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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

This is the final week of introductory lessons and it has been suggested that we are filmed for future promotional material. The room is quite busy; a few staff and friends have dropped in for a quick game of Bridge to lend support to the club. This introduces a new dynamic to the room as we have some ‘players’ who have never really played before. They are interested, and supportive, enough to participate in the final session. However, as the camera is shifted around the room, recording footage and moments from different vantage points, it is quite revealing the level of support the ‘regular’ (albeit still very new to the game) players are providing to others.

In a sense, they may feel like mock games. It could be argued, however, that all the games leading up to this point, to some degree, were mock games. We had experienced 8 weeks of fast track lessons in Bridge; a feat many did not think could be managed – perhaps even ridiculed. Yet, here we are making suggestions and offering help as and when we could. It is all about perspective.

I am reminded of a time when I first took up running, many years ago, and we raced in the Lang Toon 10k, Auchterarder. Running is all about efficiency; bad race days can be filed as ‘training days’, you have learned something new about being more efficient – onto the next challenge. My realisation was that you race against the course; individual against the race, rather than every other competitor. The realisation came about when I had finished the race, and, as is the norm, the top runners drift towards shelter and refreshments, perhaps even the coordination of honours and medals. I began wandering back to a vantage point close to the finish line, vest turned inside out, so as not to be confused with other finishers, and cheered everyone home. As stated, this was very early in my running days, however I had noticed a trend forming; a melting pot of ability, achievement, identity and status that was beginning to crystallise into a hierarchy of running. The lesson I learned that day was that to complete the race everyone must exert energy to their own capability and, regardless of ability, the course is the same challenge for everyone. Medals, positions and rankings are fine, but sometimes you can miss the achievements that all are making. Put simply, I found running to be a much greater sport when effort was appreciated, and experiences were shared. Coffee, tea and cakes can wait; these are gratifications were convention for some. For me, it could wait, I was too new to running to completely assimilate to certain norms without challenge. At that time, I, probably, had the right amount of empathy to better understand the sport, improve my ability, and develop a broader perspective for the many different challenges and experiences of running.

We finish our final round of homework, trying to put these words, and diagrams, of advice into context. All answers are tenuous, completely unsure if they are even remotely correct, but we should have more confidence. We listen to the reasoning behind some of the answers and accept that, perhaps, we could have been braver in our commitment. Of course, some answers are completely wild, too brave as some bids are misdirected and misguided. But, for the most part, we, the regulars, are impressed by our development. Slightly proud of our progress even. There are shared glances, raised eyebrows and the twitch of a smile as conventions and contracts are explained. To be honest, it is more of a grin by myself, but these reactions, or gives, all need to be put in perspective.

We were faced with the challenge of learning Bridge in 8 weeks, with some members completely new to the game and others that had some experience with local clubs. The support provided by the latter members, in sharing their understanding and asking questions beyond the remit of the new members, was invaluable. Those experienced players prompted examples a little further than intended and pushed the boundaries of the lessons. Many of these voices came from the local community, Bridge players with an interest in playing and promoting the game. Again, we all knew that the games were slightly geared to reflect and reaffirm some of the conventions initiated by the homework, however, we were fully aware that there was much more to the game. These questions, the nudges and pushes contained within, reinforced our understanding that the boundaries of the lessons were only temporal; we were walking the course before running it.

The boards are distributed around the tables and in this final evening, unfortunately, we are missing two of our table regulars; our North and South cannot make it. It is decided that a couple of the experts will take the places of our absent Bridge friends. New to our table are two tournament Bridge players; they sit opposite each other and then offer to swap seats with myself or my partner. No doubt the thought here is to even up the partnerships.

Well, that was not going to be happening …

We had come through 8 intense lessons of Bridge, and we were happy to stay partners and play against tournament players.

As expected it got messy …

My memory of the games is that the pace picked up considerably; chat was replaced with concentration, as either side of my partner and myself seemed to be Bridge mind readers. Before I had even decided on the card to discard, the player to my immediate left had already chosen his card; playfully manoeuvring it around his hand of cards. The dexterity is quite impressive, and I wonder if this contributes to another part of the game, or just a trait picked up to cope with the speed of certain games. Cards were placed instantly after both my partners and my own turns. These games sprinted towards conclusion. However, we were winning tricks here and there, attempting finesses, understanding the shape of our cards and making contracts, and leading honours. From our perspective, we were playing Bridge.

