"Pass, pass, pass."
And so the bidding goes. My parents taught us to play bridge at our cottage when we were kids. In those days we didn't have television or video games or even a radio with decent reception up north. So when the weather was bad we'd play bridge - or attempt to play given the game's complexity. We learned the basic conventions, which helped in later years when my sister and I picked up the game again.
More recently, I've taken lessons, read bridge books and begun playing Thursday evenings with a group of five women. We play at each other's homes and since this is a four-person game, we can still play if one person can't make it.
Playing bridge with my family is the most casual. We chat, we laugh, we argue and we constantly change our bids and take cards back when we realize we've goofed.
Likewise, playing with my women friends is social and fun. There is usually good food and wine involved. And we are quite forgiving when it comes to mistakes. We keep score but don't care who wins, although there has been talk of playing for money to make us a little more competitive.
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A while back, my keen bridge-playing friend Nancy thought it was time for our social kitchen bridge group to start playing with the big boys. Having found a duplicate bridge organization in our community, she put us on the waiting list. After a year or so, we got the call. We were in.
Duplicate is serious business. There is no talking, no dawdling, no moaning when you don't like your cards, and no wine. A card laid is a card played. One time I changed my mind after pulling a card, and even though I had not yet played it and no one had seen it, I was told it was too late. Seems like a card touched is also a card played.
The average age of my women's group is 50. The average age of the duplicate players is about 80. The men like us. They call us the young chicks, which is probably the last time in our lives we'll ever be called that. A couple of women in their 90s play like pros and keep us on our toes.
At duplicate, all tables play the same hands. After two or three hands you move on to the next table and in one session you play about 12 tables. The only time you can talk is between rounds. During this short interval we slowly get to know one another. We've learned about grown children scattered across the country, about grandchildren and great-grandchildren and retirement residences.
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There are widows and widowers and people who have been predeceased by their own children. Some of the folks are grumpy and some are gracious and fun. Most are excellent bridge players.
We've had our hands slapped when we don't follow protocol (we're still learning), and we've been congratulated for good playing. One time I made a mistake and didn't follow suit (which is called reneging) and was put in my place in short order.
Our opponent yelled across the room, "Director!" to get the leader's attention. All heads turned toward us and the accuser continued in a loud voice, "She reneged!"
"I'm sorry," I said with my face turning crimson. "It was a mistake." I felt like I had committed some terrible crime.
"It's a two trick deduction. Don't worry about it," the director said.
The accuser looked smugly at her partner as if she had achieved a great triumph by having justice served and the criminal adequately punished.
This is when I realized how competitive and serious the card game can be. It's dog-eat-dog in the duplicate world, and we're not even playing for money. You've got to have thick skin to swim with some of these seniors.
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Some people collect master points, which is a way of determining one's ranking in the bridge world. The more master points you have, the more prestige and respect you garner among your peers. Having high master points is to bridge players like a low handicap is to golfers. It sets you apart from the riffraff.
But I'm not in the game for master points, nor do I care about my golf handicap. What I do care about is improving my game, keeping my mind sharp, enjoying the camaraderie and learning something new.
One of my favourite things about our weekly games is when the senior gents greet us with big grins and friendly banter. They can be sly old foxes who cream us at cards, but they aren't as tough on us as the women if we break protocol. They inform us of the correct rules, but with a whisper and a smile.
Playing duplicate with seniors is a microcosm of daily life. You're exposed to all kinds of people - friendly, nasty, uptight, easygoing, smart and slow. And there's always someone in the crowd who warms your heart and makes you feel glad to be there.
Carla Sandrin lives in Toronto.