Bridge Blog

The Ethical Game of Bridge

The club is experiencing another week with only three players and, despite the short numbers, we play beyond the two hour session. It always seems like we will play one more game, and it feels like I hardly ever look up to the glass of the door to see if anyone else is coming. We appear fairly comfortable in this little setting for playing bridge, shuffling cards and dealing the pack into fours, between three, best we can. There is a little jostling of seats after the cards have been distributed to get a truer sense of four around the table. The absent ‘other’ is imagined sitting between or beside, depending on the strength of those cards.

We check over that we have an understanding of the scoring again, and I get the sense that a ‘double’, or two, may feature in the games ahead. A ‘double’ is used to score additional points, depending on whether the contract is defended or made. My understanding is that it is often made in combination with the strength of an individual’s hand and informed by the bidding pattern. Using this knowledge, a player can game the points to their advantage. For a new player, one less confident of bidding and hand ‘feel’, there is more of a sense of risk to this play.

During the dealing, we chat about healthy eating, choice of vegetables (if any) and the apparent incessant shrinking of chocolate bars – never have we paid so much for so little. Reminiscing occurs of dinner tables and diners, the absence of dietary tolerances and which treats can be associated with which relative or guest. It is notable that a certain fixation on cards dwindles at times, although resurges when that tricky ‘double’ is bid, and we just seem to blether [chat]. Again, this adds to the loss of time and the feeling that we can play one more game, with gentle referencing towards guidance or lessons scattered throughout the lesson. It actually feels a little less like lessons and more like play.

It is also difficult as a researcher to go into any depth of conversation content or the processes within play because the size of the group may compromise anonymity. Conversation content is mentioned because it is interesting to gauge any shifts between the focus on conventions and rules or feeling comfortable to blether and chat. Similarly, it is the pace and plays that can demonstrate confidence or understanding. It could, equally, show reluctance or the need for reassurance. These are all things that I feel when I am playing, however, in such a small group it is unfair to these are the experiences of others, who can be easily identifiable due to numbers.

Research is conducted with informed consent, the researcher being available for further elaboration if required, so the inclusion of anonymity means the removal of names, in an attempt to make willing participants unidentifiable from observations. The problem is twofold: at present, notes typed up might be known between the three people involved in these current sessions; and, in the future, anyone who has read the blog may be able to distinguish an identity by eliminating the roles of the researcher, supervisor and player. It is particularly problematic if anonymization is to protect participants from harm or embarrassment. Being frank and transparent about my own experiences of learning bridge, despite being a game difficult to master and one based, almost, entirely on mistakes, does not extend to, or justify, replication for other members of the club. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to leave the field until more participants returned, or be more explicit during informed consent about the dissemination of findings. A common technique is the use of pseudonyms in writing up to disguise or distort participants, however the sheer lack of members present makes this method questionable.

Take, for example, the use of an external source to help with playing bridge. It is really useful to bring the book or a print-off from a website to help inform the supervisor the source of this information and how it can be adopted into play. If you forget to bring this information, then there is pressure to know these details absolutely. It can be difficult to explain a convention of play that you think might be appropriate, and perform correctly with confidence. Usually it can be that the conditions of play were misread and, in fairness, the supervisor often intervenes with an alternative scenario of when such a convention might have be better suited. The important point is that in documenting these processes of learning. Who am I protecting from embarrassment and harm, and is this really necessary from an ethical perspective?

Anonymity does seem contrary to the enthusiasm of the participants at the beginning of the research. When the room was full with a large group eager to learn bridge, informed consent was signed with great interest about the project. At that moment it felt like there was acceptance and openness in the room, however, being more reflexive on process it is, perhaps, unfeasible to continue based on these memories, despite the signatures and enthusiasm shared. In terms of protecting participants, questions about responsibility may lay at the feet of the researcher, especially due to the significant decrease in members’ attendance. It is an ethical judgement because while learning, and playing, bridge does not feel like a risk, it might be an intrusion into the space and time reserved for blethering?