Where do we go from here?

We knew that the lessons were scheduled to run for a limited time only, and that the finish coincided with the end of semester and the winter shutdown of the institution. During the course of the lessons we had emailed each other with little nuggets of Bridge information; the odd useful website or online tutorials from YouTube videos. I emailed and suggested that we could maybe meet up for lunchtime games of Bridge. I was not optimistic; university life is quite demanding and coordinating colleagues around teaching, marking, research, study, faculty commitments and presentations, can be almost impossible. Lunch breaks are very seldom hour-long periods of free time that are completely separate from work. It is more common that a sandwich or soup is eaten at your desk, while responding to emails.

But, the responses were resoundingly positive, and, on the Friday before Christmas, we spent an afternoon playing Bridge.

Bridge Banter: Was that the famous Hampden Roar, or my stomach?

We have been playing together for five weeks and through this short period, just over a month, we have gotten to know each other well. The group is always encouraging; there is no emphasis on length of time between plays In fact, it is common for the game to grind to a halt as decisions are explained out loud. There is little to no advantage in being covert about gameplay at this stage, and decisions are nearly always qualified with additional information. This may include discussing the shape of busy workloads, our PhDs or college demands, or the weekend. So, we are not always talking about the cards. It is important to know that while we are learning this game, there are so many other commitments simmering in the background during the interactions at the table.

This is the week, for example, that the table was reduced to hysteria. Some of the table have teaching at the university which means arriving early, contact teaching time at some point in the day, bookended with PhD study and work. It can be quite fatiguing, and pointless going home at any point in the day, therefore it is normally a 12-hour day at the university, including the 2 hours of Bridge. Others have college course commitments and the journey into Bridge of Allan around the 5pm rush hour period. So, for some in the group, we are mentally fatigued, perhaps not had dinner (or tea), and we are doing our best to concentrate on learning Bridge. This can lead into all sorts of unintentional mischief. Echoing rumbles from hunger pangs are completely involuntary, however, they can set off giggles and laughter among the group who are really trying. Even the simple act of counting, Ace = 4, King = 3, Queen = 2, and Jack = 1, is a chore. It should be relatively simple; as long as there is an AKQJ of any suit it means 10 points. Another Jack or Queen in hand and I could be inviting game, possibly? This is another great source of amusement; we are even open about how we cannot retain this simple act of addition!  We can’t count, we can’t retain information, and our stomachs are being extremely vocal, but despite our gut protests we carry on playing.

We were told at the start that it is near impossible to learn everything about playing Bridge in 8 weeks, and probably reminded at some point in every lesson over the course. Most of us understood that we were not there to learn systems, or anything close to that level of detail and play. It was all about learning some bidding and becoming familiar with the basics of card play. Focus on the points and shape of the cards in your hand, know how and when to respond, and when to get out as fast as possible. But external distractions can play on our minds.

Obviously, that last sentence reflects my own internal thoughts. I cannot read minds, although that would be an extremely advantageous skill for playing Bridge, especially during the auction. I do know from explicit comments that members of the groups are doing things after Bridge, some are leaving sharp to meet others. I guess what I am really referring to here is that Scotland are playing tonight, and I usually never miss a game. It is an important game, a Uefa Nations League decider against Israel, played at Hampden Park. But, more importantly, it is about a catching up with friends from another period and place in my life; finding out what is new, having a laugh and, naturally, a few of the finest imported beer. We have our routine and our rituals, and when match day comes round a small obscure bar in the south side of Glasgow becomes our regular haunt. You realise how vital sport can be for social engagement. Time can pass, people relocate, but we find ourselves together, again, ‘for the game’. Sadly, this is one I miss out, but, as friends do, they understand. You get a strong sense of this during Bridge. We pick up on conversations that were started the previous week, or remember to ask about an event or occasion that was important enough to disclose with Bridge partners during a prior lesson. We probably all accept that the version of Bridge we are playing is a slightly pretend one, for the purposes of instruction and tuition, but the importance of the social aspect, and how it is becoming ritualised, is emerging.

But, I will admit that I had Sportsound on the radio in the car as soon as lessons finished!

“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?”

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.