Immersed in the many horrors of lockdown, we do what we have to do to survive. For many of us, it involves a hobby: either a new one or an old one, taken to dream of heights so far. There are pandemic pet people, the sourdough tragedy (of which I am the most tragic of all), the wine club weirdos, the Netflix junkies, the crazy crafters. And without knowing it for the rest of the world, there are also brome addicts who quietly (and not so quietly) face triumph and disaster over the bridge table every hour of the day and night, global scourge is condemned.
This microcosm of COVID-19 life was recently revealed by a friend who is herself a bridge player: an award-winning investigative journalist who confessed that in lockdown, she has played bridge almost every day and dreamed about it at night. She wanted to talk more about her compulsion, but she could not because she was playing bridge with a Supreme Court justice, a filmmaker and a QC.
Wait! I said. You need four people, all gathered around a small table, all stationery and usually indoors to play bridge. For what reason might you pretend to exercise? “It’s all online!” she cried. Then she hung up.
She was not the only one. As it turns out, it’s extremely difficult to talk to someone about playing bridge during lockdown because everyone is actually playing bridge. I call Di Jagelman, a Sydney community with a lovely warm voice. Her first words are: “Hullo? I have to play a card! Oh no! Oh no!”
I’m calling about bridge, I say. Do I have to call back?
“Yes! It’s my turn, oh no!” She hangs up.
Then I call Prue White *, a Gregorian businesswoman in Sydney. I’ll call about bridge, I say again.
“Oh honey! It’s so perfect, I’m playing bridge right now! ” she says. “And I play again at 4.30 and again at 7! I’ve told my son we’ll get takeaway for dinner! Oops – it’s me! ”
I’ll call tomorrow, I say. “Yes! Perfect! Yes, I know it’s me.” She hangs up.
Joan Butts is the Australian Bridge Federation’s national education coordinator and has represented Australia as a player. In 2017, she founded her own online bridge school, joanbuttsbridge.com. Oh yes, she says apologetically: Bridge people are hopelessly distracted during games. (Butts herself once played an entire tournament without realizing she was at work – i.e. in the very process of having a baby – it was so focused on the game. After winning the tournament, she laid down her cards, went to the hospital and quickly gave birth to his son Tom.)
“The most frequent players play up to 10 times a week; so it is several times a day. ”
But even she admits that COVID has taken bridgemania to a whole new level. People who used to play once or twice a week – occasionally, socially, at dinner parties when they were “tired of having a conversation but did not want to go home”, as one player put it to me – suddenly play every day , sometimes several times a day.
“My subscription base grew by 50 percent in a single month in April last year,” Butts says. “And we have doubled our membership [since the start of the pandemic]. ”
Bridge is apparently surprisingly good at both learning and playing online. “You don’t have to be near as polite,” Butts says. “You can run around your apartment and scream with rage, and no one knows.”
The game has been online for decades, but it took a global pandemic to really give it energy there.
“More than two-thirds of our members now play online,” said Liam Milne, manager of Sydney’s North Shore Bridge Club in Sydney, the largest bridge club in Australia. “And the most frequent players play up to 10 times a week; so it is several times a day. ”
In Melbourne, as a direct result of COVID, bridge teacher Laura Ginnan and husband Peter Hollands (“Yes, we met to play bridge,” Ginnan says, “of course we did”) established the first 100 percent Australian-owned online gaming platform, realdealbridge .com, last year. “And we quadrupled our player base alone in August” – when both Sydney and Melbourne were locked inside.
There is also a large online bridge, Bridge Base Online (BBO), a US site formerly owned by Bill Gates. Gates is an avid gambler and often collaborates with his good partner, investment billionaire Warren Buffett. As BBO’s Alexandra Quintin explains, the site now has “160,000 daily log-ins compared to 100,000 in January 2020. One day we had more than 90,000 players logging in and playing at once!”
“Eventually I had to go cold turkey – then I was totally sledged by everyone and told myself I needed bridge AA.”
“I’ve been obsessed,” admits TV producer Penny Chapman. She and some friends have been playing for three years and “we are still pretty awful”.
