Roger & Jill Tattersfield enjoy attending congresses round the country, particularly Scarborough, and the Summer Congress produced a hand of interest. To read more click on Suffolk@TheNationals
Rick Hanley explains why we should all switch from 0314 to 1430 when using Roman Key Card Blackwood. Click on RKCB to read more.
Minutes of the Club Representatives meeting which took place in July are now available. Click on CLUB REPS to read
Roger & Jill Tattersfield enjoy attending congresses round the country, particularly Scarborough, and the Summer Congress produced a hand of intrest. To read more click on Suffolk@TheNationals
Richard Evans & Paul Rickard are the webmasters running Suffolk's dedicated bridge website.
If you would like to publicise a forthcoming event or submit a news item for this website click Richard or Paul
One game we never played was Bridge nor did we have the slightest glimmer of an idea about how to play it and we knew nobody who did but it was axiomatic that it was a 'posh' game for 'toffs' and 'not for people like us' and back then it was almost certainly true.
One game we never played was Bridge nor did we have the slightest glimmer of an idea about how to play it and we knew nobody who did but it was axiomatic that it was a 'posh' game for 'toffs' and 'not for people like us' and back then it was almost certainly true.
My entire extended family on my father's side was addicted to card games. My mother also played but nobody else on her side of the family did and I can only assume that my father taught her (note to self: why did I not notice that obvious disjunction until now?). This must be an example of the power of love because my mother has always condemned all forms of gambling with a vehemence unmatched by the most ardent Puritan who set sail on the Mayflower whilst simultaneously being endlessly forgiving of her own numberless offences at the family card table. The two sides rarely mixed and then only in small chance gatherings. Cards were never played at gatherings of my mother's side of the family but when my father's kin got together outside of eating and drinking there was never any thought of doing anything but play cards. No prizes for guessing which occasions I preferred.
Christmas and Boxing Day were the great gatherings and the timetable of events never varied. Cards would be played before dinner by which I mean lunch (no member of my parent's generation of the family ever ate lunch or even used the word). This would exclusively involve the men and male children of appropriate age which more or less meant any who had matured beyond the crawling stage. It wasn't that the womenfolk were actively excluded it's just that they were too busy in the kitchen preparing the food. I know this is as cringe-making to read as it is to write but it's how things were so don't blame me for inventing the 1950s, just skip on down the page if it becomes too much because it's about to get worse.
I don't know if you've ever played Newmarket but suffice it to say if you can dress yourself in the morning without trying to pull your underwear over your head then you are intellectually equipped to play Newmarket
Following the first all-male card session all the men would go to the pub and come back notably merrier in time to eat their Christmas dinner (there was no distinction made between Xmas Day and Boxing day, it was just the same routine on consecutive days but in different houses). Dinner over, the males would settle down to more cards while the womenfolk did the washing up and prepared tea which followed no more than three hours after dinner had finished. Tea over the men played more cards while the women cleared up the mess and at about seven in the evening they were finally free to join in the cards – at which point the game changed to something considerably less intellectually demanding not at the behest of the men but to accommodate the less than stellar abilities of two of my aunties – Newmarket.
I don't know if you've ever played Newmarket but suffice it to say if you can dress yourself in the morning without trying to pull your underwear over your head then you are intellectually equipped to play Newmarket. It's not so much a matter of getting things right but more of avoiding the one simple mistake you can actually make and in all the years they played the game the two aunties in question never learned how to avoid that mistake. By the standards of the time it could be costly even playing with penny stakes. The offending auntie would look baffled as howls of collective despair filled the room and the lucky recipient of her latest gaffe scooped up their winnings. When the clamour had subsided somebody would offer through gritted teeth the same patient and entirely fruitless explanation that had been delivered in numerous previous identical situations and at the end of it the erring auntie would display less understanding than our budgie had of quantum physics.
Throughout the rest of year the women of the family got a fairer crack of the whip and we played a variety of games but mostly; whist, pontoon, cribbage, nap and, of course, the dire Newmarket. Nap was held to be a pretty tough game to learn (it wasn't but it suited my childish ego to believe it) and those who could play it well were considered real boffins but I suspect only by comparison with my two hard-of-thinking aunties who set the bar for boffin status pretty low. One game we never played was Bridge nor did we have the slightest glimmer of an idea about how to play it and we knew nobody who did but it was axiomatic that it was a 'posh' game for 'toffs' and 'not for people like us' and back then it was almost certainly true. I've had a few bridge partners since then who have wished I'd paid more attention to the last bit of that dictum but let's move on.
What are we to conclude from all of the above in considering the great nature/nurture non-debate? I am a product of the union of two pretty classic working class Suffolk families one of which had never acquired a card playing culture and the other was steeped in it although, as we have seen, this didn't always equate to great ability or even basic competence. A cousin on my mother's side of the family passed her eleven plus and achieved the unique feat of going to grammar school which she hated with her whole heart for every day she spent there and left without achieving anything despite being offered all the enriching experiences and opportunities that were so conspicuously absent from my school. The two stood side-by-side physically divided only by a wooden fence but culturally they might as well have been on opposite sides of the world yet me and my cousin sat together every day on the school bus and had everything in common excluding the world of school and I suppose, cards. I reckon I got the best deal, if you don't include the swimming lessons, because she went home every afternoon laden with homework and in four years of secondary school I was never once lumbered with it.
Ironic then that eighteen years on I should find myself in teacher training and preparing to give my first lesson to fellow students. It was our first practical exercise and we had been tasked to prepare and present a fifteen-minute lesson on any subject or task of our own choosing. I chose, what else, but a simple card game. Not Newmarket but that's what I should have gone for because my definition of 'simple' was not shared by a good many of my fellow students. That of course was really the point of the exercise – make no assumptions about what your students already know! It was a disaster because a good many of them had never handled a pack of cards in the lives and I never got very much beyond the stage of teaching the suits with help from the few card players in the group who would otherwise have been bored rigid for the duration of the lesson. They in turn had their own fifteen minutes of infamy and like me they probably still cringe at the memory but I never repeated the mistake. You'll doubtless be relieved to learn that teaching occupied very little of my working years and it was a long time ago so whatever you might think is wrong with the country's education you can't blame me for it.
If the inability of my fellow students to grasp my 'simple' card game was evidence of their stupidity or lack of 'born ability' then my fumbling efforts to create a presentable wedding buttonhole or plait hair in a way worthy of the most hapless Generation Game contestant was evidence of mine. Neither is true of course and for all I know I might just have it in me to be a hairdresser to the stars and Andrew Robson might be sitting at the feet of one of my 15-minute students if I hadn't put them off all card games for the rest of their lives. My long dead aunties had few opportunities in life but they had every chance to develop into decent card players yet I have no doubt that if they were alive today somebody would still be explaining to them how to avoid the only mistake it's possible to make at Newmarket and they would still be looking just as blank. As I said at the beginning, the Nature/Nurture debate is a hoax perpetrated and perpetuated by generations of Phd students and I hope my doctorate is in the post in recognition of this my own supremely uninformative contribution to the debate.
My parents probably saw little point in encouraging much effort from me at school but when it came to home-schooling me in playing card games their efforts were unflagging and their standards demanding...
My parents probably saw little point in encouraging much effort from me at school but when it came to home-schooling me in playing card games their efforts were unflagging and their standards demanding...
Let me get it out there right from the start: It is my carefully considered opinion based on no peer-reviewed academic research whatever, that the entire nature/nurture debate is a massive hoax. I hold it to be self-evident that if you have the good fortune to be born to parents who happen to be good at kicking a ball, hitting a ball, rolling a ball, throwing a ball, or any of the other seemingly endless and largely pointless things humankind has devised to do with a ball, there is a better than average chance that you too will be able to waste part of your life doing the same thing with greater proficiency than your neighbour. This does not mean that your neighbour lacks the same or even greater potential to be a world class kicker/thrower/hitter/roller, it only means that for any number of reasons he or she never got around to finding out if they were or had unwisely chosen parents who hadn't thought to explore their own preternatural potential in such key life skills. Alternatively, you might well have gone to the wrong school.
Our school did undoubtedly possess the largest swimming pool in the country so large in fact that it could be easily be seen from the windows of passing airliners and was marked on maps as the North Sea
It comes as no surprise at all to me that my school so far as I am aware never produced a single polo player, show jumper, three-day-eventer or indeed any practitioner of any vaguely glamorous sporting activity requiring the indispensable accessory of a horse. Farming was the only contact some of us still had with horses in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The farm on which I grew up still employed three magnificent Suffolk Punches at this time but sitting up on Captain's great broad shining nut-brown shoulders as he plodded stately home between the shafts of a pungent dung-encrusted tumbrel did not lead me naturally to dreams of one day flying over the perfect turf of wherever it is that polo is played riding knee-to-knee with the the Duke of Ditchwater and quaffing pints of Pimms between chukkas. Captain, like all of his kind, was magnificent and beautiful but like me he knew his limitations and his place in the greater scheme of things and neither one of us was ever going to play polo.
I was also never going to play rugby union because my school didn't play rugby and, so far as I was aware then there was no rugby club for a million miles. The truth is I was barely aware that the game of rugby union even existed. Rugby to me meant rugby league because it was on the telly but it was then even more stereotypically identified with flat caps, clogs, whippets, Theakstone's Bitter and Ena Sharples than it is now and it had no appeal for me. If there was any fencing done at my school it was only in stolen goods and we did not row, climb, debate, play tennis, learn a musical instrument, go on improving outings to interesting or even uninteresting places, make theatre trips or attempt to speak foreign languages although we did learn quite a lot about Perfidious Albion's historically Imperial and imperious way of dealing severely with foreign types who did.
Our school did undoubtedly possess the largest swimming pool in the country so large in fact that it could be easily be seen from the windows of passing airliners and was marked on maps as the North Sea. In its frigid waters we were subject to child abuse on an industrial scale masquerading as swimming lessons as soon as the Easter holidays were over: Dear God how we dreaded an early Easter. A short bus trip deposited us outside the changing huts and into the teeth of a hurricane coming straight from Siberia which combed the marram grass flat to the sand and was of a temperature as near to absolute zero as made no difference. Down on the foreshore star fish were airborne and mingling with the flocks of stormy petrels coming in off the sea to take shelter behind the dunes. The lifeboat crew was refusing to put to sea while imploring distress flares competed for attention with jagged forks of lightning all along the horizon and illuminated the menacing fins of the killer whales slicing through the pulverising waves just offshore None of it made the slightest difference – in we had to go.
'Keep going, it'll feel a lot warmer when you get into the water', screeched our teacher through a loud hailer from the half open door of the coastguard station back at the top of the beach while we stood pathetically crowded together for warmth ankle deep in Arctic water at the water's edge with the broken bodies of drowned sailors swirling around us: 'Strike out, you're getting it!' boomed our distant torturer between sips of delicious hot cocoa; health and safety applied to him and him alone. Meanwhile we were getting it alright: hypothermia, but of swimming there was none – it was enough to survive. Just a few days earlier we had been singing of a 'green hill far away without a city wall' inwardly mystified by the archaic use of 'without'. It was pretty obvious to us that a hill, regardless of its colour, had no need of a city wall so why comment on the absence of one in this case? Baffled, we sang it anyway and contemplated our own more watery Calvary to come.
Graduation consisted of walking out of the school gate and nobody cried or hugged anybody and the only emotion expressed was by a collective 'Thank God that's over'
We played football thirteen months a year, decades before the professional game saw the money-making potential of doing so but in our case I suspect because a football (the use of the singular is deliberate) was the only piece of sporting equipment the school possessed unless you include the medicine balls in the gym. There was no end to the devilish variations on a theme of hell our gym teacher could devise with the grotesquely misnamed medicine ball and that was before he got started on the potential for limitless cruelty offered by the parallel bars, wall bars, climbing ropes, vaulting horse and God knows what else. His only other qualification for the job appeared to be sadism pure and simple, he was to humanity and compassion what Donald Trump now is to philosophy and literature and the gym rang to our screams. Years later I supervised school exams in that same gym now entirely stripped of its instruments of torture unless you count the exam papers but if I closed my eyes I could distinctly hear ghostly screams – most of them mine. Curiously, our personal Vlad The Impaler never supervised the swimming lessons. The loss of such an opportunity would have driven out of his mind if he hadn't already been completely unhinged but I suppose even my school drew the line at the adverse publicity that would have resulted from the mass drowning of an entire class.
Cricket might as well not have existed as far school provision went and the only way I was able to ape the cricketing achievements of my heroes glimpsed through the grainy murk of our monochrome television of matchbox dimensions at home was on a pitch lovingly carved out by my father from rough pasture near our isolated cottage. Lords it wasn't and the bounce could be variable to put it mildly as testified to by a large lump on the right hand of a school friend which he carries to this day, a permanent reminder of my father's perfect parental devotion and imperfect groundkeeping. We had no pads, gloves, and no boxes (grandchildren were obviously not a priority with my parents). Helmets hadn't been invented and even if we managed to avoid devastating brain damage we were sure to pick up an eye-wateringly painful injury almost every time we played but at least Dad's efforts gave us the opportunity to get crippled for life and have fun doing it. Consequently, the school entrance did not display striking self-advertising boasting of sporting and academic achievements as they do now because there was none to boast about: It's tough to excel when there's nothing to excel at and just to make sure we didn't there was no sixth form and no exams were offered.
Eleven Plus failures all, we were there to fail and in this respect if in no other we lived up to expectations. We were predestined to be hewers of wood and drawers of water and sure enough two of my contemporaries went to work for the Forestry Commission and one for the Water Board but who knows what else they might have been? Graduation consisted of walking out of the school gate and nobody cried or hugged anybody and the only emotion expressed was by a collective 'Thank God that's over'. Years later I was stunned to read in the obituary of one of my old teachers that he ran the school cricket team and orchestra throughout his years at my old school. Neither of these activities appeared anywhere on what passed for the curriculum, nor did I know anyone who was a member of either these secretive masonic elites or ever see anything on the sports field that could remotely be described as a cricket pitch and so far as I knew the nearest the place got to possessing a musical instrument was the school bell. It all remains a mystery to this day.