Juggling Roles with our Lovely Cards

I read a passage, the other day, about celebrating the writing of culture, with the sentence that stuck in my mind “made the familiar strange, the exotic quotidian” (Clifford & Marcus 2010: 2). Transforming the everyday, the humdrum, into something interesting; ‘else’ing something to a broader, perhaps even new audience, and re-presenting it with new value, without knowing if this interpretation is welcome, wanted or worthy. Being new to bridge means that familiarity has not sunk in yet; lessons have been attended, rather than skills mastered. Having little authority on the game of bridge, and openly admitting how useless I am at playing, only decreases justification for value or worth in these observations. Always knowing I could be (probably am) wrong.

When the cards are dealt out the challenge is twofold: ordering and points. Ordering requires dexterity; deftly, swiftly, purposefully reorganising cards into a logical arrangement that may refer to length in suit or strength in suit. While this is taking place, hands need to coordinate with the cognitive function of counting aces, kings, queens, and jacks in a points tally. This is a fundamental part of every game, and should be beginning to feel familiar, because this will instigate the bidding. The counting may also incorporate a singleton (only having one heart card, say), a doubleton (two heart cards), or the complete absence of a suit. This will add value to your hand and prompt bidding towards a particular suit. This explanation might appear overly complicated and, for experienced players, maybe, a little overthought. So, the tactics are to multitask without it being painstaking. Do both at the same time, in the hope that you have not tucked a diamond in with the hearts, declaring your bid, and intentions, with relative speed, usually this can be quite some time after dealer has bid. Or, quickly shuffle through the muddle of cards, taking mental note of cards, points and length, ready with a bid, then rearrange after this initial scan has been completed at a slightly reduced pace. My gut feelings are for multitasking – an absolute necessity for a PhD student in 2019 – but I realise that it can be a torturous exercise. Especially for the other players at the table.

If you are not confident that you have tallied up the cards correctly, it is very difficult to make a bid. You are asked about what are the cards saying, suggesting that they are coherently understandable to the new player. The briefness of the scan, to get back into the mix of the table, means relaying ‘what the cards are saying’ as you interpret them. Was it clear? Was it gossip? Did it make sense? This is when the speed of the dealer’s bid can pressurise play, and link to the themes of observation and roles.

To start with it was a lean:

Dealer shuffling over to look at another player’s cards.

Supervisor closely supervising over supervisee.

Expert supporting beginner.

West repositioning towards Northwest to view North.

Or, participant observing researcher?

It is a strange experience. Completely counter to the common phrase ‘keeping your cards close to your chest’ or any existing personally held notions about playing card games. Being open about your ‘state of play’, letting someone backstage to the performance is not always natural in daily life, let alone a game setting. However, the strangest part is the final one, letting the participant in to observe the researcher that gradually plays on the mind and the experience of being watched without invitation. So, it is more than a glance, information has been taken, processed, and the comment of “you have lovely cards” and “you might make some tricks” appears to blur the interaction between the multiple roles available, and their meanings. The initial reaction of shock, that someone is trying to look at your cards, might suggest that we are actually playing a game, overlooking the supervisor/supervisee relationship. It might suggest that the role of beginner or supervisee is not at the forefront of the mind of this player, despite the level of support given by the expert. This also outlines the challenges in producing a clear account or narrative that can be understood by the ethnographer and their audience. The task is monumental. Particularly if it is considered that it is quite likely that the hand will be quite mundane to the supervisor; questioning what they have found interesting, or exotic, about these cards? They may process the cards, values and strengths through a fairly pragmatic lens, one that just gets the game going! The new player might be optimistic about the cards, seeing more to get into game, or bidding at least, while the expert is more realistic about this mistaken hopefulness. Alternatively, “you might make some tricks” places huge burden on the new player in the hope of ‘might’.

What does “you have lovely cards” mean? Has the supervisor seen something of value in these grubby old cards? We understand this needs to be backed up with winning tricks, high card points in length, but this is viewed through the an experts understanding and familiarity. Bridge is a game of mistakes, however, errors in play widely differentiate between the new player and supervisor. Errors might be swiftly corrected by the supervisor, with alternatives and back-up plans to hand. For the beginner, it feels more like dead ends, trap doors and sealing fate. Typically, plays seem so obvious when they are discussed after the hands have been played and are, actually, quite easy to follow. The lack of experience means we are making a number of mistakes that feel very foolish because, in hindsight, the moves appear very simple.

