Bridge Blog

“Right, so what do I do?”

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?”

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Playgrounds

Play Matters by Miguel Sicart (2017)

Chapter 4: Playgrounds

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In this relatively short, and very readable, chapter, Sicart (2017) draws attention to the significance between play space and game space. The latter represents a space that is specifically designed for the purpose of a particular game, compliant with the regulations and rules that defines it, while the former indicates that play space is appropriative, creative and transformative. This suggests that the appropriative aspect of play, that suspension of the mutual understandings by which a particular context, environment, or situation is perceived to be organised and regulated by its specific function, temporarily halts a range of settings, spaces and time so playfulness can occur. Both of these spaces can manifest in the physical and virtual environments.

To illustrate this point in the physical environment, supporting St. Johnstone Football Club from the East Stand, the spectator has entered McDiarmid Park and can observe the groundsman pitchforking the grass amid white lines, that demarcate specific areas, and regulation size goalposts, of which the attached netting is routinely checked, ahead of players taking their initial positions. The supporter recognises that they have entered a game space. However, on their journey to this football ground, walking along the Crieff Road, or down Newhouse Road, the supporter may have witnessed, or even participated in, the kicking of a can, or ball, in these adjacent streets. This impromptu display encapsulates a transformation through the appropriation of play. The supporter has experienced a play space. Less specific, the examples of free-running, parkour and skateboarding can demonstrate the reimagining of environments and settings through a lens of play and playfulness.

Alternatively, within the virtual environments, character and level designs, as demonstrated in the colourful adventures of Super Mario Bros. or Mega Man, or the atmospheric settings in Dark Souls or The Last of Us, epitomise a game space. It could be argued that play space, the deviation from the game in these examples, is far more difficult to accurately interpret in this virtual setting. The difficulty for play space to manifest under these conditions is that there can be a range of acts and behaviours within the game that are value-laden. While this may not constitute what gameplay typically looks like, it can still contribute to the success of the player, or development of the character. For example, play in a game level could be constituted as ‘farming’, where the player attempts to play their own game, however the points, or experience, accrued can result in improvement, i.e. character development, or an extra life. In general, play space exists in virtual environments but it will be largely contributory, rather than completely isolated.

The importance of space is clear. Appropriation can be met with acceptance or resistance, regardless of the prompts and props in place to promote, or prevent, such behaviours. While game space is a negotiation concerning rules, regulations and issues of safety, play space represents the challenge to convention. The relevance of these concepts are reflected in the experiences of the Bridge Club because we can begin to think about how accepting, or resistant, the environment is to change.

Lessons within the library setting of the University of Stirling campus represents this dynamic of acceptance and resistance within an environment. Can play successfully appropriate the study space in a university library? How does play manifest for an individual who ascends through areas designated around silence, study and technology? There might be an argument to suggest that non-students who are unfamiliar with the building may be oblivious to the meaning of the setting; they have, in a very pragmatic way, accepted the venue for bridge play. Alternatively, students might feel comfortable in this university setting, and it is those from the wider community who interpret the experience differently, due to symbolic attachments to the meanings attributed to higher education and this iconic campus.

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The design of the room indicates little forethought towards play. It is a long rectangular area, one that uses design and space to showcase the wider rural setting of Bridge of Allan and the Ochil hills. Access to the room is regulated through a booking and a registered card, while exiting the room requires the precise combination of room and door locking mechanisms. Within the room, long tables are cumbersome to Bridge play, two points of the compass feel too far away, and the opposing points appear quite close. It is worth considering the symbolism of the card packs and instruction sheets, a weekly swell of paper containing Bridge information, and the duality that these tables possess for play and study. It is obvious that this is not a game space. However, when the card packs are distributed and each of the four players are carefully arranging their hand, the setting does transform.

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It is important to recognise that time provides a significant aspect to this experience of acceptance and resistance. Folded back to one side, there is a wooden partition that hangs from the ceiling, indicating that the room can be halved. This swinging feature adds to the size and length of the room. It is a multi-purpose facility, one used for a range of activities and presentations, and it means that the room can feel quite empty at certain times of the evening. Understandably, those arriving early might be apprehensive considering the large dimensions of the room and its features. The room feels empty of human beings, let alone players. Therefore, certain conditions might appear more resistant to play at a particular time – general chat is conducted, travel issues are explained, and a sense of remoteness creeps in. This experience, unsurprisingly, is completely opposite to those arriving late; as jackets are efficiently placed on chair backs, late-comers are, generally, ready to play. Undeniably, there is an urgency for late-comers to begin, however, the environment will appear much less empty, and it is interesting to consider this contribution to play.