But thanks to all the COVID play, one of her groups recently came up with three points on the BBO ranking system. This is not very high, but still all of Chapman’s competitive instincts emerged: “I immediately decided that I should also reach three. I was like a crazy woman. I played in tournament after tournament; I would go to bed and make those hands flash through my head. And I did not reach three. Eventually I had to cold turkey – then I was totally sledged by everyone and told myself I needed bridge AA: ‘My name is Penny and I’m a fervent underbitter.’ ”
Nevertheless, addiction, “Bridge has saved our lives under COVID,” says Judy Crawford, board member (of the Australian Chamber Orchestra), ambassador (of the Sydney Dance Company) and innocent bridge player (of London and Paris, as well as Australia). “We currently play online five or six times a week. It is a gift from God. “But not necessarily one intended to increase inner harmony. “I have had two husbands [millionaire businessman Ian Joye, and the late Macquarie Bank co-founder Robin Crawford] who played bridge. I thought it might be something we would do together. And then I might not have thought. ”
“You need great sensitivity, but still it is a very aggressive game. People get very upset with each other. ”
“It can be very delicate,” Butts agrees: especially if your partner is also your, yes, partner. “You need great sensitivity, but still it is a very aggressive game. People get very upset with each other. ”
John Roberts, a former bridge pro and founder, in 1987, at Bridgetoday.com.au, describes a bridge-partner couple he knows who have found online bridge far preferable to the face-to-face version. “They play on units in separate rooms, and the man said it’s much more relaxing now, because his wife can not see against him.”
Yet sometimes even separate rooms are not enough. The first house Prue White ever bought – long before COVID – was the result of a divorce caused by a bridge. “After the auction, I went up to the man who had sold the place
and said, ‘Oh, it’s such a nice house, why did you sell it?’ “She remembers. “And he said, ‘My wife discovered a bridge.’ ”
White learned to play with some friends almost a decade ago. They used to get together once a month, but since COVID things have escalated. “I want to lie in bed and watch TV, and my phone will binge, and someone is saying, ‘Do you want some of you-know-what?’ And in five minutes we play; and at midnight we will say, ‘It’s getting a little late,’ and at 2 o’clock someone will say, ‘I really have to go to bed.’ ”
“I’m lying in bed watching TV and my phone is ringing and there’s someone saying, ‘Do you want some of you-know-what?'”
Better like Kampklub, no one outside the Bridge Club really understands what the hell is going on inside the Bridge Club. “All husbands are like, ‘What are you doing?’ White says. “‘You can not just play bridge.’ But it’s us! ”
Of course, sometimes it’s not just the game people feel passion for. “A lot of people have bolted with their bridge pros,” says Di Jagelman. “They are ski instructors for old ladies. They do something you like by doing it much better than you can do it. “She has a girlfriend who actually did it. Did it improve her bridge? Jagelman laughs. “Not significantly.”
Of course, it is likely that you are a little less likely to play online if you are preoccupied with technology as well as their partners (and their cards). But some people have been playing online for years. “My international bridge career has been going on for a while!” laughs charity queen Skye Leckie. “It started because I’m a terrible player. I had to go on many pages and have all these different aliases, because if I went back to the same place with the same name, people would refuse to play with me! ”
Nevertheless, there is also some difficulty in playing with strangers. A woman I talk to was once partnered online by someone who turned out to be playing from prison. “The thing was,” she says, “he was terribly helpful. He kept saying, ‘Oh, don’t play that card’ and ‘Well done!’ It was amazing. ”
“Yes!” says Prue White, who has heard this story. “I think he was a killer!”
The story does not tell whether his victim was his bridge partner, but bridge murder has happened at least once: Myrtle Bennett of Kansas City shot her husband dead after playing a hand that lost them a game with their neighbors one evening in 1929. Although she chased him through the apartment with a semi-automatic pistol, shot at him four times and hit him twice in front of witnesses and killed him on the spot, Myrtle Bennett was acquitted. It is unclear how many bridge players were on the jury.
For most people, however, bridge is a lifesaver rather than the opposite. “Oh my god, it’s saved my mind,” says Di Jagelman. “I play at least four or five times a week – more in lockdown.”
“Oh god, it has saved my mind. I play at least four or five times a week – more in lockdown. ”
A few years ago, she even played on the American Spring Nationals. During this competition, she and her partner played several other partnerships, including a couple — older, gray-haired, pleasantly indescribable — who on closer inspection turned out to be … guess who? Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
Oh my god, Di, I say: you played two men with a total wealth measured in hundreds of billions; the most legendary
investor and the greatest philanthropist in history! “But they were not so good at bridge,” Jagelman says calmly. “I think they won one hand and we won one.”
Which just turns out. In bridge, anything is possible.
* Not her real name. She asked that her identity be hidden, perhaps because, like James Bond, who is playing against the evil multi-
millionaire Sir Hugo Drax in Moonraker – she lives a life of international intrigue.
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