woman teaches value of honor cards

Youth Teaching

by Matthew Kidd

A small blog on youth teaching issues.

Ursula Kantor’s Granddaughter Makes a Splash

Emily Kelly, Ursula Kantor’s granddaughter appeared on page 64 of July 2013 edition of the Bridge Bulletin. The text of the article appears below. It is followed by what Ursula said about her grandchildren in the October 2013 issue of the Contract Bridge Forum.

Bridge splashes down at Stanford

Emily Kelly, Debbie Rosenberg, and Ted Sanders at Stanford's Splash program

Emily Kelly, Debbie Rosenberg,and Ted Sanders

In California’s Silicon Valley, a small group recently took its first step in building a comprehensive youth bridge program at an event called Stanford Splash. Splash is a program for local seventh- through 12th-graders. The two-day classes at Stanford University ranged in topic from literature to knitting to quantum physics to bridge. Stanford students Ted Sanders and Emily Kelly led the bridge session with help from local pro and world champion Debbie Rosenberg, her son Kevin and several volunteer helpers from the Stanford and Palo Alto clubs. The class attracted 24 students—six girls and 18 boys.

Only four of the 24 kids had played bridge before. After just five minutes, the students were dealing hands and taking tricks. After two hours, they had learned the basics of bridge play and bidding. Said Rosenberg, “The Splash class was a great start for our youth bridge program. The students were enthusiastic and engaged, with many of them asking about how to learn more.”

Emily Kelly defends a bridge hand at Stanford's Splash program

Emily Kelly defends a hand. Photo provided by Ursula Kantor.

Watching the kids take to the game quickly and enthusiastically was exciting. Some of the questions that came up were unexpected such as, “Can you wink at your partner to signal?” and “How about sending an IM?” Then there was this strategy: “What if you still have a club but you ruff a club anyway—maybe no one will notice?”

For the Palo Alto Unit of the ACBL (Unit 503) who helped sponsor the class, Stanford Splash represents the first step in building a comprehensive youth bridge program. Plans so far include offering free after-school classes in the fall and monthly pizza and bridge parties at the local club.

Rosenberg suggested, “There are Splash-type programs held at several universities around the U.S., including Duke University, Rice University, San Jose State University and the University of Chicago. It would be awesome to see bridge offered at every one. It was an inspiring day.


Emily was involved in bringing Bridge into the Stanford Community where she recently completed her freshman year.

When she first arrived at Stanford, she went in search of the University’s bridge club. She found out that most of the players were graduate students or older. According to her, she was accepted into the group and into the university’s bridge team “by default” because of her age. A team member cannot be older that 26 years in order to compete with other college teams. Since then, she has proved herself to be an asset to the team.

Our other bridge player is my grandson, Matthew Warren. Besides being my partner when we play against his mother and father, he has recently installed Bridge Baron on his phone so that he can practice at his leisure. On our last trip to France, we outscored his parents.

When I asked him what had attracted he and his cousin to the game, this is what he wrote.

“I suppose family. It was the way we interacted, and when I was younger, I would always enjoy watching you guys, because everyone had fun and was laughing. For me, it was an inviting and fun thing to do even before I began playing.”

After they became attracted, it was easy to teach them. Out of a family of eleven, we have six bridge players, which are pretty good odds, I believe.

A Week of Bridge Teaching at Valhalla High

Valhalla High logo

Our unit’s high school bridge teaching program is spreading! Randy Fadem, the unit vice-president, reports that his latest effort was inspired by the book Pride and Prejudice. One of the AP English teachers at Valhalla High in El Cajon taught her students whist to keep them engaged in the literature. This inspired a parent to find a modern day whist, aka bridge, teacher. One thing led to another and soon Randy had another teaching gig for three morning periods in June 2013, which commenced shortly after this year’s teaching at La Jolla High ended.

Only a week was available for bridge teaching so it was not possible to cover all the material in the usual three week course for the Bidding in the 21st Century book. However, Randy accelerated the regular program and had the students bidding by the third day. The students loved it and so did their substitute host teacher who had picked up a bit of bridge in his youth (the English teacher had left to grade AP exams for the test company). In fact some students took a greater interest in Bidding in the 21st Century than Pride and Prejudice.