It is not so paradoxical that my parents displayed little interest in my formal schooling and yet thanks to them I could read and write fluently by the time I started school, not unique in the pre-preschool 1950s but still relatively unusual. What model of a good school or its importance could they have when they had both left school at the age of fourteen having attended village schools in which the age range of the class was five to fourteen and the older children taught the younger. They probably saw little point in encouraging much effort from me at school but when it came to home-schooling me in playing card games their efforts were unflagging and their standards demanding.
To be continued...
Does the example of sporting families set by Ian Botham, Gary Neville, Chris Broad etc also apply to bridge?
Are bridge players born or are they made, or is it some devilish alchemy of the two with a seasoning of eye of newt and toe of frog and how does it apply to the issue of keeping the game alive? Back in the day when the accumulated wisdom of generations of Neanderthals was being bludgeoned into me this question would be addressed by the so-called Nature/Nurture debate and it doubtless still is albeit without the indispensable teaching aid of the flying blackboard rubber.
It's a game anybody can play without the need to waste three years of their lives and incur a lifetime of crippling debt courtesy of the University of Nowhere You Ever Heard Of . I should imagine it's a handy standby topic of post-dinner conversation at the kind of homes in the better post codes I never get invited to for reasons which will have now been obvious for some time. Are we what we are courtesy of our genes or because of what happens to us following our entry into the world?
The intuitive answer to most people is that we are all the product of both but battalions of academics have secured a lifetime of tenure on the strength of refining the answer while many writers have enjoyed teasing out the dramatic possibilities of babies switched at birth of which The Prince and the Pauper is the most obvious example. The natural world (in which I include 'us' and so would you if you lived where I live) offers examples of both extremes but no conclusive answers.
Cuckoos are the kind of feckless biological parents that can be relied on to whip certain sections of the printed media into a terrible moralising frenzy. Yet, not only are cuckoos spared this odium but their arrival each Spring is greeted with outpourings of unrestrained joy without a dissenting voice to be heard but that's only because reed warblers don't write letters to the Press or hold mass rallies in
It's a wonder we get all dewy-eyed about a bird that begins life by cold-bloodedly bumping off its siblings, eats its frazzled foster parents out of house and home, never tidies its room and then leaves the nest without a word of thanks or ever writes home. Such behaviour will be instantly recognisable to anybody who has ever survived raising a teenager...
Trafalgar Square. We only care that reed warblers make excellent foster parents save that they have no idea how to teach their voracious parasitic progeny the first thing about how to be a cuckoo. The complete lack of adult instruction makes no difference whatever and one day the warblers' murderous foster child jets off to spend the winter in Africa without so far as we know ever needing any guidance from either set of parents about how to get there.
It's a wonder we get all dewy-eyed about a bird that begins life by cold-bloodedly bumping off its siblings, eats its frazzled foster parents out of house and home, never tidies its room and then leaves the nest without a word of thanks or ever writes home. Such behaviour will be instantly recognisable to anybody who has ever survived raising a teenager and has good reason to be deeply envious of reed warblers who only have to put up with the endless demands and tantrums for a few weeks. Teenagers drag out the misery for a lot longer but between emerging screaming into the world and walking screaming out of the house about eighteen years later they have imbibed a wealth of useful stuff from their despairing parents about how to get along in the wider world – all of which they ignore and/or reject because they know far better – but at least they ring home when the money runs out.
Granted your average trainee human doesn't as a general rule permanently dispose of its sibling rivals but it's not entirely unknown and the threat to do so is an almost daily occurrence in some families. What parent under far less trying circumstances hasn't wished their child could find its own way to Africa in August and fly back at the end of April. A cuckoo chick demands nothing by way of schooling from its parents and is fully ready to face life's challenges at the age of just a few weeks. A human child by contrast requires a minimum of 18 years of basic training before it's fit to be let loose on the world and another 20 before it can boil an egg without close adult supervision if it's the male of the species. Considering how ill-prepared they are to face the perils of the wider world it's a wonder so many of them survive their first year out of the parental nest – the teenagers, not the cuckoos – the cuckoos are all over it. All of which not very rigorous research evidence suggests that genetics plays a part in getting cuckoos on the right path in life but how about teenagers.
Just consider how many famous sporting families there are around: a few examples will serve to make the point. Gary Neville, of whom you may have heard, following a highly successful professional football career has moved on to manage England's national team. Brother Phil was also a successful football professional and ,although not nearly so well known, sister Tracy won international netball honours for England and then managed the national side to a Commonwealth gold medal. Dad, the improbably named Neville Neville (who clearly didn't inherit his parents talent for naming their children) was unsurprisingly a talented all-round sportsman who played professional cricket in the Bolton League.
George and Timothy Weah are the offspring of George Weah, one-time international Liberian footballing star who still plays for his own team in that country. His team have allegedly never been beaten and he is their top scorer despite being twice the age of everybody around him. Innate talent possibly but it's literally his team and his ground and he pays for everything. He also happens to be the president of the country. Right now he is popular and the country is enjoying the first years of peace and stability it's know following decades of bloody misrule so it wouldn't be that surprising if opposing teams didn't try too hard. His sons however play professionally outside Liberia and so presumably can not rely on the opposition to be quite as deferential.
Rugby union provides us with John Beattie, former Scotland and Lions number eight, who has been followed by son, the imaginatively-named Johnie, who went two better by also playing cricket for Scotland and football for the Rangers youth team. Sister, Jenny, also plays professional football and is in the Scotland team. Ian Botham is an England cricket legend and played professional football while his son Liam played both cricket and rugby union at the professional level. Chris Broad was a prolific, if ultimately under achieving, England opening batsman whose career has certainly been equalled if not eclipsed by the fiery bowling of his son, Stuart.
Boxing offers the examples of Chris Eubanks and Chris Eubanks Jr., George Foreman and George Foreman III, and Ken Norton and Ken Norton Jr., a list that perhaps tells us as much about the egos of successful boxers as it does about the quality of their genes but it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that having the right DNA gives you an edge if you aspire to run faster, jump higher or further, kick or hit a ball more effectively than most, or just knock seven bells out of anybody silly enough to want get into a fight with you.
Which circuitous ramblings bring us to a consideration of all of the above as it applies to the game of bridge. I know a few players who fly south for the winter but I think this has more to do with personal means and inclination than it does with being raised by reed warblers so I think we can discount these as being statistical 'erratics'. This very exclusive cohort makes no more real contribution to the declining numbers of people playing the game in the short dark days of the northern hemisphere winter than their return in March does to any measurable increase between April and October. What to do about declining club membership is a besetting problem for the EBU and all of us who play the game. I shall pick up the threads of this issue and its relationship to the great nature/nurture debate the next time I bump into you here.
"It pleases me no end to watch ardent Brexiteer boozers enthusiastically helping to popularise a game that originated with French soldiers and sailors during the Napoleonic Wars..."
"It pleases me no end to watch ardent Brexiteer boozers enthusiastically helping to popularise a game that originated with French soldiers and sailors during the Napoleonic Wars..."
'Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated', wrote Mark Twain when he learned that his obituary had been published in a New York newspaper. The spoilers have spent the hundred and plenty years that have gone by since attempting to show that Twain never said it or at least never said it in that way and wasn't even trying to be funny when he never wrote or said whatever it was he did write or say.
The truth of it matters not a jot and long after the dry-as-dust spoilers are gone and forgotten those who love him are unshakeable in their belief that Mark Twain's writing will still be going strong in another hundred years. But will it? Fears for the future of the incurable mental illness known to medical practitioners as Bridge are expressed quite often but I see great potential in the IT generation even if they don't know it yet.
Taste's change and what tickles the fancy of one generation leaves the next quite cold. The history books tell us that the comedies of Shakespeare had them rolling in the aisles back in the days of Edmund Blackadder but I've been to a few of the Bard's gigs over the years and it's been my experience that his punchlines don't work half so well on today's punters. The truth is they don't work at all except on the few Shakespeare snobs in the audience whose feigned laughter convinces nobody except the lone nutter who takes it as conclusive evidence that somebody in Tudor England built a functioning time machine four hundred years ago because that's the only logical explanation for the mirth he's hearing now.
Chaucer is likewise supposed to be an absolute riot if your Middle English is up to it (No – mine neither) and who can resist those old George Formby films (yes – me too – very easily – laugh; it has never once crossed my mind that I was supposed to) but he was the absolute superstar of his day and the UK's highest paid performer. Fast forward a few decades and how many people will still be laughing at the antics of the manic and hapless Basil Fawlty, rocking to Status Quo or singing along with the greatest hits of the Stones or the Beatles. Twenty years from now the walls of care homes up and down the country will be pulsating with the music of AC/DC and The Grateful Dead the way they do now only with Vera Lynn on vocals and George Formby guesting on lead ukulele.
Games, like tastes in comedy, music and entertainers generally, tend to fall out of favour. When for example did you last enjoy a nice game of shove ha'penny? Really! Was it that long ago, more like 'never' I'd guess? How about skittles then or pitch penny? Not those either eh, but surely you still play quoits? Oh dear, you're not much of a one for games at all are you!
We tend to think of quoits (if we ever think of it at all) as one of those old games that has been around for centuries. Perhaps it has but the first codified rules didn't appear until 1881 and yet just a few generations later very few people under the age of forty have even heard of it. Or if they have they think of it as a jolly family garden game played with lightweight ringlets of plastic rope barely recognisable as the game I remember watching in which big brawny men gave themselves hernias flinging great lumps of metal about.
The game took many forms throughout the UK one of which was East Anglian quoits. There was a time not so long ago when just about every Suffolk pub had a quoits team and an elaborate league system existed in the same way that applies to darts and cribbage now, so why have they lived on and quoits just about died? Bowls is a game that requires essentially the same skill set as quoits and it still endures and has endured since at least the time of Sir Francis Drake.
An uncle of mine was for many years the Suffolk individual quoits champion and then in the last summer of his life he took up bowls and became the Suffolk individual champion at that too in the space of about six months, thereby alienating a good many in his club who had been trying and failing to achieve that very special trick for half their lives.
My entire family were just as proud of him as it's possible to be proud of a man whose outstanding lifetime accomplishment was a well proven talent for throwing heavy metal rings at a bed of clay eighteen yards away with greater accuracy than anybody else in the county who felt inclined to do the same thing. It may not sound like much but many people have since been awarded knighthoods for more-or-less the same sporting achievements albeit on an international stage and without the flat cap and the whippet without which my uncle never left the house.
He was a vital member of about half-a-dozen pub teams at any one time and his picture can still be found hanging in a few local hostelries. Being related to him wasn't quite as good as sharing genes with Freddie Trueman or Stanley Mathews but in my neck of late 1950's East Suffolk it came pretty close. He was also a gifted drinker and a sometime poacher (not the kind that involves eggs) but so far as I know he never won trophies for either though he certainly deserved to. Not one pub quoits team survives that was graced by the laser-guided hand and eye of my uncle.
Such laudable qualities i.e. incisive analytical thinking, blood lust and an unhealthy desire to dominate the universe without the trouble of leaving your chair are precisely those needed at the bridge table.
There are a few Suffolk pubs around where the game is still played though you have to look hard to find them hanging on in isolated habitats like native red squirrels holding out against the invasion of the grey foreign hordes of boule that have colonised the county's pub gardens in recent years It pleases me no end to watch ardent Brexiteer boozers enthusiastically helping to popularise a game that originated with French soldiers and sailors during the Napoleonic Wars enjoying a bit of down time away from the altogether more serious nine to five grind of trying to impose Boney's idea of European togetherness on the English. I'll grant you that boule is not Brussels but I'm a sucker for a bit of cultural irony so I'll take what life offers me.
The popularity of traditional board games of every description has plummeted in the face of the IT onslaught. What teenager can now be bothered with the plodding process of working out who murdered the much put upon Dr. Black, where, and with what, when he can channel all those raging hormones into instantly annihilating entire virtual reality armies in gory 3D graphic awfulness in a multitude of horrific ways - without all the frustrating inconvenience of having to wait around for daft old Uncle Harry's thinking to catch up with what's happening on the board or indeed have to socialise in the most basic way with another human being at all.
No wonder that old-style children's playground games involving any form of physical activity seem to have vanished entirely under the relentless onslaught of sedentary computer and mobile phone games. It is a perverse irony that a childhood dedicated to playing games that are both intellectual (in a hideous, world-dominating, mass-murderer kind of way) and sedentary, would seem to be the ideal training for the next generation of adult bridge players.
Such laudable qualities i.e. incisive analytical thinking, blood lust and an unhealthy desire to dominate the universe without the trouble of leaving your chair are precisely those needed at the bridge table. The challenge facing the game if it is not to go the same way as quoits et al is to channel all that acne-afflicted potential into a game tailor made for would-be Napoleons.
The next time a teenager with eyes intent on the mesmerising screen held at waist level and thumbs moving in a blur, walks zombie-like in front of your car at the traffic lights consider a new approach and brake hard rather than accelerate fiercely as you usually do. It may not seem like it right then, as the living dead continues on its way oblivious of its brush with the genuine article, but your act of gratuitous kindness might just have spared an embryo bridge player even if it does take another fifty years to break out of the egg.
The contract appeared to hinge on the trump finesse against the King. Needing to make the remaining tricks I led the Queen towards Dummy’s Ace. South played low and it was decision time...
Time’s winged chariot goes hurrying by and we reflect on situations at the bridge table which we might have handled differently when our grey cells were younger and more vigorous. That ability to think quickly when faced with a sudden, unexpected challenge is a must, but alas, mine is not what it was.
