Bridge deals out fun, challenges

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 10, 2002

The subculture that wraps its currents around Albert Lea is not one of the secretive sort. It has existed for ages, quietly and constantly occupying homes, places of worship and community establishments. New members are always welcome as long as they posses a working knowledge of the game and a passion to learn more.

But what is it about the card game bridge that hooks players? Money is rarely involved and winners don’t receive much in the way of publicity. And to be truly great at bridge, ongoing study and practice are necessary.

When talking to avid bridge players, the excitement colors their voices as they speak of the mental stimulation the game provides.

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&uot;You find yourself enjoying solving the puzzle of each hand that’s dealt,&uot; said avid player Richard Paul.

&uot;Even if you don’t win you learn something new every time,&uot; said Sandy Roisen, a player for the last 20 years. &uot;You want to outplay your opponent in every hand.&uot;

Though it involves the same calculation and risk of poker, bridge throws another dimension into the mix. As a partner game, much of a player’s success depends on his or her ability to read and understand their partner’s tactics. So it is also for the social communication that bridge players gather, sometimes three or four times a week for hours on end.

&uot;The communication aspect is often the most difficult part, especially when playing with a stranger,&uot; said Paul, who organizes the Fountain Lake Sectional, Albert Lea’s annual fall bridge tournament.

An outsider’s mental image of the &uot;typical&uot; bridge player changes once you listen to a player describe what it takes to be competitive.

&uot;Players have to be determined, willing to work hard and like to be with people,&uot; said Roisen. &uot;Sometimes it takes a thick skin to play duplicate.&uot;

This area is permeated with two basic types of bridge, rubber or social bridge and duplicate bridge. Social bridge is the type played in homes around the kitchen table or in &uot;marathons.&uot; Groups meet once or twice a month for most of the year with year-end awards for point leaders. Duplicate is commonly played in clubs and tournaments sanctioned by the American Contract Bridge League once a week in locations around the area. Area clubs meet in Austin, Mankato, Rochester, Mason City and Northwood and play for points within the ACBL.

&uot;It’s the dream of every serious bridge player to become a ACBL Grand Life Master,&uot; said Roisen, who is only a half a gold point away from the honor.

Black ACBL points are awarded at local clubs, but to get silver, red or gold points, players must enter tournaments like the one held in Albert Lea each October. Three hundred points are required to be named a Grand Life Master. Tournament play is organized into sectionals, districts and nationals. Minnesota is part of district 14, along with Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The ACBL is highly organized with 160,000 members nationwide. They publish a monthly magazine with tournament results and instructive columns, and association members receive quarterly mailings updating their point totals.

The Fountain Lake Sectional is a sanctioned ACBL event that usually draws around 160 tables of four. The three-day tourney, Oct. 25-27, is in its seventh year and is organized by people from Albert Lea and Austin as well as Mankato, Rochester and Mason City. The tournament actually runs in conjunction with the North American Open Pairs District Finals, a tournament in which the winners will receive a trip to the national competition. During a typical tournament players go through 24-27 hands of bridge during a three- or four-hour sitting, entry fees vary by the size of the tourney, but are generally less than $40 for a weekend of play.

The bridge infatuation started in 16th century England with bridge forerunner, &uot;Whist.&uot; It migrated to America with colonists, and evolved into more recognizable bridge form in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Innovators Harold Vanderbilt and Ely Culbertson made significant changes to the game in the early 1930s, morphing it into the bridge we know now. The name &uot;Bridge&uot; is thought to come from the Russian word for whist, &uot;Biritch.&uot;

Though many bridge players are active in Albert Lea, the number of new players is small. It seems that bridge in its quiet existence is overpowered in the competition for people’s spare time. With options like watching television and using the Internet, sitting quietly and learning strategies doesn’t even occur to most young people. Another stumbling block for new players is the lack of instructors in the immediate area. The closest beginning bridge class is taught in Mason City.

But area players will continue on, ranks swelling or not.

&uot;It’s a really enjoyable game of social interraction and mental challenges,&uot; said Paul.

See the related story, Bridge Basics