Fifth year of teaching bridge at La Jolla High

The fifth year of bridge teaching at La Jolla High ran from Monday May 13, 2013 through June 4th. The volunteers are pictured above. The host teachers were once again Mr. Greg Kinsel and Ms. Jessica Wills and one new teacher, Ms. Melanie Menders. Our teaching schedule was:

La Jolla High mascot
Period 17:25 - 8:20 amRoom 907Mr. Kinsel
Period 28:25 - 9:20 amRoom 907Mr. Kinsel
Period 39:33 - 10:31 amRoom 904Ms. Menders
Period 61:25 - 2:15 pmRoom 912Mrs. Wills

All the classrooms are in the Science and Technology building, and are highlighted in this campus map. Note: the top of the map is east rather than north and the grey buildings represent second floors rather than separate buildings. The address is 750 Nautilus Street, La Jolla, CA 92037 (local map). Parking can be tight in the area, so allow time to walk a block or two. See the pictures from last year. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).

La Jolla High students playing bridge at Pannikin coffee house in La Jolla

La Jolla High bridge players have escaped into the wild! I discovered seven of them at the Pannikin coffee house in La Jolla after school. Seven is such an awkward number, so I joined them and we played a few hands team game style.


Thirteenth year of teaching bridge at Chula-Vista High

Board member Bill Grant has now started his thirteenth year of teaching bridge at Chula Vista High in May 2013. He is teaching two periods along with Alan Rowen from the Coronado-Chula Vista unit. Their long time host teachers are Clint McDonald and Greg Molina.

Fourth year of teaching bridge at La Jolla High

The La Jolla Unit once again taught the ACBL School Bridge Lesson Series at La Jolla High each school day from May 17 - June 7, 2012, with one class starting a week earlier. This year we had five periods. View the pictures.

Unit president Randy Fadem headed up this effort and was grateful for all the help he received. With 20-30 students per class, starting from scratch, volunteers greatly speed up the learning. This year’s volunteers included Vi Beckenridge, John Devine, Judy Greene, Ron Ignelzi, Jackie Ives, Matthew Kidd, Mary Lowe, Otto Newman, Judy Rimer, Linda Rutgard, Stephen Seagren, Larry Sherman, and Rick Simpson. John Devine’s daughter Julia was in the second period class; this was their first experience playing bridge together.

La Jolla High mascot The host teachers are Mr. Greg Kinsel and Ms. Jessica Wills. Our teaching schedule was:

Period 17:25 - 8:23 amRoom 907Mr. Kinsel
Period 28:28 - 9:28 amRoom 907Mr. Kinsel
Period 39:33 - 10:31 amRoom 907Mr. Kinsel
Period 410:36 - 11:34 amRoom 912Ms. Wills
Period 61:17 - 2:15 pmRoom 912Ms. Wills

All the classrooms are in the Science and Technology building, and are highlighted in this campus map. Note: the top of the map is east rather than north and the grey buildings represent second floors rather than separate buildings. The address is 750 Nautilus Street, La Jolla, CA 92037 (local map). Parking can be tight in the area, so allow time to walk a block or two.

8½ tables of 6th graders at May 2012 NLM sectional at AIB

On Friday May 18th, Adventures in Bridge hosted an 8½ table tournament for 6th graders from Sunset Elementary school in the San Ysidro school district, concurrent with an NLM sectional. This was the culmination of two years of bridge once per week in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) teacher Ted Vega’s classroom. The East-West winners of the 18 board Junior Pairs match (full results) were Caleb Lopez and Cristobal Padilla with a 71.77% game and the North-South winners were Luke Williams and Jake Williams with a 67.75% games.

The students took the game seriously. See the photos. And unlike the La Jolla High students, the 6th graders were not shy about wearing the Bridge Rules tee shirts provided by the ACBL Educational Foundation. Teacher Lou Vega said most of his students had been in the GATE program for several years and were used to being the geeks, feeling a bond of solidarity. In additional to the intellectual benefits of the game, Mr. Vega felt bridge offered his students exposure to a broader community.

Joan Maden got the program started as described in the Contract Bridge Forum article below. In addition to continuing to work with last year’s students, the Madens and Carolyn Crabtree are also working with fourth and fifth graders. They welcome your help.

A brief interview with Joan

Q: How difficult was it to get one hour per week with the students?

A: Difficult. I had help from my daughter-in-law Raquel Maden who is on the school board, then the superintendent, and finally the principal and the teacher. The teacher, Ted Vega, was very interested when we got to him. I understand that schools have many more pressing priorities [than bridge teaching].

