When we are presented with the ‘homework’ at the beginning of the introductory lessons my heart sinks. I know I have hours of preparation and teaching from the morning weighing on my mind and the afternoon contained a 2 hour plus Skype meeting with supervisors, and all the stress of getting the technology working. The homework is a dense document of card combinations and play suggestions that at first glance look intimidatingly comprehensive. Our mentor reads out the first example and I notice that I have taken an audibly loud suck-in of air. Imagine the noise a mechanic makes when presented with a vehicle that needs to be roadworthy immediately, despite bald tyres and a distinct suspension sag. It is in this moment that I feel like I know something about this game. My mind races to the term “long in the suit”, is that right, maybe, and I feel like I have an opinion on this play. I believe that this is ridiculous. We have only had a couple of lessons, and it is ridiculous to think that we would be capable of penetrating this new cultures language already. Yet, why did I have that initial reaction? Obviously, this period of reflection, curiosity, and doubt is broken by the mentor signalling his intention to discuss example four. Like there is any chance that I am going to say during the questions, what the hell happened to 2 and 3?
What needs to be understood is that, despite boards of cards being designed by the mentors, players only have sufficient language and vocabulary skills, at this moment, to complete the game. Indeed, there are options in these distributions, with ploys to be had and strategies for winning to be uncovered, but at the moment the basics need to be accepted. This is really brought to light when the mentor shares that they are only interested in the 3 or 4 “useless” cards of the hand. How, as players, do we turn these into tricks? The process is fairly mundane to an experienced player or mentor. In fact, Bridge can be procedurally boring. They have seen it all before; what they are keen to see is the build-up towards and deployment of “useless” cards as tricks. This is a game.
So we have a game on our hands. Bridge is a highly mathematical, coded language of resource management and distribution. Students of the game are only privy to some of the terms; terms are available, they float in the air of the room from table to table, it is confidence in usage that is the barrier. Distribution, the taking a turn and placing a card, is loaded with pre-emptive strategies, communication signals to partners, sheer relegation in defeat, or joy at a failure in card-counting. There is despair in the dawning that the wrong card has been placed in a previous turn, or surprise in the reveals of a forgotten Trump. During this process, players are continually converting the value of their cards into something more.
When the homework section of the class is over, I blow out a huge amount of air, almost all sigh. I know that I know nothing, the happiness of recognising a potential play has been completely forgotten. It feels like I have held my breath for this entire period. Then we are straight into the game.
After the lesson, groups disperse then intermingle. Some appear shell-shocked from the intensity of the session, traumatised souls look into the eyes of each other and statements often start with “well”. One player explained that his mind went blank and that he felt like he had fluffed his lines. This is strangely reassuring to me, as I am building an understanding that the game is procedural to the point of those 3 or 4 cards. To a certain degree, plays are expected, almost structured and, during the course of the game, cards are used to increase the value of these “useless” cards. So, Bridge is procedural to the point that the player is strategising the usefulness of “useless” cards. There is an additional problem of communicating intentions to your opposite partner through legitimate means – but legitimate means are a skill beginners need but do not fully comprehend. All of these factors contribute to the fluffing of lines.
I am informed by a woman at my group that a newcomer, female, is a very good player. The newcomer is invited to join a group of three men, short by one, across the room from our table. I am interested if the comment about fluffing lines is more to do with image repair? The new female is confident to challenge the mentor during the homework session, and I wonder how that impacts on the group of men, who may have set some initial boundaries around experience and learning.
I begin to recall a time when we would play cards on our lunch break at the garage, and it makes me think about the sophistication involved in Bridge. The tactics of previous games would be punctuated with derogatory comments or by interruptions from Workshop Managers. In the former, any tactics would be used to annoy and distract opponents, from a subtle enquiry about plans for the weekend, to the less subtle inference that a girlfriend/wife/mother might be home alone. These sites of gaming were entrenched with toxic masculinity, any edge that could be used to win would be deployed without care or concern for feelings. It was a game and it was all part of the “fun”; there was probably the assumption that this mode of play perfectly suited the environment, and no harm caused. Sitting playing Bridge, in the setting of a university campus, is an entirely different experience, thankfully. At this early stage, there is so much support and the game seems to bring out a different level of reflection in players. It is understood that there is a level of partnership in the game of Bridge, and in these early stages opportunities are taken to leave your position and walk round to view the cards of those directly opposite. Understandably the game is different, but the concept of looking at another players cards in the setting of a piece-room, or howff, is unfathomable. In fact, the level of humility, the explicit honesty that some players show is unbelievably refreshing. For sure, it is an aggregate of individuals, but there are multiple levels of attachment and engagement exhibited from the chuckles of despair, admissions of blankness, and a sheer humility in struggling with the game. The game, the rules, and the language, force all inexperienced learners towards a level platform. We intently watch our opponent, then partner, then opponent make their plays and all utter the same preluding question, “Right, so what do I do?”