Game on for ABA
Back when America was a segregated nation - major league baseball, lunch counters, schools and the Army - the card game of bridge was segregated also.
If you were African American you could not be a member of the American Bridge League, which later became known as the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) and so could not play in its sanctioned games or tournaments. By one account the ACBL did not allow Black players until the 1950s.
"The ACBL did not allow Blacks to play and that was the primary reason the ABA was started," says American Bridge Association (ABA) national president Leola Rucker, of Dayton, Ohio. The ABA, founded in the early 1930s, now has its national headquarters is in Atlanta, Georgia, and most of its approximate 125 clubs nationwide are in the southern states.
However, its northernmost club is here on Martha's Vineyard, with a regularly scheduled duplicate-style Saturday morning game from mid-June to mid-September. Founded in 1999, The Bridge Club of Martha's Vineyard, as it is officially known, is predominantly made up of summer residents of Martha's Vineyard. During the winter months they play bridge in places like Virginia, Florida, Maryland, and the Carolinas.
The Martha's Vineyard ABA club president is Clara Hargraves, of Edgartown, who serves as the "director" of the games held at the Tisbury Senior Center. The majority of players are African American; however, anyone may be an ABA member. Currently the Martha's Vineyard club has 22 members, but one may play without joining the club.
Ms. Hargraves began playing "serious" bridge in 2001, when she started taking lessons in N.J. "I love it...every time you pick up a hand is magic," she says. Ms. Hargraves did not experience bridge until she was in college, when social bridge was just "throwing cards at each other."
"The ABA never discriminated; everyone was welcome," says Jim Kaplan of Oak Bluffs, the Martha's Vineyard club's vice president and one of its founders. Like Mr. Kaplan, many ABA members are now also members of the ACBL.
"Black bridge players just wanted the chance to play bridge when they could not with the other groups," says Mr. Kaplan. "The fact that the ABA continued even after integration says there were a lot of friendships and rivalries at ABA games that players wanted to carry on."
Ms. Hargraves describes the game as "fascinating." A retired school psychologist and widow, she now plays tournament bridge through the ABA; she has never played in an ACBL national tournament.
"When I started playing bridge seriously, the director in New Brunswick, N.J., a Black man, told me that because he was such a marvelous player the ACBL let him play but not earn points," says Ms. Hargraves. "I heard from him and other older members of the ABA that they could not go into a ACBL club game and feel comfortable...sometimes they were even asked to leave."
"The ABA games are always so welcoming," says Mr. Kaplan. "It would have been easy to be bitter and exclude whites but that never happened."
Duncan Walton, an ABA player from Oak Bluffs, says, "I do think that many Black people are more forgiving and more open to exploring relationships."
A typical Saturday morning bridge game here on Martha's Vineyard starts with continental breakfast. Bill Davenport of Oak Bluffs doesn't play bridge but shows up early to get the coffee started. His wife, Brenda, has been playing the game for six years and finds the game fascinating because the hands are always different. Starting with lessons and reading a lot of bridge books during the winter, Ms. Davenport now plays bridge three times a week, "for fun. When the time comes that this is not fun I'll quit."
By 9:30 am there are seven or eight tables of four bridge players each and the game is under way. Duplicate bridge involves the rotating of players and the rotating of the cards so that by the end of the session, about 1 pm, every two-player team has played each pre-dealt hand. "Winning" is based on a comparison of how well everyone who played a certain hand did compared to the others who played that hand. First-, second-, and third-place finishers are awarded points that are registered on their record with the ABA, if they are members. Points may be earned at sanctioned games, like the Saturday session or tournaments. Serious players are working toward achieving the ABA rank of Grand Master.
The ABA has a four-day bridge cruise planned to Nassau in November and Ms. Davenport intends to be aboard.
There is also a year-round ACBL-sanctioned game on Martha's Vineyard held on Tuesday evenings at the Stone Church, in Vineyard Haven. During the summer months there may be as many as 14 or 15 tables of players at these games. Typically, there will be only about six Black players at these gatherings including Mr. Walton and his wife, Jocelyn.
During the winter months Mr. Walton now plays ABA duplicate bridge in the Annapolis, Md., area; until recently Mr. Walton's winter games were in northern New Jersey. "The ACBL game here on Martha's Vineyard is much friendlier than what I experienced at other ACBL games...there is some sense of community that you feel here that you don't feel anywhere else," says Mr. Walton. "Usually an ACBL game is strict, serious business where players are playing hard, not taking any prisoners, and they do not care about anything else,"
Mr. Kaplan, himself an ACBL Life Master, concurs. "A lot of people playing at ACBL games are there because they want to compete, to get points and become Life Masters. At ABA games they want to be with friends and make friends. ABA players are competitive and skilled but these are not their main incentives for playing."
For ABA players, "it is more than a game, it is a social event. There are sorority- or fraternity-like ties among the members," says Ms. Hargraves. Another ABA player described the ABA culture as creating "caring, nurturing bridge clubs that want to help you to better your game..."
The last game of the 2009 season also hosted eight ABA players from Delaware who travelled to Martha's Vineyard, according to Patricia Purcell, of Wilmington, Del., "to enjoy each other...and enjoy bridge in a lovely setting."
The average age of ABA members is 72, according to Ms. Rucker "and we have members in their 90s." According to the ACBL, its average member is 62 years old. Therein lies the challenge for the future of duplicate bridge - the aging of its players and the resulting decline in club membership.
There are now a few locations across the nation where ACBL and ABA games are held jointly because there are "...some areas where they do not have enough members (of either group) to have a good game," says Ms. Rucker. Currently the leadership of both organizations is in discussions to find a way for points earned at an ABA tournament to be registered at the ACBL and vice versa, according to the Ms. Rucker.
"There is a lot at stake when you are trying to break into the Major Leagues or get a better job, but African Americans know what is really important and what is supposed to be fun," says Mr. Kaplan. "There are much bigger battles to be fought."
Susan L. Silk is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.