Q: Do the students enjoy bridge enough that they work harder during the rest of the week to make up for classroom time lost to bridge?

A: As a Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) class, it is part of their program. And more than fifty percent of the students stay after school to attend the bridge club.

Q: What aspects of bridge are hard to teach?

A: The hardest part is [dedicating] one hour per week.

Q: What gender differences do you observe in learning style and attitude?

A: Boys are more aggressive. One doubled himself last week!!!!!

The last answer makes me laugh. In the high school setting, the boys are often aggressive bidders. Although they sometimes go overboard, they often find good undoubled sacrifice contracts. So we frequently introduce penalty doubles sooner than the Bridge for Youth course does. A few -1400 scores helps straighten out the bidding.

Contract Bridge Forum article

This article is from the July 2012 issue of the Contract Bridge Forum.

By Vicki Creamer

Thirty-three sixth-graders from the GATE Program at Sunset Elementary School in San Ysidro had a great time playing in their own special bridge section at the Non-Life Master Sectional May 18, at Adventures in Bridge, San Diego. Both events were sponsored by Unit 539, who subsidized a bus ride up from San Ysidro to the tourney; besides the card play, the kids enjoyed a super free lunch, and the ACBL kicked in by donating the tee shirts (seen here in one of the many photos taken of the event by Matthew Kidd of the La Jolla Unit).

The event was coordinated by Ken and Joan Maden and their teaching team, who are in their second year of promoting bridge at Sunset Elementary. They teach for almost two hours once at the school, and … after the class … the kids who can, usually stay to participate in some more bridge play.

As you can tell from the concentration expressed on the faces in this photo, the kids were very serious about this very special field trip. But throughout the day, there were countless smiles on everyone’s face, and the bottom line was that the kids got a taste of an organized ACBL club game and won some masterpoints. The ACBL profited too; there are now 33 more members, all of whom help considerably to lower the average age of American Contract Bridge League members. Talk about a win-win situation!

It’s a well-researched fact that playing bridge keeps the mind sharp and active. But what happens when they start this young? We’ll find out over the next 70+ years!

Young People Play Bridge in San Ysidro!

This article is from the August 2011 issue of the Contract Bridge Forum.

By Joan Maden

After one year as Education Liaison for San Diego Unit 539 of the ACBL, I have been evaluating the progress we have made in our unit to introduce bridge to young people. Results have been mixed, but – as the smiling faces of the 33 children in this picture will attest – we have been able to make some inroads into the problem of getting school authorities interested in making bridge an adjunct to the teaching process of youngsters, even down to the elementary school level.

The pictured class is from the GATE class at Sunset Elementary School in San Ysidro. My group of volunteers (Carolyn Crabtree, Tom and Pam Kibler, Ken Maden and myself, along with occasional help from one or two others), were very fortunate to get the full support of the School Board, District Superintendent, Principal and teachers of that school, and we have run a program there for the past school year.

We had a great time, with lots of fun for all, culminating in a modular “tournament,” after which the kids were presented with their own individual certificates of participation by the District Superintendent.

In order that the students could play more hands, we also ran an after-school club, which was attended by about a dozen players. In this environment we were able to give a lot more individual instruction.

It seems to me that the school classroom is the best way to get students involved initially, participating in bridge activities as a part of the year’s curriculum.

Our goals for the next year involve expansion: Ken and I plan to do a presentation outlining the academic value of the Sunset program … and of the game of bridge in general … at a meeting of the County School Boards before classes start again in the fall. We will continue the program at Sunset School, and will hope to have some students proficient enough to take part in a junior section during the San Diego Regional in April, and again at the unit’s Non-Life Master tournament next May.

We invite an exchange of ideas, and solicit the help and support of anyone who would like to become involved with this program. Call us at 619 437-8177. I am very grateful for the support of the [San Diego] unit and of the ACBL, and particularly the other teachers and the many volunteers who are helping in this uplifting project.

Bridge Academy offers summer bridge camp

David Walters is offering summer bridge camp for kids in grades 5-12 at his Bridge Academy club. Classes run July 5 - September 2, 2011 in one week blocks. Read more.

Third year of teaching bridge at La Jolla High

Randy Fadem looking amused July 17th update: pictures from this year are now posted.