Let me tell you a story …….
Many years ago (more than 60, when I was but a callow youth) I was still at school and living on the outskirts of Rye, East Sussex. I had been to a friend’s house for the evening and was walking the mile home around 10 pm. The road wound past a car park, over a river bridge, and then out towards Hastings. Passing the car park I could see, in the dusk, three men around a large van. I reached the bridge and had crossed over when I heard a loud ‘crack’ from the van and a door swung open.
Obviously, dirty work was afoot, but what to do? Having been raised with a strong sense of civic duty, I had to call the police. I was still less than halfway home. The nearest phone box was 300 yards back the way I had come. Around I turned and retraced my steps, past the car park with the van, which they were trying to start. I reached the phone box, dialled 999, and related events. I then set off home again. As I reached the car park the van drove away towards Hastings. I decided to wait for the men in blue. Police response times have deteriorated over the years but in those days Rye had it’s own police station, and a car arrived in minutes, stopping beside me. Establishing who I was, I told them, ‘They went thataway!’ pointing along the road. ‘Jump in!’ they said, and off we shot.
We caught up the van as it ground up the hill into Winchelsea. Two pale, startled faces stared out of the rear windows. We followed them through the town arch, and when clear, flashed the blue lights, overtook and stopped the van. ‘Need any help?’ said a small voice. ‘No thanks!’ and I sat back. After a few minutes a call came through on the car radio just as one of the two policemen returned; he took the call. They were required to attend an accident near Hastings. The policeman asked where I lived and I told him,’about a mile-and-a-half back towards Rye.’ After more talk with the miscreants they both returned and announced that I would get a lift home in the van! So I left the police car and, with no little trepidation, got into the van’s front passenger seat.
The van turned around and we set off. From their conversation it soon became clear that they were unaware of my part in the matter. ‘How did they get on to us so fast?’ I sat quiet as they pondered aloud. Then, ‘Where do you live?’ asked the driver. ‘New Winchelsea Road,’ said I. ‘What did they have you for?’ Gulp. Think! ‘Riding without lights.’ ‘Huh! Bastards aren’t they? he replied. We were approaching the houses. ‘Here will do fine.’ The van stopped, I got out, cheery ‘Goodnights’ were exchanged and I went thankfully home.
Last year I was playing in the Swiss Teams at Felixstowe. We reached a contract of 4♠. The contract appeared to hinge on the trump finesse against the King. Needing to make the remaining tricks I led the Queen towards Dummy’s Ace. South played low and it was decision time. Now North had opened a weak 2♥ and had shown relatively few points until then whereas South had shown enough for his bid. I knew both players of old and they play a straight game. Unfortunately, I did not figure all this out at the time and ducked. North took the trick with her King which was, of course, a singleton! Contract down and a good result missed. Such is life ……… if only.
"I suppose bridge just isn't a mass spectator activity, or at least not one that attracts large numbers of fiercely partisan punters who want to make a lot of noise and get into a brawl with the opposition supporters... It might therefore repay the Beeb to think again about the viewing potential of the game of bridge relaunched in the presentation style of Top Gear and aimed at the widest possible age range."
"I suppose bridge just isn't a mass spectator activity, or at least not one that attracts large numbers of fiercely partisan punters who want to make a lot of noise and get into a brawl with the opposition supporters... It might therefore repay the Beeb to think again about the viewing potential of the game of bridge relaunched in the presentation style of Top Gear and aimed at the widest possible age range."
Phineas T Barnum was famously of the opinion that 'there is no such thing as bad publicity'. I'm pretty sure he would have kept that thought to himself if he had to cope with the world-wide rent-a-mob created by the www social media sites that can be roused to swivel-eyed, gagging, apoplectic moral outrage and vengefulness in an instant by the merest hint of human frailty - never mind the major league misdemeanours The Almighty thought worth sharing a few ideas about with Moses.
It was striking, therefore, that the recent shock-horror revelation that the world's number one bridge player, Geir Hedgemo, had been ritually defrocked for drug offences elicited not the slightest interest from the world's permanently outraged Cybermob. Consider what its reaction would have been if the world number one of football, snooker, tennis, darts or even possibly North Devon Yoghurt Snorkelling had been caught out in the same way. Spittle and bile would have been so thick in the air it would have upset the Jet Stream and climate scientists would have factored it into their global warming calculations. But a fall from grace by the number one player of the premier card game played throughout the world excited no more than a global shrug.
Obviously somewhere in the upper echelons of the game sufficient high-level hurrumping was generated to bring about Mr. Hedgemo's downfall, but as for the rest of us? Have you even heard it mentioned in your club, never mind been part of an actual discussion about it? Has it to your knowledge given rise to heated exchanges between the bibulous readers of the Daily Obscurer propping up the bar of the Sprocket and Stoat? Of course it hasn't. Who among the foot soldiers of bridge had ever heard of Geir Hedgemo before he was unceremoniously removed from his lofty perch? I hadn't and I've been playing the game for over 10 years and I had no idea who the world number one in the game was and, what is perhaps worse, I never have nor has it crossed my mind that I should. Apply that to snooker and show me the casual amateur snooker player who doesn't know who the current number one in the game is. No, I haven't a clue either or darts or even poker for that matter, but I'll bet the millions of amateurs who play these games do know the answer.
My immediate reaction on reading about bridge's great(ish) drug scandal was to be rather gratified to learn that somebody at the elite level was at last taking note and learning from the common herd of the game. A good many of us could not get through a day (literally) without imbibing a veritable cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs - and don't tell me that anything that's keeping you alive and more or less fully functional isn't helping you to play the game far better than you would if you weren't popping pills. God help nearly every one of us if the definition of a performance enhancing drug is ever changed to encompass any drug that has the effect of making you better than you would otherwise be without it. The drug testers would descend on every bridge club in the country and a week later the game would consist of four students wearing shocked and hopeless expressions sitting round a table somewhere in an Oxbridge college
It is a most singular aspect of the game of bridge that it is separated not only from other games and recreations, excepting possibly chess, in terms of its public profile but the elite of the game live in a parallel dimension to lesser mortals and as far as most club players are concerned they exist only as names in the EBU magazine. Anybody who plays just about any other mass-participation game at even the most humble level is not only aware of the game being played by more skilled practitioners at the higher levels but can watch them do it. This is true of football, cricket, rugby, tennis, snooker, darts, golf, athletics, cycling, skiing and skating and even fishing merits an entire television series albeit one devoted to catching the kind of fish that cause great white sharks to have anxiety attacks. There is a pretty much endless list of recreations that can be easily accessed by the would-be international that offer him or her the opportunity to hone their skills by studying the greats applying their craft. Note well that I say: 'offers the opportunity' of which more later. This is usually done from the vantage point of the comfort of a chair in the pub or your own living room but those who are really keen can pay a small fortune and go to endless trouble to watch the models of excellence who play the game professionally display their prowess in purpose-built sporting arenas.
Footballers are spoiled for choice in this regard with a wealth of futuristic stadiums spread across the country although Wembley still just about continues to hold its iconic status as the home of English football if only in the popular imagination. Club cricketers wishing to watch a live game played at the highest level are far less well served by available stadiums but the hallowed ground of Lords retains its mystique not only as the home of English cricket but as the headquarters of world cricket. So revered is it that even Australians hold it sacred even though they would cheerfully see the rest of Pommieland towed into the middle of the North Atlantic and sunk by naval gunfire. Most of the same can almost be said of Twickenham for rugby (union – of course) and Wimbledon for tennis and even Snooker has the Sheffield Crucible Theatre in which the sport's elite gladiators battle for the world title every year. But where do the nation's club bridge players flock in their thousands to watch the real-time epic duels of the Great and the Good of their game? I have no idea.
There is a stubbornly persistent myth that spectators at these Colosseums of sporting conflict or those watching the battle rage from the comfort of their armchair, do so at least partly in order to improve their own game. This is utter tripe believed only by small children and adults over the age of 50 who still believe in Father Christmas The point of watching the experts is not to improve your game but to improve theirs and you can only do that if you are provided with the opportunity to see exactly where they are going wrong and provide them with immediate feedback – the more of it the better.
You can see this for yourself in any live sport pub when England are playing anybody at anything but usually football. The execution of any skill in a less than text book manner is followed by howls of excoriation and a welter of expert coaching advice, all of it conflicting, from a crowd of grossly overweight, pathetically unfit, nicotine-addicted, cardiac-cases-waiting-to-happen, none of whom could be relied on to score a goal if the ball was placed on the opposition's goal line and the entire away team still hadn't arrived at the ground. You are observing the elite of the Ferret and Faggot pub team who play in the Sunday Morning League, Division 10. Such is their self-image of perfect and peerless physical development and playing skills they never feel the need to train. Change the sport and the test of basic sporting competence and the outcome would be the same..
Evidence from the nation's living rooms is harder to come by for obvious reasons but I have conducted some research of my own based on viewing various sporting events with friends in the sanctity of our own homes and the results are identical. I hold the laws of rugby union to be less fathomable than the mystery of the Holy Trinity but that doesn't stop me enjoying it hugely while issuing a constant stream of invaluable advice to the players. England's full back and wingers are the major beneficiaries of my personal database of rugby ignorance because I can just about comprehend their role which is to get the ball and set off with the velocity of a supercharged whippet towards the opposition goal line until they either ground the ball over the opposition try line or sustain life-threatening injuries inflicted by an 18 stone slab of murderous muscle nursing an ancestral grudge dating back to Edward I. I am not in the least bit inhibited by the knowledge that my time for the hundred yards is substantially slower than the winning time for last year's London to Brighton vintage car rally and I haven't the slightest doubt that Jonny May owes much of his success in an England jersey this year to my long range coaching.
Lords, Wimbledon, Wembley...
But where is the 'home' of bridge
The luminaries of international tennis likewise owe a great debt of gratitude for the quality of their overhead smashing to a friend of mine who imparts pearls of coaching wisdom towards the television screen at the volume of a detonating small nuclear device notwithstanding the fact that he manifestly lacks the strength to pick up a tennis racket much less to raise one over his head to hit anything. I am on firmer ground with cricket where the possession of a long-lapsed very basic coaching qualification has enabled me to offer useful insights from the vantage point of my sofa to a long list of would-be English batsmen in recent years. Every one of them failed to make the grade and it's their own fault for not listening to me.
Where is the club bridge player to go in order to see the elite of his game in action and, more importantly, have the opportunity to point out their failings that they may also learn?
The question therefore arises: where is the club bridge player to go in order to see the elite of his game in action and, more importantly, have the opportunity to point out their failings that they may also learn? Elite players do not lack opportunities to instruct me and but where am I to go to perfect their game. It's all very well them venturing out to the Sticks now and again to provide club players with the opportunity to tuck into a rubber chicken and listen to an hour of expensive and incomprehensible advice on dealing with a tricky hand that comes up about half as often as Haley's Comet comes around. I'd get a lot more satisfaction out of the chance to sit in front of my television pigging out on honey-glazed cashews and hurling insults and ill-informed comments at the screen in response to every trifling error I perceive in their play .
The BBC used to provide just such an opportunity many years ago. Granted it was on the radio, although back then it was 'The Wireless ', and given that very few people could afford such a luxury item those few listening were probably pigging out on cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut of, prepared by 'Cook' and served by the maid. Never mind, what counts is the principal that this demonstrates. The programme provided a connection between those who could play the game and those who, like me, convince themselves that the one thing they get right in 24 boards is typical of the way they play all the time. Ironically, just as more people and players were able to afford the means of following the cut and thrust of the Game's titans in real time the numbers actually doing so fell so far that Auntie pulled the plug on its bridge programming in the early 1950's never to restore it.
A game that was considered not exciting enough for the early 1950s must have been more than enough to induce brain death. This was a society that in my memory regarded a day trip to the nearest market town as the highlight of the year and the endless empty dreadfulness of Sunday was relieved only by the fleeting secular pleasures of Two Way Family Favourites (no requests for girlfriends were permitted less unseemly passions be thereby inflamed) and made me almost look forward to Monday morning and the start of another five days of the stultifying incarceration that constituted the state education of the post-war years for Baby-Boomers who had failed to choose their parents with sufficient care.
I suppose bridge just isn't a mass spectator activity, or at least not one that attracts large numbers of fiercely partisan punters who want to make a lot of noise and get into a brawl with the opposition supporters. I'm told there are online bridge websites that come close to this ideal and where those so inclined can go to exchange insults with other players but it's not to my taste and certainly not what I'm advocating. What's needed is a safe forum where large numbers of the average, the not-very-good and the downright hopeless can anonymously hand out bad advice to expert players who mercifully for both sides will be unable to hear a word of it and yet still feel a sense of having a shared experience.
The insatiable maw and bottomless pockets of Sky, BT, Virgin et al has outbid the BBC for almost everything even vaguely sporty over the course of the last two decades and reduced Auntie to the exclusive rights for West Yorkshire Rules Ferret Firtling and the qualifying rounds of the Norfolk Shove Halfpenny Cup. It might therefore repay the Beeb to think again about the viewing potential of the game of bridge relaunched in the presentation style of Top Gear and aimed at the widest possible age range.
This should therefore be fronted by somebody with the intellectual gravitas, animal magnetism and boy-racer mentality to reconnect the elite of the game with its present roots and attract a new generation of players with a high opinion of themselves and almost nothing to justify it. In short – a role model: It just so happens that I'm not doing anything right now...
Are dark clouds really descending on bridge - or is there a silver lining?
There was much to like about the recent East Anglian Bridge Weekend.
Elmswell is proving an excellent venue for Suffolk’s main bridge events. The spacious Blackbourne community centre has modern facilities, ample parking and is run by a team anxious to please. Its location, just off the A14 and about as central as you can get in such a sprawling rural county, makes travel arrangements relatively painless for most players.