An important feature of play space is that it is always vulnerable to resistance and the player can be drawn back to the reality of the environment. This could be the raised voice of the instructor, an announcement from society member, or even, as time catches up with the players in the group, the rustle of coats and jackets by those attempting to leave. The break from play can be less subtle; for example, the counting of cards, in an attempt to establish points and bid for a contract, might feel too much like a mathematical effort, particularly in the late evening. On reflection, the flip-board used by the instructor to explore game tactics and techniques can blur the moment back, returning the strong sense of a study area. In this sense, play is fragile.

So what does this experience represent for the future of Bridge play, and should we think more parkour? Is Bridge flexible to a freerunning approach to play? Thinking about the lens of sheer play that skateboarders use to reinterpret the urban centre landscapes, should bridge players make more use of the tables they find in everyday life? The suggestion is not to make the environment more playful but, rather, perceive it so. From study spaces to local café’s, there are endless new sites for play to be found, and social networks can be strengthened by encouraging neighbouring tables to appropriate play.

References

Sicart, M. (2017) Play Matters. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Getting Started …

Situated on the second floor of the campus library, the members of the little Bridge club join for their weekly lesson. It is a long rectangular room, typical build for a university as it exudes multipurpose functionality, although located in a stunning university setting. Two sides of this room are windowed, the glass invites the forestry landscape to the east of Bridge of Allan, the forming hills towards the summit of Dumyat, and the Ochils beyond. Within the room, there is an enormous television mounted to one end, plug sockets scattered along shin-level panelling, and even more power sources found under the trapdoors around the floor. The tables are long, too long. These are not the typical green fabric tables of Bridge; they are for students to study on, position laptops, serve refreshments and rest literature. There is a false partition, wooden with edges that presumably interlock, that swing softly at the midway point of the room. It is nearing 5:30pm and the players gradually collect.

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The setting of the library is a peculiar choice. We have identified that there are major concerns about the sustainability of Bridge clubs, the difficulty of promotion and targeting, and addressing these barriers to playing the game. The stereotypes associated with the game tend to highlight an older population, with some reference to very young players. A huge middle age population is missing from the game of Bridge. What is peculiar about this age-related observation, is that this is almost exactly the same stereotypical demographic that libraries have continually attempted to address for their own public service survival. My experience of working in libraries across east and central Scotland has reflected this same concern; in particular, it has identified young and middle-aged men as almost completely absent from the service footfall figures. Yet, here I am, amid a small cluster of middle-aged men learning to play bridge in a library, on a Tuesday evening in late 2018. I know that there is football on television, that pubs across Scotland will be showing ‘the game’, pubs showcasing international footballers in the premiere European tournament, Old Trafford hosting Juventus, or, perhaps, the noisy neighbours playing away in Donetsk, Ukraine, punters tread well-worn paths to bars to watch a game. In terms of sports, it is a Goliath.

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For whatever reason, it feels like there are a few people missing. It is a bizarre feeling, actually. We are part of a club, we have become loosely grouped around ability and experience, we have, more or less, self-selected members for our tables, and we all seem to situate ourselves in the same seating position, opposite our same partner, every week, as individuals determine their unique roles (dealer, declarer, dummy) or geographical position (north, south, east, west). It is strange that so much time is spent concerned about the ‘club’, when many aspects of the experience can be divided down to the individual experience.

The drips and drabs of members finally appear, there is the rustle of large, cosy coats being put on the back of chairs. I have ethical approval to observe the group, finally, granted by the university, and I introduce myself while people are making apologies for lateness and generally catching up. I notice there is always the enquiry about ‘have you done the homework?’ and ‘can you believe it is Tuesday again, already?’ As expected, no one in the room objects to the research being conducted, they are happy to participate, it is very encouraging and positive. Interestingly, it becomes a source of discussion. The setting of the Bridge club means that many of the new players are from various academic-related roles, within the institution. Therefore, the invite to participate in research draws attention to the processes of ethical clearance and discussions on methodologies and methods. It feels like another layer of community, the Bridge players from the university. Interest is generated, projects are outlined and, so, networks are strengthened.

It has been explained that the lessons are far more advanced than those experienced at a local club. The agreement by the mentors is to package a crash course on Bridge over an 8 week period. At this stage, terms and turns are spoken but the definitions are lost. It does feel overwhelming. It is the second week and a breakout group has formed for new players that have missed the first couple of sessions. The room settles as a briefing and a flipchart are used to demonstrate examples. I hear the names of Bridge theorists, or a particular Bridge approach associated to an individual, and it is completely lost on me. We race through the examples, and the feeling of being lost does not improve. I appreciate that we need to understand how to communicate, we need to, in a coded format, provide information to our partners. We are trying to convey information to our partners, while two other competitors oversee and eavesdrop our intentions. It is an awkward situation, learning a language of play that is coded in discretion and deceit, and specifically directed towards the correct table-member to interpret.