Perhaps it is a sense of creeping urgency, to bid correctly and get into game that makes me feel comfortable showing my cards to the supervisor. We are extremely short on numbers as we are playing bridge with three people. This is not ideal and might add to this force of needing to get it right. It is also strange that when we do feel slightly confident, something about the feel and shape of the cards has quickened up our responses in the bidding that the bid of ‘double’ comes into play. Our experience and skills are continuously being tested by this game, bridge. This is not a bad thing, but it can feel relentless when you are not confident. Of course, the act of showing cards to another player is a bad habit to adopt, but it is just the reassurance from the supervisor. That in some way you have read the cards to a coherent degree, enough to bid, not so much correctly, but in the right direction. Have I said enough that partner knows that I can, or cannot, support a major suit, and have I used the proper convention? It is particularly in the bidding experience that bridge feels like a language, with meanings and responses that spur on further dialogue, or raise the alarm bells to get out as quickly as possible. There is also the issue of delivering on the bid that is discussed between four players (when you have four players); what is spoken, as bidding cards are not used at this stage in the club, must be put into action.

References:

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. (2010) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

“Say Something… Pyramids!”

It is another quiet evening at the Bridge club. The move from Monday to Tuesday has not benefited the club at all. It is disappointing to think of all the effort and hard work that has gone into organising lessons and coordinating events. To think the long, large room hosted an exhibition match at the beginning of the year and was full of spectators. Contemplating that Bridge was a spectator game for an evening does sound quite strange, however it is true. Club members and the local community became quite invested for that evening to talk through the game and ask questions. Also, to be fair, the university is winding down after second semester exams and resits. Holidays are probably at the forefront of most people’s minds.

We take our positions at the table; yet again, the three of us. The cards are dealt in an awkward, but familiar, way; four hands between three players. Then a strange thing happens for the researcher. Out of the blue, a term is offered for our problematic situation, “four-sided triangles”. As a researcher, I am transported to a primary school classroom, to some lesson about ancient Egypt, and I can almost remember the name of each of the classmates around our table. It is a vivid flashback. This trigger for the flashback is from my mind wanting to remember this unique insight from another bridge player, and the closeness of the group means note-taking is now completely out of the question. My mind makes a mental note of ‘pyramid’. It is very effective; however, I had not counted on the flashback. Perhaps that is why the mental note was so effective, an obscure term quickly associated with a deep memory. For learning how to play bridge, I am continuously developing effective skills in ethnography.

During the games we are questioned on scoring to see if all the permutations can be recalled. I struggle to remember all the points and values, so I try to work back from 100 and how game is achieved d from 3NT (No Trump), 4 Hearts or Spades, and 5 Clubs or Diamonds. It is a bumbling approach that needs more revision and work. The scoring is put into practice as we play the same hand twice, but with different bidding. It is an extremely useful way to see the importance of that side of the game, and how the bidding is a fascinating aspect to success and failure for a player. We learn first hand how positions can be saved by limiting the bid to a minus score rather than facilitating an opponent towards a huge win.

We are joined by another player midway through the session, and it immediately makes a difference. There is so much focus given to making sure that we are bidding and playing in the correct order when there are only three players, it feels like unnecessary concentration. Or, concentration is a finite resource and should not be wasted on guessing who should play which hand or bidding towards where someone might eventually sit. With a fourth player it becomes fun, we are laughing and the social aspect to the game feels natural. We are always encouraged to say something during the bidding, “you need to be saying something”. This feels like the process of almost getting a feel for the cards and wanting to say something, but not quite clear or confident to commit to a bid. Bearing in mind, the table consists of 2 new players and 2 extremely good elite players. While it is social, and we are having a laugh, the pressure of getting it right is doubled. Firstly, it is inevitable that we fluff our lines in learning this new language, and secondly, there is a dynamic between novice and expert that can influence the confidence we have in stating a bid. These feelings, coupled with our informative scoring chats, make it feel like you sometimes want to say “pass … but I’ve got a lot of diamonds”. This is not conventional Bridge bidding, particularly as we have not practiced with bidding cards yet either, but it feels like an honest part of the process into learning bridge. It is like the tourist experience of being in France, Italy or Spain and wholeheartedly attempting to speak in the native language, but that moment of exasperation and frustration results in brief abandonment and all best intentions are postponed because you just want to ‘say something’.

