Contract Bridge is largely a game for seniors these days. In 2015, the average age of a competitive bridge player was 71, according to the AARP.
“I started when I was 17,” said Spokane Bridge Club’s Charlie Bennett. “I was one of the youngest players there.”
“Now I’m 71,” he said, laughing. “And I’m still one of the youngest players.”
It wasn’t always like that, though. There was a time when bridge was cool.
Millennials remember the Texas hold ’em poker boom, when millions of people worldwide took up the game after amateur Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker main event in 2003.
There was a similar card-playing boom about 75 years earlier: the contract bridge boom.
“Bridge used to be the most popular game in the country, after baseball,” Bennett said. “The Culbertson-Lenz match – the match of the century, it was called – was headline news in the New York Times.”
When the Culbertson-Lenz match ended in 1932 (it began in December 1931), bridge was as popular as poker was after Moneymaker. For decades, bridge was the weekly card game of choice. President Dwight Eisenhower famously played every Saturday night during the 1950s. The TV series “Championship Bridge with Charles Goren” aired on national television from 1959 to 1964.
“Bridge is still a huge game in Europe, and enormously popular in China and Canada,” Bennett said. “Unfortunately, here in this country it’s become an older person’s game.”
Bennett and the club’s co-directors, Brenda Simpson and John Adams, are trying to change that by offering games that allow newer players to blend with experienced players. “It isn’t too hard to learn how to play,” Bennett said. “But to learn to play well takes a lot of practice.”
Bennett, Simpson and Adams recently moved from downtown Spokane to the Spokane Bridge Center at 1427 N. Argonne Road in Spokane Valley. They are holding an open house at the new location Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m.
Said Simpson: “We want to get people to know where we are, to come see the facility and find out about the club’s daily games, classes and tournaments.”
The club, affiliated with Unit 448 in the American Contract Bridge League, holds games every day but Sunday.
“We stratify all our games with an A, B and C level,” Bennett said. “There will be winners at all those levels.”
Learning the game can be intimidating, but there are options out there. Spokane Falls Community College offers a bridge course. The yearlong program, much like a college-level language course, is progressive; each quarter picks up where the last one left off.
Club member Bill Rottmayer teaches the course. “We started last fall,” he said. “As long as we get enough interested students, we’ll keep doing it.”
A retired schoolteacher, Simpson taught bridge at the community college level for 10 years.
“I’d really like to see us in Gonzaga, and Eastern, and Washington State,” said Bennett.
Simpson often puts up a bridge booth during events at the Fairgrounds. “I’ll have one there that says, ‘bridge for the brain,’ ” said Simpson. “That’s one of the things I like to emphasize is that it helps you communicate … and keep your memory sharp.”
Bennett is a retired air-traffic controller. “They used to say that one of the indicators that you could be successful at air traffic control is if you can play bridge well,” he said.
The club caters to experienced, competitive players as well. According to Bennett, many of the club’s 250 members are master level players.
“We provide a training ground for the better players,” he said. “We have some people who don’t care about that part, but most people are pretty competitive. They want to get better.”
The partnership aspect of bridge makes it a social game.
“You meet a lot of people,” Simpson said. “A lot of my best friends, I met through bridge.”