And the numbers weren’t bad either, given the switch from the riverside site in Ipswich. Doubtless they can be improved upon - and highlighting the option for those living further afield to travel by rail to Elmswell station (a 10 minute walk to the community centre) has been logged by the weekend organisers.
The results also showed the home county in a reasonable light with Suffolk captain Rick Hanley leading from the front to partner Graham Beeton to success in the Swiss Pairs. Only a last board score of +1400 by a Norfolk quartet prevented Malcolm & Karen Pryor and David Cooper & Neil Bresler from retaining the Swiss Teams.
In terms of the future, perhaps the most fascinating result was that of the third placed team: Catherine Curtis, Paul Fegarty and their two teenage sons, Liam and Jamie, from Cambridgeshire.
The two youngsters represented England in the World Youth Championships staged in China last year and who knows how good they may be in the future.
“What a pity they won’t have anyone to play against,” said one of our opponents in all seriousness as he explained how the numbers of people playing in his area of Norfolk had tumbled. His comment was not a one-off.
A player from an Essex club recalled how they used to attract up to 30 tables, with two separate sections. Nowadays the number of tables has dwindled to single figures.
What is unclear is whether the snap shot they offered is an accurate reflection of the state of the game more generally around the country - or not.
I don’t think I am looking at bridge in Suffolk through rose tinted spectacles by saying the game is enjoying something of a renaissance. That is certainly the case in the Bury St Edmunds area and looking at table numbers for clubs like Woodbridge and Ipswich & Kesgrave, a similar picture emerges.
If I’m right, how has that come about? I would suggest three different strands have contributed to the ‘success' (if that is the correct term): teaching programmes set up over the past decade by clubs or members of clubs; a switch in focus by the Suffolk bridge committee to seeing bridge more through the eyes of club players - particularly less experienced players - and arranging events (Relaxed Pairs and Teams, bridge lunches, Handicap Pairs) with them very much in mind; and lastly, the innate pleasantness - by and large - of Suffolk people.
Quantifying pleasantness is best left to others but a couple who switched to playing bridge in Suffolk from a county not a thousand miles from here summed it up: “Suffolk people around the bridge table are just so much nicer.” That ‘niceness’ hopefully prevents - or, at least, restricts - the type of unpleasantness which is a killer for bridge and drives people away in droves.
If my analysis is correct and if Suffolk is a more accurate reflection of the state of the game nationwide (admittedly two big ‘ifs’) Liam and Jamie will have plenty of opponents to trounce in the years to come. If not, there’s always the internet...
'Every effort was made to arrange the bridge so that at the end of two weeks it was almost impossible for anybody who wasn't actually certifiably abnormally stupid to go home without a prize. David and I achieved that unenviable distinction with something to spare but at least it never rained and nobody tried to stab me - so judged by my previous standards it was a great holiday.'
'Every effort was made to arrange the bridge so that at the end of two weeks it was almost impossible for anybody who wasn't actually certifiably abnormally stupid to go home without a prize. David and I achieved that unenviable distinction with something to spare but at least it never rained and nobody tried to stab me - so judged by my previous standards it was a great holiday.'
Christmas is not my favourite time of year even though, like The Curate's much quoted Egg, I find it good in parts. Confessing to this secular heresy is almost guaranteed to unite all you devout worshippers of Mammon and the great annual celebration of capitalist consumerism and carnivorous over-indulgence, with the desire to enliven the dull days of January with a revival of 'The Wicker Man' with me taking the role of Edward Woodward.
I do enjoy Christmas Day very much, not least because no turkeys, chickens, geese, rabbits, or (should any Danish nationals be reading this), herrings, are hurt in the production of my gourmet enjoyment. I'm prepared to concede that Dickens having Scrooge call down to the boy in the street on Christmas morning to go and buy the plumpest nut roast he could find wouldn't have worked half so well in flagging up the old skinflint's change of heart but I do wonder if his new-found philanthropy survived beyond Twelfth Night.
Christmas Day is definitely not my problem but the preceding month and the seemingly even longer ten days that follow it most surely are. Bridge holidays have provided me with a blessed, albeit partial, escape not only from December's purgatory but holiday hell in general.
I have always been rubbish at holidays, or at least holidays in the sense of spending a lot of money in order to inflict on myself all the well-known stress and misery of planes and boats and trains and a thousand miles of terrifying motorway driving just to translate myself to somewhere where the rain is a bit warmer.
I once spent four days in Cornwall in early summer during which time it never stopped raining. I was a lot younger then and I had congenial company so it wasn't difficult to find ways (just one way really) to pass the time while we waited for the rain to stop. By Thursday we had run out of energy and patience and concluded that the rain was never going to stop and drove home. It was still raining as we crossed the Devon border and for all I know it's been raining in Cornwall ever since – I've never been back to find out. My eldest son is precisely as old by as many years as that 'holiday' is in the past - minus nine months - so I suppose you could argue that it wasn't a completely wasted trip but I think we could have achieved the same result with less expense by staying at home.
I actually surpassed my Cornwall achievement during a week's holiday in Northern Cyprus. Just to be clear, I am referring now to the level of rainfall rather than the number of pregnancies. I can't swear that nobody became pregnant in Northern Cyprus while I was there but I am absolutely certain that I was in no way involved if they did.
My week there coincided exactly with the wettest week ever previously recorded on the island and this time there was no opportunity for the alternative indoor recreational activities available in Cornwall and no early escape because I had flown to the island on the only (Turkish) airline that provided a service to a land mass that the rest of the non-Turkish world refused, and still refuses, to acknowledge even exists.
Twenty years or so ago flights in and out of the island were so limited as to be almost newsworthy so there was no way I could leave until my sentence was up. Somewhere around day four the rain briefly relented and the friends I was there to visit took me to look at the wonderful castles that sit atop the mountains and are straight out of a Christopher Lee Dracula, Hammer House of Horror, film.
The only way up to the best of them was, and I hope still is, an hour's walk up a near vertical winding path that was more 'goat' than 'foot'. When we made it to the top it was snowing heavily and very cold (perhaps February wasn't the best time to be there). We were astonished to find two other people had made the climb before us. They were from Ipswich (really) and just on the strength of my 'good morning' to my considerable dismay and annoyance they unhesitatingly picked up the Suffolk accent I had spent the previous thirty years trying to eradicate. The snow eventually cleared and the views were stunning but otherwise it was thank you for almost nothing Northern Cyprus and it joined Cornwall on my list of places to be avoided in future. It didn't rain once in Senegal but I was only there for about a day so perhaps I didn't give it a fair chance. I still managed to come close to being knifed so just to be on the safe side I have since ruled out the entirety of Africa as a holiday destination.
Just when I thought all hope was lost along came bridge and bridge Xmas/New Year holidays.
I still think the long Christmas/New Year Holiday must be a lot more fun in the southern hemisphere but I can't afford to go there to find out and not one of my extended family or friends has ever had the good sense or common decency to emigrate there so that I can invite myself to freeload on them.
Fortunately, I can just about afford to stump up the cash for a ticket to such exotic locations as Bournemouth, Blackpool, and Bognor where it still rains throughout my entire stay but I no longer care because I'm not there for the winter sunshine and so far at least nobody has tried to stab me despite my appalling bidding.
Not only that but so far I've always managed to be paired with delightful partners and we have got along famously although always with a notable lack of master point success. Two years ago I got as far as the Algarve and spent two weeks bathed in perfect sunshine during the shortest days of the year and playing my bridge with a delightful chap who had achieved the probably now impossible feat of joining the old GPO as a dogsbody tea-boy straight from school and retired from British Telecom as The Head of Almost Everything.
Every effort was made to arrange the bridge so that at the end of two weeks it was almost impossible for anybody who wasn't actually certifiably abnormally stupid to go home without a prize. David and I achieved that unenviable distinction with something to spare but at least it never rained and nobody tried to stab me - so judged by my previous standards it was a great holiday.
Jack was sitting with his back towards me in North's playing position with the upper half of his body slumped over the table and the lower half looking just as animated. Being, as I then was, a very inexperienced player and this being my first night at the Club I was already somewhat apprehensive but, there being no other chair available I parked myself in the East chair at Jack's table. At that range it became immediately obvious that I was looking at a man with at least two hobbies one of which was bridge and the other wasn't.
North on the table nearest the door was Jack's spot and with good reason. Swiftness of foot and accurate navigation featured nowhere in his skill set so it made sense to park him in a lay by at the start of the session and let the table-movement traffic flow round him thereafter. More than that, given the highly flammable air around him, his coincidental immediate proximity to the only fire extinguisher in the room was both expedient and reassuring. Unsurprisingly Jack neither offered or took cognizance of the traditional courtesies upon my arrival at his table but it was difficult to take offence at the absence of a cheery greeting from a man who gave every appearance of being in a coma. His partner caught my enquiring look and waved a dismissive hand: 'He'll be fine when we get started'.
I was by no means convinced because, little as I knew about the game at that time, I was pretty clear on the need to be awake when you were playing. The ability to pass a sobriety test might also be helpful. I very soon understood that in Jack's case the former requirement was only partly true and the latter quite unnecessary.
Jack responded to the almost inaudible sound of cards being taken from their boards in the way that dormant snowdrops notice a few minutes of extra daylight in early January. When play started Jack's head was up and the clouds cleared from that part of his brain wherein he played bridge and he was in a different league to everybody else.
Jack saw no reason to cut into his rest by playing more than he absolutely had to and that was often very little. He sometimes needed no more than five or six rounds to establish the whereabouts of every significant unplayed card. The next step was to inform the opposition at machine gun speed what they were holding and how the rest of the board would play out and the dozen alternative ways of playing the remaining cards that would lead to the same finish. It made no difference whether he was declarer or defender. It's common for a defending pair to throw in the towel when it is plain to all that further resistance is useless but Jack would do it a long time before anybody else at the table had even begun to consider the possibility. He knew exactly what declarer and everybody else was holding and how he would play those cards and assumed that whoever was holding them would play them just as competently. That was highly debatable in my case but I was happy to accept his conclusion if it favoured me.
The first time I saw him do his party piece it left me utterly bewildered and it took quite a lot of bridge to flow under the bridge (every pun intended) before my pride would allow me to confess that I hadn't understood a word of his explanation and ask him to take me through it at a pace at which I might hope to be able to grasp something. I don't recall at what point I felt sufficiently emboldened to challenge one of Jack's judgements but one night it happened or at least I heard myself utter a small mewling noise which might have meant almost anything but, coming as it did right after one of Jack's claims about halfway through the hand, he took it to be the challenge I suppose I had intended it to be.
Jack for all his bibulous eccentricities was unfailingly civil and pleasant and I soon came to like him very much. His failing was that like many people with a natural gift he could never grasp that everybody else couldn't do what he did so effortlessly. Thus it was that he now regarded me with a look that silently asked (implored even) how it could be that I was unable to see what to him was so blindingly obvious. If there was any irritation in his look it was only because the time needed to answer my imbecile question was eating into his nap before the next table movement. Imagine Albert Einstein explaining General Relativity to Homer Simpson and you'll understand why I gave up trying to follow Jack's patient explanation of his claim and let the man go to sleep. Were it not for the plentiful evidence of his incisive bridge brain I should have suspected him of being one of the game's great conmen.
His self-assurance could perhaps have been seen as arrogance by anybody who didn't know that hubris was no part of his nature. There was the time when warned by his partner that he was holding his cards in such a way as to allow the opponents to see his cards Jack's deadpan response was that it would make no difference because he would still win the hand. This exchange took place well away from the heat of battle so no disrespect was being shown to any particular opponents but it could be argued that he was displaying a somewhat disdainful attitude to them all. It might also be said that Jack could have worded his response to his partner more diplomatically but I'm sure that as far as he was concerned he was simply stating an incontrovertible fact.
The moment that put Jack into my personal Hall of Bridge Fame came during a sequence of bidding during which I was demonstrating my well-honed and peerless ability to dig my partnership into a bottomless pit of hopeless despair. By the second round of bidding my partner had disappeared inside a miasma of self-generated steam and my next bid brought forth an audible cry of anguish from within the mist across the table. Even the most kindly and affable of opponents might at this point have been entirely within their rights to have called the director to rule upon the question of unauthorised information but that was not Jack's way. Without missing a beat, eyes alight with mischief he turned to me and laconically enquired: ' And what do you understand by your partner's scream?'. How can you not love a man like that?
I wanted to ask the landlord of the inn: 'Did you by any chance have an ancestor in the same line of business in Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago?'
Christmas has come and gone for another year and yet it hasn't. We are in that Neverland period that lies somewhere between forever and eternity trapped in a timeless and bridgeless vortex as we swirl down the wormhole of the old year with nothing to mark the passage of time save for summer holiday adverts on the telly and the appearance of Easter eggs in the shops.
I've abandoned all hope that 2019 will ever arrive and normality be restored so I'm escaping to spend a few days sunning myself at one of Shropshire's many renowned beach resorts and play a little bridge.
Unfortunately, I have been rumbled by my esteemed editor who feels that the tale of Jack's Christmas should be completed before the traditional twelve days of the Season have elapsed rather than after. He seems to feel that somebody out there actually wants to know if I made good on my undertaking to look after Jack or abandoned him to die huddled miserably against his own front door in the best festive traditions of a Dickensian Christmas.
I won't say I didn't consider it because with the amount of alcohol in his system Jack was never going to freeze so I had no fear of him actually being found dead in the morning. That said I could easily see that leaving him to improvise his own igloo on such a chilly night might very well give rise to an ongoing frostiness in our personal relationship.
