The art of the deal
Why in the world would Nancy and I go off-Island for a long weekend - spending hundreds of dollars on travel, hotel, and entry fees - just to play a card game? Why would a dozen other Vineyarders do the same thing? Why, for that matter, would a couple of thousand other bridge players travel from all over the Northeast to join us?
"What do you get if you win?" my most cynical son once asked me.
"Well, nothing really."
"But you pay to play, don't you? So you ought to win something."
Yes, it costs $10 or $11 to play in each tournament session. The entrance fees are like greens fees or lift tickets. However, there is also one small reward: Master Points.
Master Points are awarded by the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) for winning or finishing high in sanctioned club games or tournaments. Players who accumulate Master Points, especially in tournament play, get ranked by the ACBL. But the rankings only massage players' egos and (sometimes) impress opponents. Among the Vineyard regulars, there are lots of Life Masters (the highest ACBL ranking), but being a Life Master won't get you so much as a cup of coffee. Master Points are just another way to keep score.
Like most card games, bridge is not very hard to learn. It's a fun way to pass the time with three friends, and it requires only a standard deck of cards and a pencil and paper to keep score. I whiled away many pleasant hours in prep school and college playing bridge - hours I might have otherwise wasted on my education.
Regular bridge, the kind most people play after dinner with friends at home, the kind I played in school, is largely driven by luck. You are much more likely to win if you get dealt aces and kings than if you don't. Of course good players will usually come out ahead of poor players in the long run, but the luck of the deal has a lot to do with regular bridge.
Ah, but there is another layer to this pleasant pastime.
There is a version of bridge called "duplicate bridge" in which every hand you and your partner play is saved and played again by many other pairs. Now you are competing not only against your opponents at the table, but also against pairs who have played or will play exactly the same cards. The role of luck, while not eliminated, is much reduced.
This version of bridge requires many players (at least eight but sometimes hundreds), a separate deck of cards for every hand, and some special equipment, and the scoring is more complicated, but it's the version that gets the competitive juices flowing. Now skill, experience, and brains matter more than luck.
Bridge is a partnership game, and in duplicate bridge the way partners think and function together is hugely important. It is against the rules for partners to have secret agreements or secret signals, but within the rules, every bid has a meaning and a set of inferences, so does every card led or played. Nancy and I have been bridge partners for longer than we've been married, and winning against top-quality competition is a function of how well we play together. Playing in big tournaments validates that for us as a couple.
A bridge tournament is the only sporting event I can think of where ordinary players get to compete against the very best in the game. I could never play a golf hole against Tiger Woods, but I have more than once played hands against guys who write bridge columns I read regularly in the ACBL Bulletin. After last week's tournament I could look up (online) the event summary of players who have tens of thousands of Master Points (I have fewer than 500) and see that on one deal at least, Nancy and I bid a hand better than most of them (including the nationally-ranked woman who was rude to us at the Falmouth Sectional six years ago). It's an ego thing.
For the Vineyard duplicate players, there's a camaraderie in traveling as a team. We meet in the bar after the evening sessions, or go out to dinner together, or breakfast together - always with the printed hand records. How did you do on board 28? You made four hearts on 16? How did you do that?
There is a friendly competition among Vineyarders to win the most Master Points at each tournament, but we also rejoice at each other's successes. The game itself is what bridge players get out of it, competing on a par with those who are very good at it - even if it is only a card game.