The La Jolla Unit is once again teaching the ACBL School Bridge Lesson Series program at La Jolla High starting Monday May 16, 2011 and continuing every school day for three weeks. This year we have six periods, up two from last year, and two new host teachers. Board member Randy Fadem is heading up this effort and he could use your help. With 20-30 students per class, starting from scratch, volunteers greatly speed up the learning. Sometimes the questions are as simple as who is on lead, but with half the play being shuffle, deal, and play, as opposed to the pre-dealt lesson hands, their questions can be as complex as any you face at the table. Contact Randy Fadem at (619) 466-4431 (home) or 347-844-3895 (cell). Read the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), read more about last year’s teaching, or view some pictures.

La Jolla High mascot The host teachers are Mr. Greg Kinsel and Ms. Jessica Wills, Mr. Adams, and Ms. Vu. Our teaching schedule is:

Period 17:25 - 8:23 amRoom 907Mr. Kinsel
Period 28:28 - 9:28 amRoom 907Mr. Kinsel
Period 39:33 - 10:31 amRoom 908Mr. Adams
Period 410:36 - 11:34 amRoom 912Ms. Wills
Period 512:14 - 1:12 pmRoom 905Ms. Vu
Period 61:17 - 2:15 pmRoom 912Ms. Wills

All the classrooms are in the Science and Technology building, and are highlighted in this campus map. Note: the top of the map is east rather than north and the grey buildings represent second floors rather than separate buildings. The address is 750 Nautilus Street, La Jolla, CA 92037 (local map). Parking can be tight in the area, so allow time to walk a block or two.

New York Times article

The April 25, 2011 edition of the New York Times contained an article titled For Students Raised on iPods, Lessons in Bridge. It mentions school programs in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Reno, Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C., Pensacola, Fla., Phoenix and Honolulu. Some quotes:

“To see seventh and eighth graders sitting and concentrating for three hours, it never happens except in bridge,” said Bud Brewer.

“It kind of teaches us math, but I like it better than math,” said Jack Schwerner, 10, who ranked bridge ahead of video games, but behind football.

“I just like winning,” said Max, who also plays chess. “Bridge is more fun than chess because you have a partner to help you if you’re in a tough situation.”

“You can’t text your partner your strategy,” she [principal Patricia McIlvenny] said. “You actually have to put down your cellphone and interact around a table. It’s reintroducing a lot of social skills that have been lost.”

“Unlike chess, it forces students to collaborate together,” said Dean Ketchum, the Midtown West principal. “And we’re providing families with an academic activity they can share for a lifetime.”

Rex and Sheila Latus teaching at Orange Glen High School

Rex and Sheila Latus started bridge teaching in September at Orange Glen high school in Escondido. They are teaching Tuesdays and Thursdays in an after school program and using the ACBL Bridge Series Bidding in the 21st Century as the teaching guide. So far the effort is quite small but they are hoping to get it better promoted.

Interestingly, the school approached them, when science teacher Pam Whiting paid a visit to the North County Bridge Center where Sheila teaches bridge. Ms. Whiting was inspired to introduce bridge after reading about the intellectual benefits of playing the card game. Bridge is a new addition to their after school program, which is the result of a grant from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers’ ASSETS program — After School Safety and Enrichment Program for Teens. A San Diego Union Tribune article from August 25, 2010 has more details about the after school program.

San Diego unit starts youth teaching effort

Left: Kianna Knoll; Center: Olivia Zeldin; Right: Olivia, Doug, & Kianna

The San Diego Unit has started bridge lessons for youth, ages 10-18. The lessons are being held on the first and third Sundays at Adventures in Bridge at 1 pm, concurrent with the unit game, starting October 3, 2010. Randy Fadem from the La Jolla Unit is doing the teaching. If you know any children, grandchildren, neighbor’s children, friend’s children, etc who would be interested, get them involved. They also need volunteers to help with the teaching. For more information contact Joan Maden (kmaden@san.rr.com) or Mark Scott Knoll (msk6568@yahoo.com). Note: cut-and-paste may not work for the e-mail addresses listed due to spam prevention measures.

Joan Maden also said that her and others are teaching third through sixth graders at the Sunset elementary school in San Ysidro.

New book: The Cardturner

The Cardturner book

In August, a friend who is a librarian and often works with kids, but not a bridge player, mentioned a new teen book, The Cardturner by Louis Sachar. I haven’t read it but the reviews on Amazon are favorable. It might make a good gift for a grandchild or great-grandchild.

