Wednesday, December 17, 2008


No, this post is not about Christmas. I am not writing a list of inexpensive gift ideas (hmm, maybe that might work for another post). I am writing about one of my gifts. This post is inspired by Melissa's post about playing an instrument extremely well on certain pieces. The pieces she just owns. My instrument, to draw a broad analogy, is a deck of cards. I can play Spades pretty well, and I do fine with cribbage. I "own" Bridge.

When I first was getting to know my wife, we spent a lot of time talking about our interests and abilities. Somewhere in those conversations she said there was no one thing she was the "best" at among those she knew. I told her there was only one thing about which I could say I felt I was best, and that was playing Bridge. I could tell she was somewhat shocked, and she clearly thought I was simply joking or showing bravado. I asked her what else she had observed about me that made her think of me as a braggart. She acknowledged that nothing really had. Still, she remained skeptical.

Then she watched me play. After one time, I think she understood I had simply reported a fact. I play the game of Bridge as well as anyone I know. Of course, writing such a thing on my blog is probably an invitation for a challenge, but I would enjoy it. I haven't played in a while and might well lose a few hands and games before catching fire. Still, I know in the end I could beat anyone willing to play me, as long as we each had partners with reasonable skills. A truly terrible partner can be kryptonite to any player, simply because bad information or outright misinformation can truly ruin a good Bridge hand, game, or rubber.

Much like Melissa, I imagine most of my (few) readers won't "get" this post. Not a lot of people play Bridge anymore. But for any who do, they can probably understand these statistics. I once played 14 rubbers in a weekend and lost only one of them. My father, on the drive home, said "Well, you sure got lucky." I asked him if he honestly believed luck was all it was. He thought about it and connected my meaning. Someone can "get lucky" on a hand or two, win a game here and there, but to get lucky that long against that many different people makes no real sense.

Another time I was invited to play in a tournament hosted by my grandmother for her friends. Each player in the tournament played with everyone else for five hands. I won every round except one - the round I played with the person who came in very last. I would've won that one, too, if I had simply ignored her and bid one particular hand the way I just knew I should. Still, I beat the next competitor by nearly double, scoring over 10,000 points and scoring a rubber in every five-hand round but the one I lost. I was never invited back. I think the rest of the players didn't find it competitive with me in the mix.

I do not take credit for my skill as though it were all my own doing. I spent many hours playing Bridge with a group of women who taught me a tremendous amount about bidding strategies and techniques. In time I was able to boil all my basic strategy down on to the front and back of a single printed page. I jokingly call it my Jeet Kun Do (like Bruce Lee, who created that martial art by combining elements from many different ones and making the Way of the Fist). To understand the system, it requires a basic understanding of how Bridge works, but with those basics it is pretty usable in actually bidding a hand at Bridge. I love sharing it with people because it has been so helpful to me.

But to return to the metaphor, knowing how to play the notes on a page is one thing when it comes to playing an instrument. Yes, a person can learn to strike the right keys on a piano at the right time, to pull a bow across a string on the right beat, or blow at the right time with the valves in the right place to play a note. To truly bring a piece of music to life, though - to "own it" - can require years of training, and in the end requires a piece of the musician's heart and soul to become a masterpiece. When I am playing Bridge at the highest level I am capable of, it sometimes feels like I am playing my masterpiece. That's the best way I can explain how I play Bridge.

-- Robert

P.S.: I am very grateful to a wife who finally took up the game herself and has become a very accomplished player in her own right. I truly enjoy playing with her across from me.


le35 said...

I think that each piece of music has to be played with a good portion of the mucian's heart. I can sort of see the analogy between bridge and music for you. However, sometimes, when I play with too much heart in games, I end up hurting the game and it's not fun anymore. I'd rather not feel so competitive.

Robert said...

When I am really playing Bridge with enjoyable people, I could care less who wins or loses. It's just a pleasure to play. I enjoy the exchange of bids and the strategy, but most of all I enjoy playing with people who love to play - and I don't mean people who just love to win (and whine when they lose). The people I played with in college never cared that my regular partner and I cleaned their clock for three straight hours. They just enjoyed the good Bridge being played in their presence. I think the people we've played with recently, though, tend to get too focused on the PLAY-PLAY-PLAY and GOTTA-WIN-GOTTA-WIN mindset and not on the pure enjoyment of the game. We just need to find people who can enjoy the game for the true art form that it is. Or at least people who just enjoy playing.