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Playing Bridge Keeps You Young and Sharp

The fascinating card game can stimulate brain cells and help you make smarter business decisions — just ask Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and me

By Matthew Solan | May 22, 2013
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Matthew Solan is a health and fitness writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla. His website is www.matthewsolan.com.

My partner, Nancy, stares at her cards through her Jackie Onassis glasses. I can sense her brain waves firing on all cylinders. Finally, she responds. “Two hearts.”
 
The next player says pass and it is back to me. I opened one spade, so what is Nancy trying to tell me? I think she has four hearts, but I can’t recall the rule for the range of points she must have to bid two hearts. Should I pass? Raise to 3 hearts? Go higher?

I begin to chew on a nail.
 
This is my world of bridge. On most Tuesday nights, I play about 20 hands over three hours against seven other teams. It is my time to relax and unwind, but I am also engaged in one of the most mentally rewarding activities.

I have James Bond to thank for my new passion. I am a fan of the Ian Fleming books and I reread one every year. I picked up Moonraker a while back, which thankfully has nothing to do with the dreadful 1979 movie starring Roger Moore as 007. There is an early scene in the book where Bond foils his nemesis at the bridge table after discovering he cheats.

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The problem was that Ian Fleming wrote the tense-filled scenes as if the reader had a working knowledge of the game. Trump? Four-spade bids? Finesse? I had no clue what was going on. I had to know.

So I ventured to the library and sat in the “Games and Puzzles” section and did a quick study of the rules and language. Rereading the chapters, I was able to follow along. Somewhat.

This did not sound like a parlor game for a retirement home. There was strategy involved and it required an almost encyclopedic knowledge to grasp the subtle specifics of bidding and playing.

I soon joined the St. Petersburg Bridge Club, where I took a six-week beginners course, scribbling in my notebook as I learned the rules. I read all the how-to books I could find. I quickly discovered that bridge is an ongoing pursuit. It is like playing the violin or learning Renaissance painting. Odds are you may never be a master, but it sure is fun.
 
A New Old Game

Mention bridge and most people envision their grandmother playing the game in Ozzie and Harriet’s living room. Bridge enjoyed its golden years from the 1930s into the 1960s. At one point during this time it has been said that 44 percent of households had at least one active bridge player. Improve-your-game paperbacks made bookstore shelves sag. There was even a popular TV show called Championship Bridge With Charles Goren that aired on ABC for five seasons (1959-1964) — 30 minutes of the top players playing bridge.

The next generation of boomers did not follow their parents' lead, at least not in a big way. Texas Hold 'Em poker remains the hot card game today with its online presence and high-stakes ESPN tournaments. Still, bridge is enjoying somewhat of a revival. According to the American Contract Bridge League — the game’s official governing body — 25 million Americans over the age of 18 know how to play. Of these, about 3 million play at least once a week in a local club or online.  

Who is playing might surprise you. Two of the game’s biggest names are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — self-proclaimed enthusiasts who claim bridge sharpens their creative minds and business acumen. They are such fans that in 2005 the pair invested $1 million to launch a program to teach bridge in junior high schools. "Bridge helps you think about decisions and consequences before you make a move," Gates says. "Bridge is a great way to learn from inferences," Buffett says. "A lot of decisions you make in life you make by inferring what you know."
 
Mental Bids

Bridge is an elegant game with many layers. It involves math and strategy and tactic. If you want to stimulate your gray cells sit at a bridge table.

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In bridge, there is almost endless to-do. You have to keep a lot of numbers in your head: how many points in your hand and how many your partner may have. And then there is the soul of bridge: the bidding. You have to know what your partner’s bids mean in terms of total points and number of suits — 1 club, 1 spade, 1 no trump, 2 hearts, etc. And the most challenging aspect: your response. What does your partner's bid mean and how do you respond?

Then there is the actual playing of the hand. You have to monitor what cards are played, especially your partner's (a low card may mean something, a certain suit something else), the number of trumps still out, what high cards your opponents have, etc. It is a constant mental ping-pong match. After an hour or so you may feel like your brain needs a cold shower and a rubdown.