The premise of the book, a teenager helping an eccentric blind great-uncle play bridge, reminds me of my time in Salt Lake City when I used to occasionally play with Joe Buckle. Joe wasn’t entirely blind. He could slide the pips of his cards very close to his eyes and figure out his hand in about a minute. To speed things up he would usually start in on the next hand while the other players at the table were commenting on the last hand. During the play everyone would call out the cards played and read off dummy. All things considered, he did pretty well. He was a funny guy too; usually up for drink or two and ready to expound on the menace of public transportation in a low density city.

ACBL Bulletin adds a column about youth bridge

Starting July 2010, the ACBL Bulletin added a column about youth bridge. View the first article (zoom image for easier reading).

San Diego Union-Tribune article

The May 29, 2010 edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune had a cover article about the bridge teaching at La Jolla and Chula Vista high schools. “Those math kids are good at numbers and manipulations and symbols,” Bill Grant said. “Bridge has got that interface between math and communication.” “You have people from all walks of life coming together where they otherwise wouldn’t. There’s the game, but there is conversation. And the whole experience enriches you,” said Randy Fadem, a certified bridge teacher assigned to La Jolla.

This sort of publicity is good in general. But it may be particularly helpful when approaching high schools without existing connections.

Teaching bridge at La Jolla High again

The La Jolla Unit is once again teaching bridge at La Jolla High starting May 10, 2010. Board member Randy Fadem is heading up this effort which has expanded to four periods of AP statistics students up from last year’s two periods. John Sack, Rick Simpson, Kianoosh Radsan, Otto Newman, Judy Rimer, Gail McBeth, Anita Burgis, Mike Crawford, Charlotte Blum, Janet Ansfield, Ron Ignelzi, and Matthew Kidd have been helping. The host teachers are Mr. Greg Kinsel and Ms. Jessica Wills. Mr. Kinsel, who hosted the teaching last year, has decided to make the bridge course a class requirement this year worth 25% of the student’s grade.

I once again educated and entertained with my Art of Being Lucky lecture from last year. Rick Simpson talked about opener’s second bid. Judy Rimer explained bidding as a conversation. Charlotte Blum discussed partnership issues and OKbridge and offered to mentor interested students.

Rick Simpson is trying to start a summer bridge club for La Jolla high students. A room has been allocated and at least 10 students have expressed interest.

Read the full write-up at the end of the teaching effort.

Bill Grant is teaching at Chula Vista High

This year Bill Grant is focusing exclusively on Chula Vista High where he was previously an AP calculus teacher. This is Bill’s tenth year of teaching bridge there which he has returned to do even after retiring. Since Chula Vista High is now on a year round schedule, Bill can no longer use the “down time” window at the end of AP classes. He has adapted by using the school-wide reading period, running 32-plus half hour sessions instead of 16 single hour sessions. He believes the students have mastered the game better in this new format.

Think beyond your unit

One small way a unit can support youth teaching is to “sponsor” a bridge class. This amounts to paying one year ACBL memberships for any students who want ACBL memberships. Since the Youth Special Rate is only $5, sponsoring both the La Jolla High and Chula Vista High classes last year cost the unit little more than $100.

But this year the board declined to sponsor the Chula Vista classes that Bill Grant is teaching. I think this is a short sighted decision in light of what is probably a ten or twenty year campaign to promote youth bridge at a time when circumstances seem favorable. In the narrow view, La Jolla High is in our unit and Chula Vista High is not. But in terms of who is going to wind up playing in our unit, this hardly matters. For the most part the La Jolla High students are juniors and seniors, nearly all destined for college. It is possible that some will come back to La Jolla and one day play in our unit but it is more likely they will scatter themselves around the country as Americans tend to do and contribute to bridge elsewhere. In the short term, the teaching effort is all about increasing the density of bridge players on campuses in the hopes that they nucleate into foursomes.

One can argue that the Coronado / Chula Vista unit should sponsor the Chula Vista High classes. But the La Jolla Unit is one of the wealthiest units in the nation, both in terms of the net worth of its members and its unit bank account. Why not contribute a little? It’s chump change.

Bill Grant’s Dream

Last year as we prepared to teach at La Jolla High, Bill Grant told me he wanted to see a playoff between three or more local high schools at the San Diego regional. Minimally this requires hooking up with a third high school. That should be the easy part. If I had had a little more time this year I might have picked one in Carmel Valley where I live. Then we would either have to do the teaching earlier in the academic year or hope to establish bridge clubs to carry over the learning from the previous year. The current Chula Vista High and La Jolla High teaching has occupied what is otherwise perceived to be academic downtime near the end of the academic year. But if an understanding of the benefits of bridge percolated further through the local educational system we might be able to reschedule the classes.