There was also the thought that if my faith in Jack's natural antifreeze properties proved to be misplaced I didn't relish the prospect of playing my bridge for the next 25 years in a secure facility as a member of a club exclusively composed of convicted murderers. I therefore considered my remaining options and none of them seemed promising but taking him home with me was definitely bottom of the list. You will think me lacking in Christian charity and you would be right – up to a point. It seemed precipitate to draw on the shallow pool of my own goodwill before offering the chance to others and to this end we set off back into town to reprise the original Christmas story with, I hoped, a better outcome.
By now it was very late and few lights from yonder windows shone out onto the town square but I was looking for signs of life at the inn and, sure enough, there was. It was long gone tipping out time and the landlord and his staff were enjoying that moment at the end of each day when they could close the bar, bolt the door, and at last kick back and relax – and I was about to do my utmost to ruin it. I was planning to take it in stages and to this end I parked Jack out of sight by leaning him against a wall before tapping on the window and enquiring if there was room at the inn.
My plan was a variation of the hitch-hiking wheeze sometimes seen in so-called road movies wherein our young (male) hero hides by the roadside leaving his knock-down, drag-out, desirable love-interest to stick out her thumb. There follows a screech of brakes and a big surprise and disappointment for the duped - obviously male, middle-age and overweight as demanded by the script - driver who finds he has not one but two passengers as the boyfriend dives from cover and into the back seat ahead of his girlfriend. It was never going to work for me.
'How many is it for?', mine would-be host enquired from behind the window.
Now why would he be asking that question of me if I had been half as clever at concealing Jack's presence as I thought I'd been?
'Just one', I replied, mustering as much innocence as I was capable of in the circumstances.
'Which one of you would that be?' Our furtive approach had obviously been spotted and I was definitely fingered.
There was nothing for it but to produce exhibit 'A' and hope that some residual festive spirit might still abide in the face behind the window – it didn't!
’We're full! said the face in a tone that made it clear this was not the opening round of negotiations. I'll grant you that Jack was nobody's idea of a messiah but he was the saviour of many a distiller, brewer and vintner and that in my opinion should have counted for rather more in the estimation of somebody who after all made a large part of his living by selling alcohol. If his inn really was full why had he wasted his time and mine with preliminary questions to which the answers were entirely irrelevant?
I wanted to ask the landlord: 'Did you by any chance have an ancestor in the same line of business in Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago?' But I didn't as we made a humiliating retreat back to my car. My final chance to make Jack somebody else's problem was to implement plan B.
Plan B worked like a charm and the telling of it would have made a more entertaining conclusion to the story of Jack's Christmas than this rather tame ending but in the interests of the privacy of the participants I have imposed some self-censorship.
Jack got his bed for the night and breakfast in the morning at which time he also casually produced his front door key. This at least spared me the trouble of returning to pick him up and tackle afresh the problem of getting him into his house.
It was also the only time in the saga when I felt a flash of real irritation: he'd had that damned key somewhere on him the whole time the previous night and yet we had turned out every pocket and still not found it. I said at the beginning of part one that I said that I hadn't found a place for The Great Escape but I was wrong.
The success of Plan B allowed me to escape the problem of getting Jack up a flight of stairs and then providing him with a bed for the night in my one-bedroom, first floor flat and all the mayhem that might have entailed. My reward for the great mercy of not leaving him to die was to be presented with a rather good bottle of wine by Jack. A gift which was somewhat wasted on my barbarian epicurean tastes and said a lot more about Jack's generous nature than the events that prompted it revealed about mine.
The shop window displays have been telling me the Festive Season has been well under way since late August so it seems high time for a Suffolk bridge Christmas story.
This one is a clunky marriage of Dickensian tradition and our own contemporary age of permanent austerity including as it does: snow (lots of it), an inn with no room (allegedly), a Scrooge (that would be me) and a messiah (or at least somebody I tried to pass off as one).
I realise that a couple of those pre-date Dickens by a few years but if the manufacturers of Christmas cards can get away with heavy snowfall in Bethlehem I reckon I'm entitled to mix a few traditions myself. It doesn't have Father Christmas or any reindeer and I couldn't find a place for Morecombe and Wise or The Great Escape.
Oh! I almost forgot, there's no ghost story and it didn't happen at Christmas. How could it, there's been no snow on Christmas Day in Suffolk since 1962 and bridge clubs, along with everything else you get any fun out of, close down for two weeks of enforced crushing tedium and the renewal of old family feuds. I told you there was a Scrooge.
I am telling this Almost Christmas tale out of sequence because it began life as the middle(ish) chunk of a larger piece on the singular exploits of a legendary bridge character, Jack, who I met on my first night at a bridge club long ago located on an insignificant planet orbiting a star on the outer spiral arm of an unremarkable galaxy.
Strange to relate Christmas was celebrated there just as it is here and alcohol played as an important role in cranking up the festive cheer in many a party-goer and nobody cranked harder than Jack. Such was his dedication to cultivating the spirit of Christmas that he practised ceaselessly throughout the year and I never once saw him when he was not awash with the spirits of good cheer, even in high summer.
On the night of our tale Jack had arrived at the club, as always, as a passenger in somebody else's car for the glaringly obvious reason that he was barely capable of steering himself, much less a car. There had been no hint of snow at 7.00 p.m. but three hours later it was inches deep and still piling up.
Jack's lift was in the fortunate position of being on the last sit-out table and thus able to make an early exit but only if somebody else would agree to get Jack home after the final boards had been played. In a fit of misguided altruism I heard myself volunteering and thus was the scene set for disaster.
At the conclusion of play I poured Jack into my car and off we went at a cautious crawl through the falling snow for the relatively short drive to Jack's home. Upon arrival I extricated the now more or less comatose Jack from the passenger seat and got him focussed on the matter of finding his door key. There followed a lot of fruitless fumbling in pockets of increasing squalor as the searching hands dug deeper into archaeological layers of antiquity – pens, pencils, packets of peppermints that had been old when the dinosaurs were young, handfuls of pre-decimal loose change, missing scraps of the Dead Sea Scrolls, elastic bands, paper clips, a corkscrew (obviously) but door keys were there none.
Then, when all seemed lost, Jack remembered he kept a front door key in his garden shed for just such an emergency as this: praise be, I was saved! Except I wasn't because his garden was surrounded by a six-foot solid brick wall with just one portal, a gate he kept barred on the inside which could be opened only by going through the house. Unfazed by discovering this minor flaw in his emergency house key plan, Jack announced his intention to climb over the wall and proceeded to try.
I don't know if you've ever watched a 5 foot 6 inch, inebriated, septuagenarian attempt to scale a six-foot wall. It has a certain Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton entertainment value but it wears off pretty quickly at close to midnight on a freezing January night with a few inches of snow on the ground and more falling around you. I surveyed the wall for just long enough to confirm what I'd known for the last several years: my days of climbing six foot walls even under perfect conditions were over.
By now I was in full panic mode but Jack was brim full of great ideas. His next involved smashing in the glass side panelling of his door porch and from somewhere he produced the perfect tool for the job – except of course it wasn't. I had no idea what it was or where he mysteriously produced it from unless it was from the fourth dimension of his pockets. Whatever it was it had all the attributes of a tool purpose-made to be just heavy enough to create the characteristic noises of an air raid but nowhere near meaty enough to make the smallest impression on Jack's front door. After a few seconds of ineffectual flailing Jack hit upon the solution – I should break down his door.
Now I don't know about you, but my personal code of conduct has very strict rules about smashing down other people's front door in the middle of the night even if they ask me to. Jack's neighbours obviously shared my view because by now lights were going on up and down the street and it wasn't too long before we (by which I mean, I) was engaged in a chat about our situation with two representatives of the county constabulary both of whom, judging by their youthful appearance, were on a fortnight's work experience before leaving school.
It didn't look too good at first what with Jack slowly subsiding against his front door still armed with his nameless and useless door smasher and me in the role of the onlooking Fagin to his superannuated Artful Dodger. The phrase 'going equipped to steal' sprang immediately to my mind and I felt it wasn't too far away from the thoughts of the County's Finest.
I launched into an explanation of our plight taking care to bore them senseless with an entirely irrelevant explanation about the role of the sit-out table in placing me in my present predicament. The role of alcohol in placing Jack in his, sitting in the snow leaning against his front door, seemed to speak for itself.
Police training must devote weeks to developing that look of world-weary suspicion worn by all Peelers, but after scrutinising the Ladybird Book of Bad Things You Can Nick People For these two decided that attempting to break into your own house while under the influence wasn't one of them.
I hoped perhaps there might be something in there that would allow them to feel Jack's collar for his terrible taste in jackets but if there was they decided against it, probably mindful of their station sergeant's injunction at the start of their shift about not filling up his Nick with a lot of rubbish during the night. I don't know what powers they had to get Jack into his house but with me there they had an easy way out and they happily took it after I gave my second stupid answer of the night to the question: 'Will you look after him, sir?' and out of my mouth came the word: ‘Yes.’
Find out what happened to Jack – and to me - in the New Year...
I have been asked to give what passes for my thoughts to the matter of behaviour at table. I took this to refer specifically to the bridge table rather than all the stuff your mother ground into you about not picking the tricky bits up off the plate with your hands and the absolute requirement to suffer the epicurean horrors of at least one of Auntie Mary's gruesome cucumber sandwiches before you were allowed to pile into the cream cakes.
Recently I had the opportunity to observe a number of my fellow players enjoying a quality tea in Colchester and so far as I could tell the most simian eating style on display was my own which confirmed that I was on the right track.
I have serious doubts that I am the right person for the job because I am of the opinion that all so-called 'improving' texts are doomed to failure from the outset because they are aimed at the wrong people by which I mean everybody, a category, Dear Reader, that includes you but obviously not me.
You see my point: I can see the logical absurdity in what comes next but I hold it as axiomatic that anybody who presumes to apply to be a JP or any other role in which judging the morality and behaviour of others plays a part should automatically be disqualified from further consideration for the job. More than this, I have the rare and unwanted distinction of being effectively excluded, albeit not actually slung out of, from a bridge club for my own alleged bad behaviour, but I suppose you could say that this at least gives me some sort of perverse legitimacy to pontificate on the subject.
More of this later because the prospect of reading about somebody else's fall from grace (in this case, mine) is what sells the tackier sort of Sunday newspapers and what keeps your index finger working that mouse chasing the clickbait in the hope that eventually you'll get to the really juicy bit that is constantly hinted at but, unsurprisingly, never materialises. Even laboratory rats get a better deal than that because rats are smart enough to stop playing the game if they don't get a prize and so Dear Reader will you. Just try to regard the next few paragraphs as Auntie Mary's mandatory cucumber sandwiches and then you can have that cream cake you've got your eyes on.
I see you're still here with me. Well done for not cheating and skipping to the end. Social conditioning is a wonderful thing and cheating is one sin to which bridge players are immune. Goodness knows what else they get up to when I'm not around to police their behaviour but on the matter of cheating they could hand out lessons in proper behaviour to any supreme deity you care to name.
Back in my early days of playing the game the opponent on my left called the director and I went straight into my default meltdown panic mode trying to figure out what I'd done wrong (Mother, you did your work too well) but it wasn't me, it was him. He had turned himself in for an inadvertent offence when neither me or my equally naïve and panicked partner had a clue that our opponent had infringed any shibboleths.
Remind yourself of the last time you saw a footballer pick himself up off the grass inside the eighteen-yard box and plead with the referee not to award a penalty because the sprawling player had not been fouled but simply fallen over his own feet. Then try to recall how many times you have seen a referee issue a yellow card to a player for 'diving' in the same situation – you can stop when you get to double digits.
The traditional verities of good sportsmanship held sacred by our Victorian forebears still burn strongly in Suffolk bridge players but we live in the here and now and are not immune to the influences of changing social norms.
Most of us grew up in a world in which overt displays of any emotion were generally not encouraged and frequently downright frowned upon - but not anymore. Upper lips, once so admirably stiff at all times, are now liable to dissolve into flabby lassitude or curl into a threatening snarl at any moment and at the least excuse.
Showing your feelings is the new best behaviour and getting outraged without much provocation has become almost de rigueur. A famous female tennis player recently lost her temper with an umpire who had the temerity to rule against her because she had done nothing wrong save for the little matter of violating the rules of the game.
He, and the watching crowd, were treated to a volcanic hissyfit and volley of abuse by the outraged player who had until then presumably played her entire career in the belief that the rules applied exclusively to her opponent. Far from being condemned and criticised for it her outburst was widely hailed as a principled stand against injustice generally and against women in particular.
Maybe so, but there was at least one woman in the world who didn't look as if she felt her interests were being best served at the time and that was Miss Hissyfit's innocent and distressed opponent. She remained a helpless spectator throughout and received no such outpouring of support from the online social media mob, nor did the unfortunate umpire receive the backing he should have received from the game's thoroughly cowed governing body.
It seems like not that long time ago there was a certain male tennis star whose name was prominent in the same sport and who was much given to employing colourful language when disputing with the umpire whether there had or had not been evidence of chalk dust in the air where the ball had alighted on the court. There were signs even then that a limited number of highly vocal fans delighted in his tiresome antics but most didn't and fewer still regarded this spoiled rich kid as a champion of the oppressed.
A few old fuddyduddies, me among them, thought the more recent display of bad sportmanship was just that and no more regardless of the rights and wrongs of her grievance. That it happened at all and the reaction it provoked is symptomatic of a malaise that has been growing in society and hence our sport and leisure pursuits for a couple of decades.
Football was the first to fall and is long past redemption on this matter and shows no sign of caring that it is. Cricket, that iconic symbol of English village life and supposedly gentlemanly game is too often blighted at all levels of the game by cheating and displays of vitriolic abuse directed at umpires and opposition.
Rugby, golf, and snooker continue to hold a firm line against the tacit acceptance and outright approval of behaviour that would have appalled generations of long-dead Victorian imperialists for whom millions of the present Internet generation have nothing but scorn - but regard it as quite acceptable to make anonymous online threats of violence and worse against anybody who offends in any way against their own narrow, holier-than-thou, world view.
