Vineyard bridge is a rich island tradition

Enjoying a game of bridge at the Howes House in West Tisbury are Dan Cabot (left) and his wife Nancy (right), Rhonda Stricoff and husband Eric. — Photo by Edward Russell

Vineyarders get together to pursue activities that interest them, whether it’s quilting or knitting, brewing beer or fixing up old cars. Since the 19th century and probably earlier, Vineyarders have gotten together to play cards — cribbage, poker, canasta, hearts, spades, or bridge. Cards can be just a pastime, a social way to kill a few hours on a wintery evening or a rainy summer afternoon, but some card games — bridge is an excellent example — can be played at a high level of skill. Human beings, naturally competitive creatures, have organized card games into tournaments, with championships, national rankings, professional teachers, and books and magazines devoted to the game.

Bridge is not a hard game to learn, though the scoring is a bit complicated. Perhaps your parents taught you and your sister to play, because bridge needs two pairs of partners, and they needed two more warm bodies to get up a game. Maybe you learned in college, because it was a stress-free way to meet others and make social connections. That game is called “rubber bridge” (because a “rubber” is the best two out of three 100-point “games”) or “party bridge” (because that’s what you play at a social event), and many people still play it for the same reasons they learned it in the first place. The witty conversation is as important as the game itself. All you need is a table or two and some chairs, decks of cards, and perhaps some snacks and a bit of liquid refreshment. “Bridge parties” are not much different from “poker nights,” except that usually there’s no betting. Who knows how many such gatherings happen every week on Martha’s Vineyard? There’s a regular party bridge game in Chilmark. Drop in on Katherine Stewart of Vineyard Haven, and you may find she has a bridge table set up in her front room for some afternoon guests. Hugh Knipmeyer and Barbara Donald used to host bridge parties for Windemere residents. Party bridge is everywhere.

Duplicate Bridge

There is another level of bridge competition. In party bridge, skill is important, but there is a great deal of luck. If your the opponents have all the aces and kings, you and your partner are not going to win many rubbers. However, about a hundred years ago somebody figured out a way to take most (but not all) of the luck out of bridge. The game is called “duplicate bridge” or just “duplicate.” The scoring is based on rubber bridge, with points for tricks taken, bonuses for bidding and making a “game” and for bidding and making a “slam” (taking 12 or all 13 tricks in the deal), and penalties for failing to take as many tricks as you contracted for in the “bidding” phase of each hand, an auction in which players compete to name the trump suit — or “no trump” — by “bidding” to take a particular number of tricks. However, instead of keeping score over a series of rubbers against another pair, each hand is a separate competition, and the cards are not shuffled and redealt after each hand. Instead, the cards are shuffled only once at the start of the evening, and the four hands of each deal are kept in a small frame (called a “board”) with a slot for each. Players move from table to table in a predetermined rotation, usually after two or three “boards.” The game is arranged so that you and your partner are scored on how well you do with the hands you play, scored not against the opponents at the table, but against all the other pairs who played that hand at other tables. For example, if you and your partner play the north-south hands on a particular deal and lose 980 points (a large loss, but quite possible), you might actually beat all the other north-souths who played that hand if the others all lost 1480 points (also possible). You might have earned a top score on that hand (and your east-west opponents, a bottom), even though your side had no aces and kings at all on that deal.

The American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) holds local and regional tournaments all over New England. Vineyard duplicate players have for many years competed regularly in tournaments in Hyannis, Newton, and Watertown, Mass.; Cromwell, Conn, Manchester, N.H., and Johnston, R.I. The Vineyard contingent (sometimes 15 or 16 strong) has always acquitted itself very well at off-Island tournaments. At the San Diego Regional in April, Joe Ashcroft and Mollie Whalen of Vineyard Haven, playing with sometime summer resident Al Shrive and his partner, came in second in Bracket 1 of the Compact Knockout Teams, competing against some of the best teams in the country.

The ACBL maintains a point system for success in tournaments and local club games. More than a score of regular Vineyard players hold the top rank of “Life Master.” In the 1970‘s the late Margaret O’Neill was the first Vineyard year-round resident to earn Life Master rank.

Local duplicate

Going off-Island for tournaments is expensive. There are entry fees to pay, as well as hotel accommodations and travel. Luckily, there are also local club games. Right now there are three regularly scheduled games a week on Island. In the winter these games have three to seven tables in play (up to 14 pairs), but in the summertime, when seasonal residents and transients play here, there might be as many as 13 tables (26 pairs) playing, or even more. And the level of competition is very high — which may explain why Vineyarders do so well in big tournaments.

Years ago, Margaret O’Neill ran two duplicate games a week (Sundays and Thursdays) in Edgartown at Saint Elizabeth’s parish hall, and it was an honor to be invited to play in the New Year’s Eve game at her home. David Donald runs the Martha’s Vineyard Bridge Club Tuesday night game at the Stone Church in Vineyard Haven (before David, the game was run by Susan Voohees). There is an Island Bridge Club game on Thursday evenings at the Howes House in West Tisbury, and the relatively new Edgartown Bridge Club has a game on Monday afternoons at the Yacht Club.

There are also smaller games, usually two tables in a team-of-four format (the game is also called “Swiss Teams” or “Knockout Teams” at tournaments). At a bi-weekly up-Island game, rotated among three couples’ homes, players draw for partners and teammates for a 28-board match. One pair will play the north-south cards in one room, and their teammates will play the east-west cards in another room. The host serves dessert halfway through the competition. There are also occasional team-of-four games at homes in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Vineyard Haven. Fifty years ago, Muriel Fisher hosted exactly such a game weekly at her home on Lamberts Cove Road. Usually the same eight played, but guests were always pleased to be asked to fill in for an absent regular.

Duplicate games are more serious than party bridge games, and there’s little chitchat during the actual play, yet Vineyard bridge players try to make sure that the game stays a fun pastime, no matter how expert the level of play.