Lessons from a life of bridge.
The University of Chicago has given me many things. A degree that makes people go, “Oooooh.” A grade point average that makes people go, “That bad?” Deep respect for ideas, rigor, and black coffee, not necessarily in that order.
And … bridge.
No, not the kind that carries roads over gullies. The famous card game. Which I learned to play in the late lamented Pierce Tower in 1963.
On a cold winter’s night, the clock was about to strike midnight. I was trying (and mostly failing) to read a textbook in my room.
From down the hall, a voice bellowed: “We need a fourth for bridge!”
That sounded like more fun than studying (it still does). I had never played before. I pulled up a piece of mattress alongside a shipping trunk and unfurled the 13 cards I had been dealt. I’ve been unfurling ever since.
After 60 years of bidding slams and finessing for queens, these are my credentials: National champion. Thirty-one-time regional champion. Holder of nearly 10,000 master points (only a few hundred players have ever amassed more).
I write about bridge, teach it, sometimes play it professionally. At 3 a.m., when she feels me stir, my wife is likely to say: “Stop thinking about the hand you blew and go back to sleep.”
“Yes, dear,” I will reply, dutifully. But I won’t reenter dreamland until I reconstruct and replay the horror hand from memory, card by card. Sometimes twice.
So many nonplayers think that success at bridge is all about math. Learn the odds and you’ll soar. In fact, this truism needs to be turned upside down. Yes, fail to master the math piece and you will certainly fail. But overall success depends just as heavily on a spry memory and that elusive quality called table feel.
Your opponents often sprout inadvertent tics—a curl of the eyebrow, a nervous lick of the lips—when the pressure is on. To experienced players, these tells are as comprehensive as the textbook I once lugged to Humanities 1.
Recognizing tells is also famously part of a poker player’s arsenal. But the similarity between the two games ends there.
There’s no betting in tournament bridge. Uttering so much as a sound is forbidden. To kibitz a table at a serious tournament is to wonder whether the four players are drawing breath—that’s how stone-faced and locked-in they are.
Bridge has produced some of the more epic, antic true stories I’ve ever heard.
Story one: At a large tournament in Pennsylvania, a top-line player failed in a contract he could have made. He punched a wall. His hand crumpled into a bloody mess. He was driven to a nearby emergency room.
The doctor asked what happened. “Well, I had five spades to the king, three clubs to the ten …,” the man began.
Story two: A very accomplished—and very bridge-obsessed—couple retired to their hotel room after an evening bridge session in New York. “Darling,” said the man, “do you want to make love first or discuss the hands first?” (Both people verify the story—for those who care, bridge discussion went first.)
Story three: At a home match in the 1930s between two couples, one husband was ragging on his wife unmercifully. Nothing she could do was right. He kept it up for more than an hour.
Finally, she excused herself, went to her bedroom, fetched a pistol, and shot her husband dead.
The jury acquitted!
Why bridge and not hearts or canasta? Because bridge demands (and rewards) total attention and total stamina. Luck is very much secondary.
National events have been lost in the 16th hour when a player blanked briefly and couldn’t remember whether his partner had played the five of spades or the six. As we bridgies get older—I promise you, we all have, do, and will—the ability to summon maximum brainpower is a comfort and a touchstone.
Also, a medical plus: bridge literature is stuffed with articles by doctors who have detected relatively lower rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s among those who play.
At late-night post-tournament sessions around the bar, bridge players love to debate the deeper meaning of the game. What lessons does it teach? What, if anything, makes a bridge player a better person?
The answer, for this addict, is easy. Bridge is always played with a partner. How you treat that humanoid across the table, and how he treats you, is central to success. Building collaborations is a life skill, for sure.
When constructing a serious partnership, two people will often spend hours agreeing on a system of special-coded bids. My favorite partner and I play 47 “conventions”—bids that are legal but often artificial and that describe something very specific.
For instance, if one of us opens the bidding with four diamonds, we’re not saying anything about diamonds. We’re indicating a hand with at least seven good hearts and an ace in one of the three other suits. It’s not cheating. It’s just better preparation.
Alas, bridge has suffered a decline in recent years. Committed World War II–era players began to die off. Younger people have not replaced them, especially Gen Zers, partly because they clog their heads with video games, partly because they are busy with school, sports, and so much else. Meanwhile, the pandemic has driven a stake through in-person bridge. Attendance has not returned to anywhere near previous levels. It may never.
Then there’s the length of the bridge runway. As a fellow teacher says when he opens yet another beginner’s class: “You will all be bad at bridge for a long time.”
But then …
A newbie bids a grand slam (all 13 tricks) for the first time and brings it home. Nice!
He doubles the opponents and defeats their contract, collecting a hefty 800 points. Cool!
Meanwhile, a grizzled vet lounges around the scorer’s table after the final session of a national tournament, sensing that he has a chance. Suddenly, one of his pals calls out: “Hey, you won!”
That happened to me in Reno, Nevada, in 2010. A national title! My beaming partner—also an apparent adult—grabbed me by the shoulders. I grabbed him by his. We proceeded to bunny-hop around the hotel ballroom like deranged pop-up toys. No one who saw us had to ask why.
Yes, I could have been curing cancer all these years. I could have written more books, volunteered more often, helped more old ladies cross the street.
But something inside me bubbles up with pleasure when a fellow player asks if I have a second, and begins: “Tell me what you’d bid. You hold four spades to the ace-jack, three hearts to the king …”
Bob Levey, AB’66, is a retired columnist for the Washington Post. He had prizewinning parallel careers as a radio and television personality. He has taught journalism at six universities. President of the University of Chicago Alumni Association (now the Alumni Board) from 1998 to 2000, he currently serves as a trustee at Montgomery (MD) College.