I mention all of the above merely as contextual scenery you understand but pause a while and recall any time you have had to sit helplessly in your chair and be subjected to a hissyfit or watch an opponent suffer one slung across your bows at close range – didn't feel good did it! Now consider again whether you, perish the thought, were ever guilty of launching one?
Most bridge players I know and see around me wherever I play are of a generation that can do no other than subscribe to the older code of behaviour. Tapping out online abuse is never going to be an option for those of us for whom the telephone still represents cutting-edge technology. I wouldn't have the first idea about how to 'flame' anybody via online social media even if I wanted to and I think I have finally convinced the Suffolk Constabulary that heavy breathing calls are the only kind of calls I am able to make these days because I breathe like that all the time.
For many of us the bridge table represents one of a dwindling number of opportunities to misbehave, but in my experience it is an opportunity rarely taken. Bridge players are a pretty decent lot and uncivil comments, outright insults or outbursts of temper directed at their opponents are rare but not entirely unknown – which brings me back neatly but reluctantly to my own darkest bridge hour and your promised cream cake.
On my very first foray into the world of club bridge in a time long ago on, a planet light years away from our own, I was paired with a woman whose wardrobe must have been responsible for a worldwide shortage of tweed.
By way of introduction she informed me quite explicitly that she regarded herself as the sole arbiter of who was and who was not a fit person to become a member of the club. Judging by what she said it seemed a foregone conclusion that if I wasn't already on her unfit list I pretty soon would be but for now I was safe because she had more immediate priorities and obligingly pointed out her intended victims around the room.
This was a woman on a crusade who plainly had no doubts that she had been called upon by a higher power to rid the bridge world of unbelievers or anybody not wearing tweed which in her scheme of things was one and the same thing. Her culling method was simple and brutal: she made the lives of her victims miserable until they caved in and left the club and if her own testimony was to be believed she already had an impressively long list of kills that testified to the efficacy of her methods.
I survived that first session and I suppose might still be at the club had I not very soon after joining formed a partnership with a player who the Supreme Deity's chosen instrument of worldly cleansing had pointed out to me on that first day as earmarked for her personal perdition.
A session rarely passed when my partner was not subjected to The Treatment until the day came when he finally lost patience and retaliated with an impassioned outburst and was sent packing. If the Tweed Woman’s behaviour was perceived by some as a sort of amusing and harmless eccentricity to be uncomplainingly endured by her selected targets and indulged by those who were not, I had no inclination to indulge it when my turn inevitably came around
It came quicker than I expected as I found Tweed Woman had moved me to the top of her hit list. While I had got along famously with my departed partner, by a remarkable trick of self-justifying mental gymnastics the previously unknown fifth Horsewoman of the Apocalypse mounted on a tweed horse (what else?) now informed me that his exit from the club was of my doing and not hers.
My punishment was to be that she would ensure that I would shortly follow her latest kill out of the door. You might wonder why it was that rather than take the perverse credit for an outcome she had sought to achieve she now wished to retrospectively bestow it on me. I wondered that too but a mediocre GCSE in woodwork has left me ill-equipped to provide answers to such mysteries thrown up by the human condition.
You might also be wondering why I was still there and I have long considered it to be to my dishonour that I was but, like the equally persecuted and downtrodden Baldrick of Blackadder fame, I had 'a cunning plan my lord'. No matter what Tweed Woman did or said I was going to remain polite and calm under every provocation and one day she would become so frustrated by her failure to grind me down she would overcook things so far that nobody in the room could ignore or deny what had happened. And then I would submit a formal complaint. My plan worked brilliantly – up to a point.
The Grim Reaper finally lost the plot entirely one afternoon and continued to abuse me even from the other side of the room while play was in progress and I had departed for other tables. It continued for a long time and through it all I said nothing and the director and everybody else behaved as if nothing untoward was happening. That should have given me the clue that my cunning plan had a fatal flaw and so it proved.
With my complaint submitted I absented myself, while I waited for the wheels of justice to turn. It took a very long time to happen but a disciplinary hearing was eventually convened to which I was not invited but during the course of it Tweed Lady had evidently made counter-accusations. I was never made privy to what my alleged crimes were ('not appropriate') but I must have been found guilty of something because I was pronounced to be 50% at fault. Given that my former partner had been found to be entirely at fault I left with the satisfaction of knowing I had at least brought about a 50% improvement in the standard of offending at that club.
I spent nine years in the Army and never once fell foul of military justice. Three of those years were subject to the disciplinary standards of the Coldstream Guards, an organisation not generally renowned for its easy going ways and willingness to overlook wrongdoing. I came through all that without a scratch but the disciplinary code of the Tweed Woman broke me inside nine months.
Like my erstwhile partner before me I was neither thrown out nor welcomed back but be it understood I was both under a cloud and under notice for my future good behaviour. I decided that if the measure of my future good behaviour was a willingness to go on uncomplainingly putting up with insults and abuse on a weekly basis then my previous behaviour was about as good as it was ever likely to get. I had long since removed myself to Framlingham where they were nowhere near as fussy about who they allowed in and given my continuing presence there they evidently still aren't.
I will grant you this is a pretty extreme example of the kind of behaviour. The greatest offence, as I experienced it, was to be victimised and offended and then be so offensive as to complain about it.
Victim blaming or persecuting the whistle-blower has been, and continues to be seemingly ingrained in every society and organisation. Toxic personalities are by definition unpleasant to deal with and it's far easier to kill the innocent messenger.
Just refer to any established church, major corporation or government agency for numerous historic examples of how this has been done for centuries. The recent bursting on to the scene of the #MeToo movement has brought about a seemingly dramatic reversal of this culture of victim-blaming but is just as rapidly being hijacked by the online social media mob for whom accusation equals proven guilt and never mind all that tiresome admissible evidence nonsense.
Malevolent, pre-meditated targeting of individuals must thankfully be rare but one too often encounters bullying behaviour directed not at the opposition but at a playing partner. The carefully constructed and well maintained sluice gates that regulate the ebb and flow of changing emotions between life partners usually allows the tide to flow in and out with only the occasional overspill to threaten anybody standing on the river bank. Other life partners can spot a potential rip tide when they see one and wisely decline to get into the water together. The post-round jousting of life partners who do play together can often be highly entertaining in much the same way as those highly stylised sword fights in the final climatic scene of any sword and sandal epic. There's a good deal of swinging from handy roof fittings, jumping on tables, dodging round hefty stone pillars and grappling on the floor with each giving blow for blow for a few minutes before our hero lands the death blow and the dastardly villain gets his just deserts.
The only part of this scenario missing at the bridge table is the death blow because neither partner intends to land it or even gets within a mile of threatening it because each has perfect knowledge of the others style of swordplay. It's all jolly good play-fighting fun to watch and saves the need for conversation while waiting for the director to move us on.
I can think of two couples who do this particularly well but I'm not saying because I don't want to cramp their style. There are many partnerships, whether life or otherwise, who are entirely accepting and phlegmatic in the aftermath of even the greatest disaster. Hand post mortems at the table are part of the game and there's no problem with them so long as they are conducted in a friendly, non-judgemental, atmosphere. Heated or carping destructive recriminations are something else again.
It just baffles me why it is that some players turn up week in and year out with the certain knowledge they will spend a large part of the next three and a half hours being told by their partner just how hopeless they are at the game
I am equally perplexed about why anybody would want to spend every week playing with somebody they think is hopeless. If they really believe this then it should have occurred to them a long time ago that the alleged incompetent they have been playing with for the last several years has shown no sign of improvement despite having had the supposed benefit of their unrelenting post-round sledging for all that time.
Common sense dictates it might be better to find a partner with a glimmer of intelligence and dump the dullard with whom they have amassed a meagre 2.5 million masterpoints and become the only partnership ever to attain the rank of Five Star Premier Life Master Grand Wizard with Candycrunch Sprinkles.
Having perforce to be exposed to this flow of post-board, low intensity, corrosive verbal bile across the table is one of the most unpleasant experiences associated with the game. Dealing with these cases requires a partnership understanding that goes beyond bidding and cardplay and is nowhere to be found on any system card. At the first hint of trouble by known offenders at a prearranged secret signal both partners politely but swiftly depart more or less simultaneously on unannounced missions to anywhere that gets them away from the scene of conflict. Anybody who leaves their partner to face it alone is a rotter.
I have yet to devise a satisfactory ploy to get me and my partner away from the post-board attentions of the opponent who 'offers' you the benefit of their observations on what you did wrong. Or, better still, all the clever things they did right but, it is artfully implied, you were too stupid to spot at the time. This is another situation in which deserting your partner should be punished with a good horse whipping but I checked and the EBU rather frowns on it so a deeply wounded countenance and a chilly demeanour for the next few boards will probably have to serve. 'Advising' an opponent is a way of getting around the prohibition on gloating by dropping into character as a bringer of wisdom and solace and there is no known defence to it short of murder. It could be just me of course but I'm usually not quite at my most receptive to so-called advice from an opponent when I've just gone four off doubled and vulnerable in three no-trumps on a hand where every other pair in my seat has made plus one (a not-altogether uncommon occurrence in my case).
The gloater/advisor knows this perfectly well and feeds off it. I am opposed to the death penalty under all circumstances save this one and, incidentally, sloppy parking. Some will protest that this runs contrary to the spirit of best behaviour at table and is a plain incitement to violence but I beg to differ. It is the provocations of the gloating opponent which is the incitement to violence but does the Old Bill come piling through the door and slap on the bracelets as they would in a country with a half-decent criminal justice system – it does not!
Of course, even gloating has its unintended lighter moments and one I have particularly fond memories of is the lecture I received from an opponent which dwelt at length on all the errors I had just made and what I should have done instead. She received my unwavering attention because what I knew and what she had somehow failed to spot was that I had scored a rather poor 100% and her side of the contest had mopped up the rest.
I am the perfect partner of course so long as you don't put too much of a priority on actually winning anything. My eyebrows on the other hand are the partner from hell and cause endless trouble by allegedly betraying what I imagine to be the impassive visage displayed below. Playing with partners I know to be rather better than I am helps no end with suppressing any thought I might have to verbally criticise as does the awareness that the five foot and a bit of outwardly angelic serenity that is my Framlingham partner would quietly and calmly remove my liver and take it home for her cat if I ever did. Fortunately, my tell-tale autonomous eyebrows are not admissible evidence of wrongdoing in the same way that she cannot be held legally accountable for the outrages committed by her cat so my liver stays where I like to keep it.
Should I in future be partnered with you, Dear Reader, and I find you staring intently at my forehead it will at least serve to reassure me that somebody reads this stuff. You might at some point be unable to suppress a comment on my bewildering bidding and limited card-play or compare my intelligence unfavourably with something growing on your shower curtain. Once or twice is understandable and just about excusable but should you develop too much of a taste for it you may take consolation from knowing that you will never have to play with me again - because I shall see to it that you don't.
Glyn Button is chairman of Framlingham bridge club
Serious game, bridge, and we must take it seriously. Or must we? Club nights should be fun and relaxed. County competitions cater for the really intense players. Play with a smile …
What else? We’re all getting older (not that we look it!) and becoming more set in our ways. Clothes, haircuts, make-up (ladies) are in the same style and have been for years. Why not sport some bright colours? Put on the dog. Away with drab.
Christmas party time is almost upon us – just the right time to make a start. Where are those red trousers?
What makes a successful bridge club? It must be welcoming, so take an interest in new members (and the old ones, come to that). A club with a bad atmosphere will not survive.
At Framlingham we had a dragon who drove away a host of players over the years. She shall be nameless, and no doubt acted with the best of intentions. She worked hard for the Club and took a proprietorial interest (she was a founder member), but tales of her rudeness still abound. Directors must take a lead in this.
Subjecting miscreants to sarcasm and litotes will not do. I well remember my failings when we first ventured into county competitions and I was so grateful that we had Malcolm Carey as our Suffolk Director. He never criticised, gave a ruling with a smile and a witty comment and wandered off.
What upsets you most about club bridge? Probably slow play. Should we allow for it? Hands, eyes and brains don’t work as efficiently as they used to. I have a bee in my bonnet about suiting the hands instead of shuffling them. Not allowed by the EBU but we do it at Framlingham Improvers afternoons and it regularly saves 5-10 minutes over 16 boards. QED.
A lesson customarily begins with a brief revision of what was covered in the previous session but given the average age of my readership there's very little chance any of you will have remembered any of it, and I certainly can't, so let's move straight on.
That said it is encouraging to know that a few of you have retained something because I was somewhat disappointed to learn from my other reader that the sage advice I have so far imparted has made her at least one trick worse on every hand. I have unfortunately been unable to thank the writer as the letter was unsigned and wrapped around a brick thrown through my window but I would know my mother's handwriting anywhere.
Another has been in touch to say that having read my articles he feels far more confident at the bridge table knowing that somewhere in the world there is at least one player who has even less of a clue than he does. Thus encouraged, I shall now move on to consider two bidding systems that come with a warning from history.
Kamikazi No Trumps has to be high on the list of bidding systems you would like to see your opponents play but regrettably it's nowhere near as self-destructive as the name would suggest or as daring as it was originally intended to be by its inventor, Mr. John Kierein. I know very little about this doyen of the game beyond the fact that he was an American and an advertising man I suspect. He recognized that the 'Kierein One NT' didn't really have a sufficiently intimidating ring about it whereas the 'Kamikazi No Trump' would leave nobody in any doubt about its intent.
The name stuck but the intent was somewhat diluted by the killjoys at the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) who ruled that an opening bid of one NT with 9-12 HCP in first or second seat was dirty poker when used with Stayman (no, I don't know why either) and would authorise nothing more edgy than 10-13 which is less Kamikazi more budget airline. You don't get on the aircraft knowing for sure that the landing will be a bit unconventional but you can't shake off the feeling that it might be when the cabin crew walk down the centre aisle offering an upgrade to the pilot's seat to any passenger who fancies having a crack at getting the plane off the ground.
