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Anyone's game: To keep bridge alive, youth hold all the cards

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Kylie McDuffie, 11, plays bridge at Eastern Elementary School. Greenville Youth Bridge is hosting a tournament April 21 for bridge clubs at Eastern, St. Peter Catholic School and Christ Covenant School.

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By Kim Grizzard

Sunday, April 15, 2018

“Pass” was Ellen Pauling’s first word.

It makes no sense that a baby would babble such a thing, except for the fact that her parents were avid bridge players who let their little one toddle around the table while they played cards with friends.

As soon as Ellen and her three siblings were old enough, their parents taught them to play. She has loved the game ever since.

But these days, when Pauling sits around the card table, there are no little ones under foot. Decades after its heyday — when there was a nationally televised program on bridge — the average age of players in the United States has crept steadily upward. Statistically speaking, bridge appears to be a game with the cards stacked against it.

“Most people, when you think of bridge, you think old people,” Pauling said. “You think of this as an old person’s game.”

Pauling, a former educator who at 70 is slightly younger than the average competitive bridge player, is making an effort to bridge the generation gap. Four years ago, she founded Greenville Youth Bridge, a nonprofit organization designed to pass the game she loves along to younger players.

“The game of bridge is going to die out if we don’t teach it to the younger generation,” she said. “After I retired, that’s been my passion is to teach kids bridge.”

After years of offering free lessons and even summer camp programs, Pauling and fellow volunteers from the American Contract Bridge League launched an after-school program nearly two years ago at St. Peter Catholic School. In 2017, they ventured into public schools, beginning a bridge club for fourth- and fifth-graders at Eastern Elementary School, where Pauling once worked as a school counselor.

Since October, half a dozen volunteers have come to Eastern twice a month after school to teach a dozen or more students about contract bridge, a card game played in pairs and using a standard 52-card deck. At tables of four in the school’s media center, students learn about tricks and bidding (no money is involved). Here, the terms “trump” and “no trump” have nothing to do with presidential politics.

“They’re doing things that none of us (faculty) understand,” said Carmen Webb, the school’s instructional coach and a faculty adviser for the bridge club. “Bridge was kind of a lost art, and she (Pauling) wanted to bring it back.”

Several of the students had never even heard of bridge when they signed up for the club last fall. Fourth-grader Tyler Harrison was one of them. Neither his grandparents nor his parents play bridge, but Tyler’s mother, Kristie Harrison, thought her son might be interested in trying it. She promised that if he didn’t like it, she wouldn’t make him keep coming, but that has never been an issue.

“I haven’t seen that with any of these kids at all,” she said. “(No one is saying) ‘I can’t believe I’m still at school and it’s 4 o’clock.’

“He enjoys the fact that he has to think about what he’s doing and the fact that there’s a strategy to winning,” Harrison said.

After researching the game and watching her son develop as a player, Harrison believes bridge provides more than just after-school fun. She sees it as a way to cultivate social skills, problem-solving and patience.

Research suggests that bridge can be beneficial for older adults, helping them to utilize memory, visualization and sequencing.

“We keep saying when we’re 90, I may not know who’s sitting across from me, but I’ll know how to play that hand of bridge,” Pauling said, laughing.

There have been fewer studies to examine its effect on children. A 2001 study in Illinois found that students learning bridge out-performed other students in standardized testing.

Joel Thompson, who started playing bridge in college and has been teaching the game for more than 20 years, believes the game has numerous benefits.

“If you look at those bridge columns in the paper, you’re going to see that they’re always giving you some kind of problem that you have to solve,” he said. “It does require them to use basic mathematics. It does require them to learn something about probability and to think those steps through.

“This is a game that is both competitive and cooperative,” Thompson said. “One thing that everyone needs to develop, regardless of what you’re going to do with your life, is you need to be able to cooperate with others.”

Academic advantages are not what motivated Eastern fourth-grader Valerie Raya to join the club.

“I thought it looked cool, and I wanted to teach my siblings how to do it,” she said.

Isn’t she a little young for bridge?

“I feel like people think that’s for old people,” Valerie said. “ It’s not for old people. It’s for all ages.”

Fifth-grader Emmy Brandenburg was well aware of bridge’s reputation among senior adults. She wanted to learn the game so she could challenge her great-grandmother, who is rumored to be quite the bridge player.

“My mom used to play against her, but my mom always used to lose,” she said.

St. Peter fifth-graders Wright Collins and Davis Walsh both learned about bridge from their grandmothers.

Thought Wright enjoys video games, he found that he was not bored by card playing.

“I actually like the bidding part because it’s really hard and it’s really competitive,” he said.

Davis, also a video game fan, watched some of his friends try bridge last school year and then signed up for the club himself the second time around.

“It can be a little slow when you first start to learn it,” he said. “It took awhile, but after (that) I started to like it.”

Thompson understands that bridge can be quite a change of pace for kids who have grown accustomed to the speed of games on their Xboxes or iPhones.

“It doesn’t put you on the edge of your seat all the time,” he said. “This is a lot slower pace than those video games. It gives them the chance to basically sit back and figure out what’s going on instead of rushing headlong into something.

“It’s the most important thing you can learn is how to think about things before you just jump into anything,” Thompson said. “Video games don’t give that to you.”

While popular websites make it possible to play bridge online with people from all over the world, Cindy Suter was determined to teach students at Christ Covenant School the face-to-face variety of the game when she began a club there three years ago. It took awhile to get middle school and high school students to embrace what many considered to be a game that only their grandmothers could love.

“For us to get through that barrier has been difficult,” Suter, the school’s director of operations, said. “(I) try to get them to understand that it really is a cool game and to show them the world of bridge.”

Suter can understand their hesitancy. Though her mother played bridge and had lots of books on the subject, Suter was not interested until about a decade ago when she started looking for a sedentary hobby she could engage in after undergoing an operation.

She recovered from surgery, but Suter has never gotten over her love for bridge. While other popular games rely on chance or memorization, Suter considers bridge to be a thinker’s game.

“It’s a great thing,” she said. “You grow your mind. You’re always learning. You never have it down.”

After meeting Pauling while playing bridge, Suter joined the Greenville Youth Bridge effort. She has taken some of her students to the Pitt County Senior Center so they can compete with more experienced bridge partners. Two of her students, who also took lessons at one of Pauling’s bridge camps, hope to participate in the North American Bridge Championship in Atlanta this summer.

More important for Suter is the fact that that they have been introduced to a game that they could quite possibly love for their whole lives.

“I think bridge is just the perfect thing because it’s something that you never stop learning,” she said.

“I feel like it’s good to give kids the experience of learning bridge at an early age when they’re kind of deciding what they love in life,” she said. “We give them a little taste of it. If they like it they can take off and learn the rest of their lives how to play well.”

For more information about Greenville Youth Bridge, email Ellen Pauling at tpauling@suddenlink.net.

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