Not just for grandma: Bridge tournament invites all ages for lessons

This weekend, the North American Bridge Championships offer lessons to beginners. Despite bridge's enduring popularity amongst seniors, as the demographics here attest, organizers say young players of the game of skill and strategy are amongst the best in the world.

Many of the 5,000 players have decades of experience, but beginner's workshop reaches out to a younger crowd

Hazel Wolpert is a bridge teacher who's been playing for 58 years. She says she's still learning. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

The game of bridge may conjure images of blue-haired ladies fiddling with their dentures around a laminate card table, but organizers of the North American Bridge Championships are adamant the game isn't for the frail.

With 5,000 bridge players in attendance over the 10-day tournament, and lessons on offer for beginners, organizers hope to change the stereotype.

Hazel Wolpert, a local bridge guru who's been playing for decades, says her two sons are living examples that bridge isn't merely for the elderly.

Organizers say more than 5000 people will play bridge this week as part of the North American Bridge Championships. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Wolpert's youngest, Gavin, started playing at eight years old, but couldn't sit still long enough for a full game — until he started winning. Today, Wolpert says he's one of the top players in the United States.

"Within months, they were better than me," she recalled, smiling. "They have a talent for numbers, good deductive skills."

Wolpert herself learned from her mother, who she says played until her death at 87. "Bridge kept her going," she said, rattling off a list of her late mother's various infirmities — including an aneurysm — which Wolpert suspects were overcome with the mental acuity acquired through hours at the bridge table.

"She came out of the hospital and went straight to the bridge club. She was mentally alert right up until she passed away."

Others have come to the tournament to pick up the skills Wolpert mastered long ago.

In the lesson room, clusters of confused faces bend over splayed card hands as instructors patiently answer questions. Heads are scratched. A group of women bicker good-naturedly over points.

They laugh when approached, saying the challenge is just part of the appeal.

"There are something like 600 billion possible hands," explained Anne Muller. She's been playing only a few months.

Laurel Turnbull, another novice, says she picked up the game after an "unexpected retirement," joining her local club to keep busy.

But the melange of trumps, tricks and bidding can be daunting for new players. Learn Bridge in a Day, a workshop offered at the tournament, tries to ameliorate the frustration with hands-on instruction.

Newbies Laurel Turnbull (left) Karen Blackledge (upper right) and Barbara Russell met a couple months ago at a local bridge club.

Tournament chairperson Ina Demme explains that, once players are hooked, they travel to regional and world championships to amass "masterpoints" and boost their profile on the global stage. 

At the top levels of this tournament, where very few will have a chance to compete, screens divide partners to discourage cheating. Cameras perched above each table keep silent watch over players just as quiet in their concentration.

Strategic coughing fits, pencil motions, facial expressions — all have been used to illegally convey a hand, says Demme.

She grins mischievously, admitting the game can get so intense that sometimes fights break out.

But normally rounds don't come to physical blows, and Demme stresses that, importantly, bridge serves to keep the mind fit. "It certainly keeps your brain active. Every hand you play is a new little problem," she explained.

And lately the game has shifted away from its enduring stereotype, Demme says, pointing out that bridge isn't simply a way to keep the mind sharp in old age.

"There is the impression, and it sticks in a lot of people's heads, that this is an old people's game," Demme said. "But if you look at a number of the top players in North America, they are quite young."

The North American Bridge Championships and Learn Bridge in a Day beginner's workshop both continue today at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.