Given its evident preference for all things insipid I suspect the ACBL may also have a hand in the production of its nation's cheeses. Mention of which leads me to flow effortlessly and geographically into a bidding system which would offer a cornucopia of creative possibilities were it not for the emotional baggage that comes with the name.
Simply to mention the Colonial System is sufficient to produce foaming moral outrage and towering cumulus clouds of offended sensibilities from almost anybody under the age of forty who had a state education, and/or a job with the BBC.
Anybody who fits either description and has also benefited from the largesse of a Rhodes scholarship is probably one of the most conflicted individuals on the planet and easily recognised as the man who never left home in recent years without a brown paper bag over his head. It is therefore with some trepidation and sincere apologies to the oppressed cormorants of storm-lashed Rockall yearning to throw off the yoke of Perfidious Albion that I embark upon some thoughts about The System That Dare Not speak Its Name.
Alas, while still in my starting blocks I confess that even in the compendious fount of wisdom that is Wikipedia I can find little about it beyond the name and the fact that it was much favoured by the Canadian national team of the early 1970's. I have no idea whether the system brought the Canadian team success but it must have something to recommend it as it allegedly still clings on in that frozen land high above the Arctic Circle helping Canadians to pass the long winter nights between early August and late May. Perhaps it also serves as a distraction from endlessly wondering about why their forebears thought it was such a great idea to move five thousand miles to one of the few places on Earth that actually had worse weather than where they had come from.
There may be precious little information to find on the Colonial System of bridge bidding but there is much more to be discovered about the suggestively named Colonial Club. In view of the litigious character of our former colonists across the Pond it would probably be unwise to identify the club I have in mind beyond telling you that it meets within the confines of a ' - - lovely gated community - - ' in an area of the New World that was among the first to enjoy the civilising benefits of English settlement. e.g. smallpox, loss of ancestral lands, destruction of the indigenous culture, and, ultimately, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee, MacDonalds, and Donald Trump (what is it about Donalds?).
But all this was yet to come as relations between the locals and the new arrivals were cordial to begin with. This was just as well because the latter were a pretty clueless bunch having arrived with an abundance of hell-fire preachers and predatory personal injury lawyers but nobody who knew the first thing about putting a roof over their heads or whipping up a decent lunch in the middle of a wilderness.
Thus they were completely dependent on their bemused hosts for just about everything while they sat around in the snow whining about their chilblains and that Bear Grylls was never around when you needed him. Almost four centuries later watching a bunch of mismatched talentless wannabes with flawless skin and great dental work thrown together in an isolated spot and required to fend for themselves and failing hopelessly is considered terrific couch-potato viewing entertainment by millions of their fellow citizens whose definition of the wild outdoors is a slow internet connection. Back then the locals saw little to amuse or impress them in the supine incompetence and blowtorch halitosis of the newcomers and sat down to review their immigration policy accordingly.
Before they did that they made the fatal mistake of providing the bumbling pioneers with a nice turkey dinner which not only perked them up no end but also demonstrated that hunting these obliging birds was something even they could do. They took to it so well that pretty soon they had created a shortage of the toothsome beasts and began to see no good reason why they should share with the locals the few that were left and began work on reducing the length of the cafeteria queue.
Hiding in the woods and watching the incomers scoff all the turkeys for miles around before the end of November while the price of a tepee rocketed far above the means of the local wampum economy was probably the last straw. With Christmas lunch already ruined and seeing no chance of their children ever being able to afford their own wigwam 'The Savages' decided the Colonial System was a game they couldn't win and attacked the lovely gated community their ingrate guests had eventually built for themselves without even bothering to apply for planning permission.
It did no good of course and served only to convince the new arrivals that the locals were just bad losers who couldn't play the game well enough to be allowed to join their newly-formed Manifest Destiny club. One new club house after another was built within the sheltering walls of successive lovely gated communities stretching from Maine to Monterey nearly all of which had names quaintly and reassuringly prefixed with the word 'Fort'.
The intrepid nation builders took their bidding system wherever they went and imposed it upon whoever they came across – whether they wanted it or not and most didn't. The few who did decide to give it try still ended up being banished along with everybody else to the Rogers and Hammerstein hit musical that had been created especially for them in Oklahoma in which they got none of the good songs and were woken at an ungodly hour every morning by Howard Keel's terrible singing
The Newbies didn't win every hand they played on their way to the Pacific and suffered one particularly notable setback when a chap by the name of Custer took up the game but eventually paid the price of his characteristic reckless overbidding in a game played against the useful local pairing of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. The chant of 'Can we play you every week?' was heard then for the first time but few people now realise that it originated with the game of bridge and was only later adopted by football fans. 'One hand doth not a rubber make' as the old saying I just made up has it and from then on there was never any doubt about which team was going to be pick up all the master points.
With nobody left to be converted to its virtues, the Colonial System of bidding soon fell into disuse in favour of 5-card majors which had the immediate appeal of being played in your own backyard rather than your neighbour's. Pretty much everybody thought the new system was a big improvement except for the turkeys for whom things have only ever got worse particularly in late November. Traces of the old ways still persist if you know where to look and back where it all began square-jawed, flinty-eyed, sentinels clad in expensively tailored buckskins and Versace Davy Crockett raccoon hats still keep watch from the ramparts of the Colonial Club vigilantly scanning the treeline through the sights of their 50-calibre, 500-rounds-a-minute, door chimes.
Anybody who can prove direct unbroken descent from those who arrived on the Mayflower can be sure of a folksy welcome just so long as they're not registered Democrats or able to prove direct unbroken descent from the original turkey dinner providers. The moral of this story is clear: be careful who you welcome into your club and never serve them turkey if you let them in.
Having been an incompetent bridge player for a number of years, I took a decision several years ago to become an incompetent Tournament Director. Something in which, I have greatly succeeded in becoming, over the last few years.
During training I was informed that the game was to be taken with great seriousness, it was no place at all for brevity, so on many occasions I have been forced to visit tables that were clearly amused by something and ask: “Are you enjoying yourselves?” When I receive a positive answer I have to remind them: “Well, don’t!”
However this does not normally have the required effect, and often leads to further bouts of giggles.
I have found at the table, that Directors have two enemies, Players, and often other Directors, (I have been guilty too), when we should all pull together, and sing off the same song sheet (and other clichés).
There is however, one incident, at a large event a couple of years ago, at which I was present, that needs to be recorded, and serve as a warning to all Directors and players alike. I will stress that the players involved were all experienced, and of no-little ability.
Director was summoned, by a combination of North and East, and arrived quickly, as they had correctly remembered to append the word ‘Please’ to the request.
East commented: “We are playing in 2Hx, and pointed towards his partner as this was being said. North nodded, and South commented: “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
South's comment appeared a little odd, as N had led ♦A, and E had presented a dummy of 13 cards (the normal amount I’m told), containing a monstrously powerful three points.
S had exposed nine cards before he’d been stopped by other players, or there may well have been two dummies (or more) at the table. The exposed cards were five spades KQJxx, two hearts and two clubs.
With no Diamonds exposed by S, the instruction was given to play out the first trick only. All hands followed to the ♦A and as S played he commented: “I’ve done nothing wrong, I just want you all to know.”
W was given the option to instruct N to lead or ban a suit, and seeing the Spades in S banned N from leading spades.
As a surprise to all, N led the ♦K, which also held. This was followed by the ♦Q.
At this point W commented: “Are you sure this is right?” S again commented that he had done nothing wrong and was not at fault in any way.
Director obviously believing W's comment to be to the effect that he should have had the opportunity to ban or instruct a lead before the Q was exposed. Director held up play, and looked at W, who simply commented: “Is this right? Am I supposed to be playing this?”
As this was said S commented: “Don’t look at me, I’ve done nothing wrong.” There was no comment from either N or E, but E had covered his face with his hands, and a strange muffled sound was emanating from behind them. N had turned away, and 10 cards hid his face. N and E made the mistake of looking at each other, and for a moment N looked like he was going to fall off his chair. Several nearby tables had stopped playing and were watching, in their minds, the cabaret.
It took just over a minute for silence to reign at the table, only to be broken by S: “What were you laughing at, I’ve done nothing wrong.”
N offered an apology to the Director, suggesting that he may have been misinformed. So a recap of the Bidding was requested.
N - 1NT, E - pass, S - 2♥ (transfer), W – X, N pass (two hearts and only two spades), all pass.
So N should have been dummy with an exposed card. E should have been a defender with 13 penalty cards. S ‘who had done nothing wrong’, should have been declarer with nine exposed cards, and poor W - who actually had done nothing wrong - should have been on lead, but had been pre-empted by N.
This lead out of turn had probably instigated the whole chain of events. In pairs I think they would have been told about wasting Directors time and been awarded 40/40, as three rounds had been commenced.
However this was in teams of four. So with the proviso, that on the other table, no side had achieved anything brilliant, or (stupid), the board would be cancelled.
Directors be warned – players can misinform you. Get the full facts, before offering a solution to the problem that THEY have caused.
Wikipedia, that most reliable of sources for absolutely anything you desire to be misinformed about, lists no fewer than 86 bidding systems and that's without taking into account a number of derivative systems and refinements deemed worthy of a discrete mention. Much of what's on offer is frankly pretty insipid.
'The Official System' sounds like it would be just the thing in North Korea or the autumn conference of almost any UK political party conference except, of course, the Liberal Democrats who play their bridge with no system at all never mind one that's officially official. I have no idea how it works; just scanning the title left me too bored to read any further.
Reith One-over-One sounds too Calvinist to be much fun and the Scientific Sisters, Eastern and Western, (there really are two of them) are again a mite too bluestocking sounding for my taste. Culbertson and Goren were a great music hall comedy double act in their day, but I'm more of a Morecombe and Wise sort of bloke. They have left a fine legacy of work but so far as I can find out none of it contributes anything very useful to the game of bridge.
However, with a little tinkering what was probably Eric's most famous line can be turned into a useful put down to a complaining playing partner: 'Listen Sunshine, I am making the right bids - but not necessarily in the right order!'
I felt I might be homing in on something when I came across the various 'Clubs', especially Swedish, French and Amsterdam but on closer inspection they delivered a lot less than they promised (or at least what I hoped for). Sorry Poland but I've just never thought of you that way.
I moved on to the more richly promising Vanderbilt system. I know very little about Mr Vanderbilt beyond the fact that he is commonly held to have invented the game and that he wasn't short of a bob or two. Unfortunately his bidding system is now deemed to be as moribund and largely forgotten as he is.
The only remaining fragment of the glory that was once the Vanderbilt system is Goulash, a variant of the game 'in which the cards are not properly shuffled and are dealt several at a time'. Apparently he (Vanderbilt) 'gave some advice on how to play this unusual form of the game'. I have been unable to find out anything else about it which is a shame because I'll bet we've all played Goulash without ever intending to at some time in our lives.
Simplified Precision was the last born and runt of the litter
It would be handy to have some officially authorised rules to sort out the resulting mess after dear dotty old Uncle Charlie has dealt the cards in his characteristic 'forage what you can off the floor' way but gets very crabby if anybody even so much as hints that anything slightly irregular has just happened.
Any consideration of bidding systems can hardly avoid bumping into the sprawling but fragmented and now much diminished Kingdom of Precision. The dynasty was founded by mad, bad, King Icelandic Precision who, in keeping with Viking tradition saddled his children with highly improbable names.
Power Precision Club was the first born, so-called because being the eldest his father naturally expected him to lord it over his younger siblings. So it proved and he ultimately inherited his father's dark and chilly throne and an unfortunate cod allergy.
He was followed by Super Precision Club who, being of a more studious nature entered the Church where by using the murderous talents endowed to him by his Nordic lineage made his way swiftly up the ecclesiastical greasy pole to become Iceland's first cardinal by the age of eighteen and was greatly respected for his mendacity, venality, and silky poisoning skills.
Precision Club suffered the common fate of many a middle child as evidenced by his father's disinclination to think of a really good name for him. He was something of a disappointment to his father, an opinion not improved by receiving a letter from his under achieving offspring informing his father that he had discovered Canada.
Hurt by his father's low opinion Precision Club became something of a recluse and was rarely seen outside his home. He has been dead for over a thousand years now but Canadians still don't get out much. Proof, if proof is needed, that the Precision family casts a long and deadening shadow. Something we shall encounter again in considering the last of this star-crossed brood.
His descendants live in Norfolk to this day
Simplified Precision was the last born and the runt of the litter. As his name suggests he was not the sharpest blade in the drawer but this at least meant his father had no problem when it came to choosing a name. Simplified Precision hung around the royal longhouse for several years until his father, seeing no evidence of Super Precision's great intellect or depth of religious feeling in his younger son, and despairing of him ever making his own way in the world by the traditional Viking career path of fire, slaughter, and pillage, endowed him with what we now know as Norfolk just to get rid of him.
His descendants live there to this day, cousin marrying cousin generation after generation and greeting one another in the street with a characteristic 'one club to you cousin', to which it is customary and polite to respond with 'and one diamond to you cousin'. Whereupon they pass on their way with neither of them any the wiser about who it was they just spoke to or able to make any sense of what they have just heard...
Many moons ago, back in the 1970s, Fleur (my wife) and I served as Mate and Master on small coasters (cargo ships) working around the British Isles and Near Continent, known as the Home Trade Area in the Merchant Navy.
We began to play bridge in the mid 1960s, assisted by Alfred Sheinwold’s Autobridge, and graduated from kitchen to club bridge when living at Rye, East Sussex.
One day, while our ship was in Littlehampton, which we visited regularly, I discovered a local bridge club only a short walk from the harbour, where they played rubber bridge some afternoons. One wet afternoon, while the cargo could not be unloaded, we ventured along and were made most welcome.