ARML logo

The more I think about this dream, the more it reminds my high school math team in the mid 1980s. We met once a week after school for practice but once or twice a month drove to one of the other six local high schools for a competition amongst all the high school teams. I think the actual competition only took between half an hour and an hour. There was also a country team that started up in the spring and culminated in a big weekend long competition in June at Penn State university, a couple of hour bus trip from our county. Checking the American Regions Mathematics League (ARML) website now, it looks they are still holding this event.

The county team was run by a big guy, Eric Walstein, an AP math teacher. Behind his back we used to call him “wall-to-wall” Walstein but he was unreservedly dedicated to effort. And if the internet is to be trusted, he still is; though the Great Recession threatened the effort in 2008 (article). Bridge needs people like him too.

Edward Koch teaches Earl Warren Middle School students

On May 2nd, I read an article in the San Diego Union Tribune about Edward Koch teaching bridge to students from Earl Warren Middle School at the Solana Beach Branch Library. “This age group is perfect,” Koch said. “They’re a captive audience because they can’t drive and haven’t gotten into the pressures of high school.” I don’t know Mr. Koch personally, but I say “bully for him” in my best Teddy Roosevelt impression.

June 18, 2010 update: I spoke with Ed over the phone today to learn more about how he got the teaching established and how he has been running it. He said he first approached Earl Warren middle school. They told him that they did not have afterschool programs but that many of the students participated in after school activities at the library across the street. The library staff was receptive to his offer to teach bridge their and put up a “Bridge Lessons” sign pointing his card tables.

The lessons are once a week and he usually has eight to ten students. He immediately introduced the students to bidding boxes and duplicate boards. His lessons closely follow material supplied by Patty Tucker, the Youth Coordinator at the ACBL, whom he contacted prior to initiating his teaching.

Ed further motivates his student with Mike and Ikes (would work for me!), giving some out to students who make a contract or defeat a contract. When he realized some students were keeping the bidding low in hopes of assuring a reward, he doubled the payout for making a game contract versus a non-game contract. The immediately made the bidding much more competitive.

ACBL booth at the 2010 NCTM San Diego meeting

The ACBL had a booth at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) meeting at the San Diego convention center, May 22-24. Bill Grant, Bob Walters, Randy Fadem, Ron Ignelzi and I helped man the booth as did some folks from the San Diego unit. I’m not sure how useful we were since Dana Norton and Vicki Campbell from the ACBL seemed to have a good pitch down as well as good literature, DVDs, and software to hand out. Even so, I learned a couple of things.

First, a lot of teachers are really scrambling to get by day to day. The Great Recession of 2009 has not helped things. Thus the ACBL’s offer to supply all the materials for teaching a class was a real hit. I hope some of the teachers take them up on this offer. Moreover, the ACBL seemed dedicated to either finding a local bridge player to teach a school bridge class or if necessary to pay for travel and lodging for someone else to do it. This is a real commitment of resources.

Second, the ACBL is seriously targeting junior high students. In the introduction to this blog, which was actually written after the NCTM meeting, I expressed the opinion I had before the meeting that high school is the best place to teach bridge. But I am starting to think the junior high approach might work. The arguments in favor are that students are more of a captive audience at that age and the empirical evidence is that they do understand the game. Given that 9½ year old Richard Jeng became the youngest life master ever in 2006, maybe it is entirely reasonable to expect twelve and thirteen year olds to learn the basics of the game. If the junior high teaching works, the ACBL will have at least half as many K-12 years as the USCF has to promote the game.

Teaching bridge at La Jolla High

Last year the La Jolla Unit taught bridge at La Jolla High. I wrote an article about it. It’s funny watching classes learn. It is very difficult to quantify how much is being learned and yet each day they seem to know more. Then one day you explain the penalty double and the real fun begins!

Introduction

May 12, 2010

I learned bridge in college in the late 1980s. Frankly we didn’t play very well. Having partner ruff the third round of a suit was considered a great defensive coup. Reading bridge books or even newspaper columns was considered a bit too serious. Most of us didn’t know about the ACBL. But we played for hours at a time. One day someone roped a bunch of us into something called an Instant Matchpoint game and lo and behold we actually did pretty well plus we all got a cool booklet about the hands at the end. Then we got back to our studies.