 

 

“Sorry to be a Spoilsport…”

I had been absent from the club for a little over a month. This was not intentional. It was a combination of appointments and commitments that coincided with the club changing nights for play. As usual I am running a little late, however I find myself there on time but alone. There are no regulars waiting on the second floor of the library. No one looking over and smiling in recognition on my arrival. The seating area in that part of the library is empty and the rooms are electronically locked. I am concerned that I have made a massive mistake and read an email incorrectly, or not followed a conversation about the club and its new schedule. I find myself wandering around a library, noticing that I am in the section for leisure and sport, checking out the psychology of sports and shelves of biographies of footballers when, finally, I recognise a familiar face. So, that makes two.

It is reassuring that this member has collected an access card for the room. In the past this would be a task, signing out the access card from reception, that I would tend to do, on the odd occasion that the room was locked. I am momentarily delighted that club members feel confident to engage with the university library staff and obtain access. However, I soon realise that I might have misinterpreted this observation as I am told that club attendance has diminished greatly. With the change of dates and, of course, unseasonably good weather, the club has been devastated. We were aware that a close local club played on a Monday night and, naturally, it is a conflict that a new club cannot contest. Far too many social connections and loyalties predate the emergence of this university club. We also need to recognise the factor that some of the members from the community came from an external Bridge club that was incorporated within a golf club. The recent long sunny nights are perfect for driving down a fairway and working on your short game, for physical exercise that involves fresh air.

Despite having only two players and a supervisor in attendance, we attempt to play Bridge, and I try to remember how this is all done. It appears that the supervisor has experienced this challenge before, being a player short, and it is decided that the empty seat can be occupied by the Dummy, if we get the bidding right. Again, my head is a bit hazy on the bidding and I am trying to recall shape, length and points, when I get a sense of how big the room appears. I have noted before how the room has been busier in the past, and I am accustomed to this space being quite full of members chatting, usually questioning, and tentatively placing cards on the tables. But the room is empty and so quiet. The wall length glass windows mean we have not put the lights on in the room, it is undeniably that even we are benefiting from the bright sunny evening. We do strike up some conversations about how to describe and talk about bridge as beginners to the game, knowing full well that do not fully understand phrases and terms. The example of explaining mathematical equations is used, and it is interesting to hear someone else providing an analogy from their life experiences to discuss bridge. In this case, the maths expert might attempt to explain an equation from a multitude of different approaches, and empathy given to the expert as they try to qualify the question with enough context to satisfy an answer. It is fascinating to learn how others are thinking about bridge and how their attempts to associate meanings manifest from. I have always tried to loosely base my observations on other leisure and sports activities, so this is a positive experience that is linked more with analytical learning that I have, perhaps, overlooked. Another notable point to this experience is that with such a small group, I find myself being very reflective on the process of participant observation, and issues of anonymity, when the small group consists of the researcher and one other.

We chat further about reading manuals on learning how to play bridge, and it is striking that we both find the literature so challenging. It is interesting to learn that another person has experienced the same problem, and about the same time. Introductory chapters are quite easy to follow, however there seems to be a sudden and sharp climb in terminology and diagrams that strands some new players.

Initially, I struggle to cope with the absent player. Not only does Bridge feel distant from my memory but this new adaptation makes it difficult to reconnect with the process of play. Admittedly, games have always been played at a slightly slower pace, however they have seemed like enough of a challenge that, when we play as a table of similarly skilled players, interest is maintained, and it is an engaging experience. We are playing and trying our best, but it just feels like a little too different, a little too disjointed. It is an interesting insight into the adaptive skills of Bridge players who really, really want to play this game. I had read a while ago about Honeymoon Bridge, and, if I remember correctly, it was conceived for newlywed couples who had met through bridge, but find themselves, ironically, in a situation of two, rather than four. I begin to think would it be easier if I left the room or sit this game out? Nevertheless, we manage to get through a few games and another player enters the room.

With the fourth player, it just began to feel normal again. The questions had returned in the familiar structure of the game. The cards were being placed, often with little confidence (on my part certainly) and accompanied with an explanation of why that card was selected. Confidence is telling in the length of time it takes to place the card, combined with eye contact that is looking more for reassurance than observing. We sit and talk about cards, a little about scoring, and try and make sense of when bidding can work in your favour. I do notice that the social side of bridge works far better with four players. Discussions about learning involve context, and this means elaborating on online lessons or an aspect of the home setting, that feels less like the pragmatism of a bridge tutorial dialogue and more like an invitation to chat.