After this it became a treat to discover (usually via the library – no search engines in those days) the whereabouts of a local bridge club, and sometimes their evenings coincided with our time in port. From memory we played both rubber and duplicate, though how we fared at the latter we rarely found out as we had sailed away long before the results appeared.
Hospitality was usually welcoming although at a visit to the Club in Bristol (v swish – own clubhouse with bar and steward) I was told on arrival that a tie was in order, and a tartan one was produced which definitely did not match my Carnaby Street flowery shirt! Suitably chastened we played very badly, not helped when one opponent asked the meaning of a bid and we both answered – hopefully the same but probably not.
"It’s a sad thing that we don’t get to know better the people we meet for an evening once a week...We live in a fast-changing world but let’s take a more leisurely approach and be prepared to relax and communicate with each other."
Most memorable was playing three nights in succession in Cork, first in a hotel, next in a convent school and then in the army barracks, though that was the night after the Aldershot bomb, which cast a shadow over the evening. The Irish are the most lovely and generous folk and we enjoyed many happy times there.
Bridge has moved on since then with the introduction of bidding boxes, announcements, P2P and other “improvements”. It seems to be played, increasingly, by those who are retired and wish to keep their minds active. Does that strike a chord?
Why did one learn to play originally? Well, it was a guaranteed friendly afternoon/evening, especially when supplemented by drink, food, conversation and more drink. But it’s a sad thing that we don’t get to know better the people we meet for an evening once a week. Too often one discovers that one of the club regulars, now no more, had something in common.
At Roydon (Diss) BC we have a halfway break for tea and biscuits, so we do get to chat for 10 minutes, but even then it tends to be current politics, weather and gardening. There are many old colonials (for instance) playing bridge still with interesting personal histories to relate. Perhaps we should prepare a brief cv – or would that contravene GDPR legislation?
We live in a fast-changing world but let’s take a more leisurely approach and be prepared to relax and communicate with each other. Shall I get the ball rolling? OK – click on A Passage to Wisbech and watch yours truly when he was rather younger in 1982.
One of the joys of holidaying in Orford – aside from plentiful supplies of fresh fish, wonderful pubs and restaurants, and unspoilt coastline and countryside – is the proximity of Framlingham bridge club.
The local Conservative Club, nestling a short distance from Framlingham Castle, provides a comfortable home for the bridge players (not to mention a bar in an adjacent room). And the summer holiday is not complete without a pilgrimage to see the friendly faces of Fram.
You get a hint from the club’s lively website of the relaxed informality and gentle sense of self-deprecating humour which underpins everything they do. How can you not like a club whose list of committee members says of one ‘could have been stationery cupboard monitor but missed her chance,’ and of another ‘All and everything duties’.
This year’s visit was full of surprises. For starters, the floor was adorned by a brand new, plush carpet of patterned, midnight blue. (I suppose Corbynista red was unavailable...)
But the real humdinger was the array of new faces: ten of them by my reckoning. And thereby hangs a story…
A year ago, with the slide in table numbers showing no sign of abating, the prospects for the club looked bleak. But since then two factors have come into play.
First, the decision some four summers ago to start a club teaching programme, not just at the club, but also in Huntingfield and Saxmundham. Teaching beginners to play bridge has similarities with planting a vineyard. You do not see the fruit of your labours for a while. Some pupils wither on the vine, so to speak; others who stick with it choose not to darken the doors of a bridge club and opt for social bridge at home with their friends.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle any bridge club faces is persuading the understandably anxious or timid pupil who has ‘learnt bridge’ to dive off the top board and forego the comfort blanket of supervised lessons for the real thing – a duplicate evening at a club. Seriously scary.
How do you calm their fears and worries and assure them that they will not make fools of themselves?
Well, a year ago Fram took the decisive step to make one of their weekly Monday sessions every month a ‘Mentoring evening.’ As the name suggests, an experienced player teams up with a novice and fulfils the role of a bridge godparent.
By chance, my annual visit coincided with such an evening. Six full tables, several Mentoring Pairs with confident ‘improvers’ who clearly had been taught well – and plenty of smiling faces were on view.
The turnaround in the club’s fortunes from 12 months ago could not have been more striking to a casual visitor and owes much to the hard work of those running the club…not least the ‘stationery cupboard monitor.’ The vineyard is bearing fruit.
Just as important, the experience of Fram may offer a blueprint for clubs who find themselves in a similar dilemma to that which faced the bridge players near the Castle on the Hill.
It was some time before I learned that the well-known saying about skinning a cat also applied to bridge. Learning the game in England is still pretty much like growing up in North Korea or some other monolithic, repressive, one-party, Gulag like Sevenoaks or Sunderland – you simply have no idea the world can be otherwise than you have always known it until you leave or otherwise become exposed to the corrupting heresies of competing ideologies, and so it was with me.
It came as a bit of a surprise to discover that ACOL and bridge were not near synonyms and, moreover, not only were there other ways of skinning the same cat but our island nation was just about the only place on the planet where ACOL was the prevailing orthodoxy. I scanned the tabloids every day for some time following this disquieting revelation expecting to read that an armada was on its way from Spain to impose religious conformity but as each day passed and there was still no mention of it in the Beano or Dandy I reckoned I could relax a bit.
Revelation piled upon surprise as I finally plucked up courage to enquire of an elder of the game what the acronym 'ACOL' stood for. I wasn't expecting the answer to set my pulse racing but I was pretty miffed to discover that the nation's flagship bidding system was a complete fraud in that it was not the intriguing acronym it pretended to be but simply the name of an unremarkable road in London where a bunch of upper middle class types whiled away their plentiful leisure hours in the 1930s coming up with a quite clever wheeze.
For all my initial disappointment I shortly decided that for now at least I could live quite happily with the more quietly dignified Acol I now considered it to be even if it wasn't quite me. Written in its unpretentious lower case form it has a comfortably tweedy 1950s English feel about it. Acol smokes a pipe and wears slippers around the house. It doesn't own a car but has recently acquired a black and white television although it still favours the radio which it refers to as the wireless and never misses The Archers. It wouldn't dream of leaving home without wearing a hat and thinks cardigans are the height of sartorial elegance.
Upper case ACOL is the family from Hell bellowing expletives into their mobile phones
Acol is the kind of convention you inadvertently bump into the shopping isle of your local supermarket and it immediately apologies even though you were to blame and insists you go first at the checkout because you have only a few items to pay for. Acol might not be very exciting but it's companionable and polite and makes a steady neighbour.
Upper case ACOL is the family from Hell bellowing expletives into their mobile phones while pushing several heavily laden shopping trolleys two abreast down the isle and leaving a trail of maimed and dying shoppers in their wake for their feral progeny to walk over while they pillage the shelves of anything they know instinctively will be bad for them.
Move fast if you see them approaching the checkout because they are not going to wave you ahead to pay for your single box of matches no matter that they have a small massive of items piled high in a freight train of trolleys stretching back to the far wall. Whenever I lose this particular race I derive considerable malicious consolation from knowing that the total food value of their haul is close to zero and contains all sorts of undesirable additives that will do them all no end of harm.
ACOL is a three-car family and the house is filled with myriad IT gadgets all of which are completely unnecessary. Pride of place goes to a medium-sized HD cinema masquerading as a television which offers eight hundred channels all of which are utterly banal but mum and dad only ever watch Sky Sports and the Shopping Channel. Their ghastly offspring live upstairs in Stygian darkness playing corrosively gruesome computer games that in a few years will turn them into a brood of serial axe murderers thereby gaining them the celebrity status they crave. Nobody in the family has ever read a book or has any idea the BBC even exists. ACOL is a convention for our time: pretentious, loud, garish, materialistic, philistine and self-obsessed. I don't know how dull but dependable, cardigan-wearing, Acol became pushy, designer-label clad ACOL but I know I don't like it. What I need is a bidding system somewhere between these two extremes.
Is bridge daring to break out from the Dark Ages?
One-day cricket was introduced nearly half a century ago and my father’s reaction was short and dismissive in equal measure.
‘Tip and run’ he snorted in the style of ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ (who probably was disgusted). What he would have made of 20-20, let alone a recent suggestion of 100 ball games with 15-a-side, does not bear thinking about.
However, if cricket had not re-invented itself in a successful attempt to attract new spectators to the game, it would be in a sorry state today.
Bridge has not been so swift taking such a leap from the Dark Ages. Yes, it has adopted bidding boxes (after furious debate) and electronic scoring (ditto), but little has been done to think beyond the club bridge ‘model’ in an attempt to win over new players to the game.
Most bridge clubs pay lip service to the internet and websites (uploading the scores each week – and that’s it), despite their huge potential to entice people to the wonders of the world’s best card game. As for Facebook (which, for many people, has replaced local newspapers as their prime source of information), forget it…
At times, one could be forgiven for thinking that bridge, particularly at club level, is turning its face against the real world rather than embracing the new methods of communication. Perhaps it is a reflection of the age profile of the average bridge club member.
The appetite for change exists. Thinking ‘outside the box’ is almost certainly the reason for the extraordinary success of Funbridge, which now boasts a community of more than 400,000 members from 250 countries (including 21,000 in the UK) who play more than 800,000 deals on-line every day.
One of the many reasons it is fun is the bite-sized format. You can play five board games on-line against friends, strangers or a robot – done-and-dusted in under half an hour.
Or you can create a team of four and play 15-board matches four times a month in a league with about 10 divisions.
Our Funbridge team of Paddy, Cloppy, Minortaffy and Dobbee - don’t ask - make up the Suffolk Barstewards (yes, I know: put it down to a rural sense of humour). And it is fun, with the quality of the on-line repartee usually dwarfing that of our play.
Chatting recently with Andre Gray, a Suffolk and Ipswich regular, he reckons the quality of the Funbridge software means the computer’s ‘defence’ is the best around on-line. My experience is that your card play has to be razor sharp and you normally pay dearly for taking any liberties with the bidding.
Does Funbridge beat the ‘real thing’? Of course not. But unquestionably it offers something different to normal club bridge and it is striking a chord world wide.
The success of Funbridge in a relatively short space of time is underlined by the amazing numbers taking part. In addition to the growing U.K. membership, there are 60,000 members in the US and 56,000 in France (it’s a French based site). And let’s not forget 12 players in Antarctica (what else is there to do?)
It must also be proving a ‘nice little earner’, as Arthur Daley might say, for its inventors. Although players get a free trial, they then pay a sum per number of boards, per month or per year. The annual option, which is the cheapest per board, works out at around £2 a week. With 400,000 members, I will let you do the maths…
The first question in my mind when asked by Richard to write a 'blog', which apparently this is, was: 'Why me?' Any of you who know me even slightly will doubtless be asking yourself the same question so for your benefit I'll let Richard explain...
'I want something that's light and written by an enthusiastic but not expert player. I don't want it to be highly informative in the usual way of these things - and I thought of you,' he said.
I took 'not expert' to mean 'not very good' and when it comes to be being 'not highly informative' there's nobody in my league. I could see no flaw in Richard's reasoning so I agreed to have a bash.
Should you have come here looking for and expecting a cerebral analysis of a particularly thorny hand that defeated many a renowned international pairing at the last world championships - this is not where you want to be.
If you are the kind of player who sees nothing wrong with leading a singleton against 3NT* or cheerfully informs the opposition that your partner's 1NT bid is worth 12-14 points no matter where it happens in the bidding process then this blog is just stuffed full of useful tips guaranteed to take your game even further downhill...
Most of us are just blagging it, not just in bridge but in almost everything else. I'll give you a couple of examples from my own record of sporting excellence.
I have the honour of having played cricket at county level for Suffolk. I'll grant you it was for the over 70's side and I was a last-minute replacement for a player who pulled out or quite possibly died en route to the ground so they were desperate and I happened to be there.
Further, not only was I incompetent but I was also ineligible by virtue of being under age (an achievement in its own right at over 60) but I was assured that neither of these things constituted an adequate excuse for me to avoid the chance to disgrace myself and my county and I did not disappoint.
The opposition batted first and I remained on the field for one ball before being literally carried off with a pulled hamstring after sort-of-sprinting too enthusiastically to cut off the ball before it crossed the boundary. However, when I tell the story I tend to omit all the inconsequential details and just leave in the bit about playing cricket for Suffolk.
Many years before that I gained representative hockey honours from the Army Apprentices College (AAC), Chepstow without ever turning up to play. I have no idea how I was selected in the first place given the inconvenient truth that I had never watched a game of hockey much less played in one nor had I ever expressed the slightest interest in doing so. I was terrified by this prospect but, aged just 15 and fearful of speaking out, I solved the problem by not turning up for the game.
Much to my amazement not only did I not get shouted at but nobody even referred to my absence and I was selected to play again, which problem I solved in the same way as before - again without any repercussions. I'd obviously played well in my absence because I was selected for, and did not attend, a third game.
By now I was beginning to rather enjoy the sport of hockey in which to excel it was only necessary to not take part. Alas, following my third no-show the selectors not unreasonably felt they could do better and my name never again appeared on daily orders in a hockey connection. Notwithstanding my failure to even so much as pick up a hockey stick I was deeply gratified to note upon graduating from my not-very-benign alma mater that I had been awarded representative honours in a sport I knew nothing about.
The AAC closed years ago so I'm probably safe owning up to that one now. More than half-a-century on and thousands of bridge hands later I have reached the seemingly impressively labelled rank of advanced master but a glance at the skyscraper of ranks above my present level tells me I'm still really only blagging it – I bet I'm not alone in feeling that way.
* I'm vaguely aware there is a clever way of indicating to partner that you want an unusual opening lead and so the lead of a singleton against a NT contract is not necessarily a bad thing but most of us ordinary mortals don't know that and if we do know it we have no idea how it's done so please don't write in.