bridge. A contingent of players met weekly, but I never joined up. Nobody asked. Somehow the people we fell in with were not that into bridge. (They played a strange little game called RummyKub, which I may write about later on.)


And my memory was fading. A geriatrician suggested a popular brain-building website. I didn’t cotton to the site, so she said I might try the puzzles in the daily newspaper—sudoku and ken-ken. I started doing these and found them engaging. I noticed that the daily bridge column appeared on the same page.


I started following that column, but soon learned that playing bridge is now beyond my capacity. Well, maybe if Miss Otis (the internal embodiment of my “mild cognitive impairment”) suggested it … but I know she won’t. In a bridge hand, you play to 13 tricks. What are the odds I will be able to recall which cards were played to the opening tricks by the time we reach the twelfth—one in ten, or even less? I no longer can make such calculations; let’s just say the cards are stacked against me.


So I bring a different attitude to reading the bridge column. I regard Steve Becker, the current columnist, as a kind of docent, explaining the subtleties and nuances that go into the playing of a hand. It’s like a visit to an art museum; I no more lament my inability to play the game than I would resent Picasso for his talents as an artist. I am just grateful that I can read Becker’s accounts with some appreciation.