Research has long shown that ongoing mental engagement can lower your risk of dementia. But the kind of social interaction and group get-togethers that bridge provides may also be a key to a longer, healthier life. A new report published by the National Academy of Sciences says "social isolation and loneliness are associated with increased mortality." Another new study in the journal Nature Neuroscience discovered that isolation reduced the production of myelin, a protective nerve fiber, and could contribute to mental illness.

(MORE: New Discovery May Reveal a Pathway to Longer Life)
 
Equal Partners

But above all, bridge is about partnerships. To be successful you have to work as a team. Communication is essential. It is this human factor that sets it apart from other games.

As an introvert, I naturally progress to activities I can enjoy by myself, like golf, running and swimming. But I enjoy how bridge makes me interact with others, though not on the scale of awkward small talk.

There is little conversation during play. When my partner makes a bid I have to communicate through my bidding. It's like speaking another language. When we begin to play the hand, again in silence, I watch what cards she discards. I know she is trying to tell me something — urging me to play a certain card. I do the same in return. And when she bites her index finger, I can hear a thousand thoughts running through her head. They are the same as mine.
 
The Best Sources for Learning to Play Bridge
 
American Contract Bridge League (acbl.org) — the game’s governing body in the United States can explain the basics and help you locate teachers and bridge clubs in your area.
 
BridgeBase.com — This website lets you play bridge online with people around the world who have a similar level of expertise. (I once played several games with a partner in Canada and opponents in Russia and China.) You can also practice your skills in robot tournaments for $1. There are various lessons for beginners and intermediates.
 
Audrey Grant’s Better Bridge (betterbridge.com) — There are many outstanding bridge teachers, but Grant’s book series, online resources and interactive lessons are ideal for most newcomers.

How to Play: The Basics of Bridge

It is impossible to capture the depth and nuances of bridge here — you need lessons and practice for that. The following primer on how this great game is played comes from the American Contract Bridge League.
 
Bridge is played with four people. Partners sit across from each other. The entire 52-card deck is dealt so each player has 13 cards. You add up your hand’s points based on the following: ace = 4; king = 3; queen = 2; jack = 1.
 
Additional points are given for the shape of the hand. For example, a five-card suit = 1; a six-card suit = 2; a seven-card suit = 3; and an eight-card suit = 4.
 
Once you have valued your hand, the next step is to bid according to its strength and shape. Each player has an opportunity to bid. There are entire bridge classes devoted to the art of bidding, but basically you communicate with your partner whether you have enough points between you to secure a “contract.” The contract estimates how many of the 13 total tricks a partnership thinks it can win. The bidding often begins like this:
  • With 0 to 12 points you pass.
  • With 13 or more points, open the bidding with one of your longest suits.
  • With 15 to 17 high-card points and a balanced hand (one where all suits are represented with at least two or more cards), open 1NT (no trump).
 
The bidding then goes back and forth until one partnership agrees on a final contract — a number and a suit; for instance 4 hearts, 3 no-trump, etc. The goal is to meet or surpass the contract while the other team tries to prevent it.
 
Taking tricks in no trump Play begins when the person to the left of the declarer (the player who first bid the suit in contract) leads a card, face up, on the table. In clockwise rotation, each player must play a card of the same suit. For example, if a heart is led, everyone must play a heart, if possible. If you do not have a heart you can discard a card from another suit. The highest suited card wins the trick for the player who played it.
 
Taking tricks with a trump suit A trump suit — the one finalized in the contract — is like having one suit wild. The rules still require that a player follow suit, if he or she has one of those cards. Yet, when a player can no longer follow suit, a trump can be played — and it's higher and more powerful than any card in the suit led.
 
Play continues like this until all the cards have been played. Points are awarded for meeting or exceeding the contract. The opponents get points if the contract was not met. Then the cards are reshuffled and the deal moves clockwise to the next player for the next game.
 
Matthew Solan is a contributing writer for NextAvenue.org (www.matthewsolan.com).