Another person knocks and enters the room. “Sorry to be a spoilsport but the library is closing!” We had forgotten about the summer closing times of the library at semesters’ end. The session had overrun by half an hour. We had hit a flow. We had settled into the game and been absorbed by time. The ordeal of adapting and guessing had been surpassed by an immersion into some hands of bridge.

Bridge2Success Festival

The first international Bridge Festival – BRIDGE2SUCCESS FEST – is scheduled for May 11th 2019, in Warsaw, Poland, with the aim of integrating diverse communities from all over the world. I was fortunate enough to chat with Ela Tomczuk, one of the inspirational women behind the project, to learn more about this unique event.

KJ: How did you get involved with this Bridge2Success project?
ET: This is a funny story. I met Asia, my friend, many years ago in the Warsaw University Team. We were playing volleyball for the university team and we were, also, playing bridge. We play social bridge regularly – we meet our friends, have a nice dinner and play. During one such evening, we started to talk about how people do not play bridge anymore and we decided to do something about that. We invited friends with a marketing background, some who had never played bridge before, to this discussion and this is how, step by step, the Bridge2Success initiative was born.

KJ: Can you tell us a little bit about the Bridge2Success project?
ET: Bridge2Success is a social initiative with the aims of:
Integrating people from different and diverse backgrounds, different countries, social, professional, and age groups.
Developing competencies for the future.
Preventing civilisation diseases through playing bridge.

KJ: Can you tell us who are the focus for this event; new players, experienced players, or everyone?
ET: Everyone! There will be zones for professionals, who will play in longer tournaments (24-28 boards) and amateurs (16-18 boards). The invitation is open to kids, 60+, beginners and those who play bridge at a social level. We want to show that bridge tournaments can be for everyone and can be fun!

KJ: Can you explain some of the goals for Bridge2Success?
ET: We are hoping to promote bridge and attract new players to the game. We are especially focusing on the 35 to 60 years old age range, but also attracting players who have left the game, for whatever reason. We want to show that bridge is fun and can be played by everybody. Plus, it is the perfect tool for networking!

KJ: What are the concerns driving this project?
ET: The main concerns are that professionals are not very open to play bridge in a more relaxed way. So, we would be eager for professionals to join in with the games. We are also concerned about amateurs who are afraid to playing in a tournament; who view it as too advanced.

KJ: What are your hopes for the future of Bridge?
ET: Our big dream is that bridge is a game played by families, during the company of friends, and by all age groups. For is to regain its status as a social game, as it was many years ago.

KJ: How can people support Bridge2Success?
ET: Participate in BRIDGE2SUCCESS FESTIVAL! Anyone interested can play online, or organise games using the same boards from the tournament in their own countries. This will ensure that May 11th is a Worldwide Bridge Celebration Day! We hope that his will become an annual event.

More information about Bridge2Success can be found at http://www.bridge2success.com.pl/fest/en/ or https://www.facebook.com/events/2346187275433626/

The Wear and Tear of the Routine

This is only a short observation on an aspect of Bridge that resonated with me. A more in-depth article will be uploaded soon.

I was invited to come along to a Bridge tournament by my PhD supervisor, to get experience of the event and help produce promotional material for the Keep Bridge Alive campaign. The event was the Winter 4s and my visit was scheduled for 19th January 2019. As fortune would have it, my wife was attending a meeting in Edinburgh city centre on the very same Saturday. In this rare turn of events, I had a travel companion for most of the journey. This involved car to Larbert, then train into Edinburgh. During the train journey, my wife asked which football matches were on today? I said that Scottish Cup games were on this weekend, and my mind was taken back to the news that Cowdenbeath versus Rangers had been postponed, due to ice and the condition of the pitch at Central Park. The picture used on the BBC Sport website came to my mind; the corner flag with the colours of Cowdenbeath hanging under the floodlights, and under inspection, if not scrutiny, by those eager for Friday night cup football. What came to mind was the wear and tear around the corner flag, and the well-worn trail along the side-line from the assistant referee, or linesman.