Critical to this experience was a certain density of casual players whereupon an individual wanting to start a game could run around claiming only to need a “fourth” and manage to round up three of them in short order. Doubtless this sort of thing had been going on for decades. The only thing that makes the late 1980s noteworthy is that it may have been the end of that period. Because if the density of casual players falls too low, the causal college game enters a death spiral and with it an important feeder to duplicate bridge.

The ACBL was not ignorant of the problem but at first they didn’t seem to know what to do about it. A number of publicity efforts were made but these always seemed to involve kids who were children of strong bridge players, i.e. kids who would probably end up playing bridge at least casually no matter what. And playing up bridge as “cool” hasn’t been that effective. Kids have a sixth sense that anything adults try to tell them is “cool” either simply isn’t or isn’t in the desperate situations that cause adults to try the “cool” campaign. It’s all about what your peers are doing at that age and no one wants to be the lone bridge geek. As with many things, there is either a critical density of participation or there isn’t.

Some of the leadership seemed resigned about the issue and decided to focus their efforts on bringing middled-aged adults and early retirees into the game. This approach has been moderately successful. ACBL membership has been holding steady, even increasingly slightly, despite the significantly rising average age. San Diego, with its strong bridge community, has played its part. People like Wirt Gilliam, Maritha Pottenger, David Walters, and Ed Layton have taught quite a few adults.

Age distribution of active USCF players (1998)

Age distribution of active chess competitors (1998). Figure from Rating the Chess Rating System, Mark E. Glickman and Albyn C. Jones, page 15.

Still, not everyone wanted to give up on teaching young players. Some hope came from the success of the United States Chess Federation (USCF) in promoting chess in classroom as early as elementary school, over the last 20 years or so. Their effort has been so successful that they claim, “scholastic chess is the broadest ‘area’ of USCF”s responsibility; roughly half of our members attend one kind of school or another, ranging from pre-school programs up through college” and that “chess is being taught in both formal in-classroom and after-school and in park and recreation programs” and to “hold a variety of competitions at the national level for players from elementary school through college levels” These are impressive results; I recommend reading the full USCF scholastic chess webpage.

Imagine if the ACBL were just 20% as successful as the USCF. That would mean 10% of the membership would be youth. That would be 16,000 youth members and countless more who knew the rules of the game even if they dropped their membership. By time these kids entered college and started to form lifetime adult passions, the critical density of bridge players necessary to quickly find three “fourths” would be present on many, even most, campuses. And from that campus bridge clubs might form.

Bridge and chess are not exactly the same. Chess is a game of complete knowledge and one’s loss can nearly always* be traced back to one or two bad moves, even if they merely weaken one’s position slightly or are simply too passive. This certainty seems appealing to elementary school children, an early taste of the application of logic. Bridge is closer to real life. One has to work with a partner who may not always seem to be on your side. There are many probabilities to consider, few of which can be computed exactly at the table. On occasion, virtue will not be rewarded, even over a full session. My feeling is that kids are emotionally ready for these issues by high school and therefore high school is the best place to teach bridge.

Still bridge and chess are both competitive thinking games with national organizations dedicated to promoting them and running tournaments. Both games can be pushed as promoting logical thinking, improving test scores, keeping kids of the streets, etc. Card games sometimes have to overcome religious opprobrium or the stigma associated with gambling but these are not serious challenges. And socially, if I had to limit my friends to either only bridge players or chess players, the bridge players would win hands down.

Even if the ACBL gave up on K-8 to focus on high school, that would still leave four out of thirteen educational years and correspondingly more resources to dedicate to those years. Surely, we can do at least half as well as the USCF did over a twenty year period.

Yes, the road is long. And yet I feel there is a renewed interest in bridge. A serious push now could have major impact.

Nov 2010 update: I found what might be my very first masterpoint award. Back then if you didn’t have a player number, the director would write out a masterpoint slip which you could mail in to redeem after joining the ACBL. I suppose it is still good – Larry Sherman told me he sent some in from perhaps 20 years ago that they credited when he started playing duplicate again a few years ago.


*I say “nearly” because I have played out some Karpov games where he strangled his opponent so slowly and subtly that it is quite difficult to say exactly where his opponent went wrong. But Karpov was the world champion for 10 years (1975-1985) and he was an absolute master of positional play.