Billings Bridge Club master player Bob Carter gives tiny north-south head nods, agreeing with the sugary comments about a fellow club member, 90-year-old Jean Steedman. The lower lip protrudes a bit.
For sure. Jean is certainly a classy woman, always regally dressed to play in clothes she even sews herself.
Yep, true. There’s Jean’s sweet, gentle demeanor. Her humble nature comes up.
“But don’t let all that fool you,” said Carter, one of only three top diamond-level bridge masters in Montana. “She’ll cut your throat.”
It’s keen competition and an almost obsessive need to card concentrate that brings about 125 Billings Bridge Club members to a tidy cellar belonging to the Knights of Columbus folks out on 2216 Grand Ave. next door to the U-Haul. There, two-person teams mentally pound one another four times a week, Tuesdays (afternoon and evening) and during days on Thursdays and Fridays.
And they play this most complex of card games, get this, for up to four hours each session.
Lon Doll and his wife, Ramona, have operated the Billings Bridge Club for six years. Lon says the game is growing, attracting the retiring Baby Boomers, men and women, now with time, who like the mental stimulation and opportunities to compete. Ones with flexible jobs schedules, like real estate agents, seem attracted to daytime play.
“It’s competition within a social activity, Doll said during a recent Thursday afternoon session.
“If you play the game, put in more time, the better you will get and there’s unlimited places then to play all around the country, all around the world. You can always find duplicate (the most popular form of bridge) clubs, on cruise ships, with more challenges, until the game becomes an addiction, the competition.
“I don’t know anybody who is not a Type A person who plays bridge competitively.”
Social interaction yes, before and perhaps after sessions. Once games commence nobody is talking about the ugly past winter, the president’s healthcare plan or whether Detroit Tiger Miguel Cabrera is really worth $292 million while playing. In fact, it’s eerily quiet at the four-person table as players try to count and recall 52 cards. There is game dialogue, but it’s minimal.
Club members pay $6 to compete each session, $5 for newcomers. The fees pay for the rental of the building, table setup and refreshments for players. In addition, Doll tallies and sends player results to the American Contract Bridge League, the national governing body of the game based in Horn Lake, Miss., who in turn provide “masterpoints” back to the players. The number of points built up over a lifetime determines the level of player one becomes. Tournaments (the club hosts three during the year) match players with similar levels, where more masterpoints can be earned. The bigger the tournament, the higher the points.
And that’s the achievement or recognition bridge players seek. Not trophies or money payouts, but rather, to say you’ve earned so many masterpoints to garner one day that silver, gold or perhaps diamond master level status. Unlike poker, there’s little gambling in the game.
“It’s an intellectual exercise and I’m an egghead,” explained 70-year-old Karen Peterson, who graduated from Stanford University and taught computer science for IBM. The game stimulates her mind and Ramona Doll is a very good cookie maker, she says.
While experienced club members do take the game seriously, it’s nothing like the bridge community in Denver, says Donna Yeargain. She belonged to some of that city’s largest bridge clubs for 40 years, before moving to Billings to be near her family about 18 months ago. Most big-city bridge players behave, but there were some “bad actors,” she says.
“(The Billings Bridge Club) were such a welcoming club when I came here,” Yeargain said. “I’ve seen bad behavior where partners bickered with each other at the tables, where teams are not nice to their opponents, telling them how dumb they are.”
She’s yet to see such childish play with Doll’s club and doubts she will.
It’s not an easy card game to learn, says master teacher Ann Zorn. But for those wanting to win, who like to count and memorize, with perhaps a chess-playing background, who want to begin, Zorn, with her endearing English accent, can help.
She charges $100 for 10 two-hour sessions. Originally from Buckinghamshire, England, Zorn holds evening and day classes for newcomers.
Putting in some work is the key to learning the game, she says. That, and having other four-person tables to learn with, which her classes provide. Reading books or on-line tutorials only go so far.
Club members call novices “Ninety-niners.” Seeking to surpass 99 masterpoints and become regular bridge players. Doll says some eagerly start, but later drop out. Too hard, too long, or perhaps too intense. It’s not for all.
But certainly for Jean Steedman.
“Oh, God, I couldn’t live without bridge,” said Steedman, who began playing duplicate bridge in 1970 when she joined the club and competes three times weekly.
She loves the competition and says the afternoons just “fly by” when she playing, she hardly notices the time. Afterwards, she goes home and has a couple of bourbon and waters with her 92-year-old husband, John, before dinner.
She’ll reflect about her day’s play. Sometimes good, sometimes not so.