Cowden1a

From the Waverley Station, I needed to get over to Corstorphine Road to the New Melville Bridge Club, so the next leg of the journey meant taking a bus east, out of Edinburgh. My only association with Corstorphine Road is Edinburgh Zoo, however the familiar sights of Haymarket, Tynecastle (Hearts of Midlothian football ground) and Murrayfield soon fleeted past the windows of the double decker. With Murrayfield in the background, my eyes were drawn to the training grounds. A handful of athletes, dressed in tracksuits and visibly expelling air out into the early January morning, were doing laps of the park. It is a small pack and they were running in wide loops of the pitch, and I reflect to this form of practice from many, many years ago. Pacing, running and sprinting along the outer edge of those boundaries, as an early warm up, constantly eroding away the grass on that neutral area of the park. Then, perhaps, set-pieces, that inevitably caused wear and tear, in and around the 18-yard box; testing defences, the keeper and ground staff. Anyway, the bus stop arrives, and I depart for the Bridge club.

Murray1a

There are warm greetings from the tournament coordinators, and those participating that I meet are very welcoming, lots of hand shaking and interest in the project. It is a purpose-built Bridge club, with an extensive library of Bridge literature, a small kitchen area for serving refreshments and prepping food, and significant size room, decorated with memorabilia and trophies, for chatting, gathering and waiting. Beyond the glass of this area is the large tournament room; all the tables and chairs arranged for the imminent start.

I am under the impression that I am here to talk to competitors during their breaks from play and try and gather as much usable promotional material as possible. Photographs and soundbites are my focus, but then I am invited into the tournament. It is a strange invitation; I have very limited experience of being a Bridge player. I have only briefly visited a couple of local clubs and my playing skills are best described as ‘complete novice’. In terms of tournaments, I have no experience. I do not even have enough experience to contextualise the sport with another sport. I cannot think of an adequate reference for spectating players at a Bridge tournament. I have no idea of etiquette at the table or what is orthodox for an observer, but, the invitation remains, and we are still standing there waiting on my answer. I’ll get a chair, is all I can think to say.

I am very conscious that I am the only spectator in the room. There is an oddness to this table, and it is the extra chair jutting out of the North East corner. Apparently, it is completely fine to observe from the ‘side-lines’, so long as I can only view one hand of cards. The first thing to catch my eye is the bidding boxes; the use, and presence, of these devices for bidding, and communication, is quite new to me, however, I am very familiar with a certain characteristic on the one in front of me. Sure enough, as I look around the room, the familiar pattern emerges from a scattering of boxes. I can see that there is almost a uniform ‘V’ shape pattern of wear in each of these bidding boxes. Initially, it makes me reflect upon to quantitative analysis, or statistics, module from my masters, and how you can visualise data in everyday life. It is forefront in my mind now, the routine of sport, and the meaning of wear.

It represents time. It represents wins, losses, overbids, slams, commitment, investment, failure, success, false starts, trials, errors, guesses, mistakes, sacrifices, victories, and history. The erosion on these cards, drawn by seasoned players through instinct and intuition, can still be crudely guessed by a novice. However, the meaning behind the regularity, the raw data, can only be contextualised through every board and bid played. Even when I looked closer at the cloth on the Bridge table, you can see distinct areas of play. Wear on the green fabric, by four players, gives the faint impression of a grass Saint Andrew’s cross, or Scotland flag, fading into nature. As a new player to the game, one who conducts the bidding verbally and plays on a hard wood table, these are interesting quirks that reinforce the sport in my mind.

Bridgetable1a

These are the thoughts that remain with me on the journey back home. I reflect on the day, and how I have put those bidding cards, and table cloth, into context. I am thinking about those pitches worn out, and the endless laps we always had to run. I am thinking about running, and wear on the trainers, and lucky t-shirts. Experts offering advice about gait and pronation, and strategies to combat material and physical wear that will accommodate unique running styles. I am thinking about the countless treks up Scotland’s Munros and Corbetts we have scaled with friends, along thick or faded scars into the hillsides towards the summit. I am thinking about my right knee that clicks every time that I extend it or cross my legs, and how it has affected my joints. I am thinking about the consistency of wear and tear in sport; some visible, some felt. I am thinking how Bridge fits within many parallels of other sports, and how the game is ingrained into the lives of these players.