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Why I Play Bridge

Do you ever ask yourself why you like playing bridge so much?

I do. Being a reflective sort, I find my mind wandering, oh, every six months or so, into philosophic self-examination on this question. Here are a few of my thoughts:

Generally I find people's preferred pastimes are chosen so as to complement their work life. I am sure we have all met more than a few people at tournaments who are very tense, flying into a rage whenever their partner makes the slightest (perceived) mistake. These folks devour every new bidding convention on the market with fanatical intensity. We have all wondered from time to time, "why are they like that? Don't they know it's just a game?"

The point is to them bridge is not primarily a pleasant diversion. It is important to them personally -- to their egos -- that they excel. My guess is that these people are, and have been for years, at jobs where they are seriously mentally under-challenged. What has been missing for them at work they transfer to the bridge-table. They need, desperately, something to intellectually master -- thus, their interest in byzantine conventions. Thus, their intensity when they get a bad result: they want to show the world that they know what went wrong. The mystery, the beauty of the game eludes them; they have their own agenda.

In my case, I am a classical concert pianist. Working with expressive sounds all day long is what some call a right-brain type activity; I am dealing with aesthetics (judgments of what is more "musical" or possesses more beauty), human emotions, comprehending structures of compositions often written by people in far-off lands and centuries past, and determining how as a performer I will interpret these works of art. There is also a great deal of physical labor involved to get the necessary muscle-memory going to maximize the chances that my performance in the concert hall will include the most imaginative of the ideas I dream up while practicing in my living-room.

Altogether, a set of daily activities I'm sure you'll agree is far removed from life at the bridge table. Perhaps bridge-playing is tapping into a part of my brain that hasn't been stimulated very much since I went to school growing up -- the left-side of the brain, the part which utilizes logic, deduction, intellect. There is some room for imagination at bridge, notably in declarer play, but in general creativity and right-brain leaps is not what good bridge is about.

Another way in which bridge complements my work life is that as a concert pianist who generally performs solo, I'm a loner. A good deal of my life I spend working by myself, which I enjoy. Bridge is by contrast a people game, a social gathering. It's also a partnership game, and it was a pleasant surprise to learn that although I am not (and never was) particularly strong in terms of social skills, one of my greatest strengths as a bridge player is that I am a good partner. It is inwardly satisfying to find that I am adaptable and can win playing with many different types of bridge players. I am proud -- maybe all the more so due to my general feelings of social inadequacy -- that I have learned well the partnership angle of the game. (See Being A Good Partner for my thoughts on this aspect of bridge.)

Of course, there are many points of overlap between my endeavors in music and bridge. One is that bridge is an abstract game, and as with classical music (instrumental music in particular), it has so little connection to everyday life we experience an unusual purity. The allowed vocabulary is intentionally restricted, enabling us to explore more intricately possible relationships within this smaller, abstract world.

As with music, learning to play bridge is much akin to learning a foreign language. A musical octave is divided up into 12 notes; the bridge universe has in the bidding seven levels and five sub-levels within each stratum, and in the play, thirteen ranks and four denominations. Just as musical notes are related to each other in intervals and chords that over time become familiar patterns, so too bridge has its internal language to be gradually assimilated. No doubt the new generation's primary fascination with bidding conventions stems from an interest in furthering this language -- they not only want to imitate the words learned from Papa Culbertson, but want to become creators themselves, inventing new words or at least dialects with which they decide they are comfortable.

More importantly, to me, bridge is a game of enormous beauty. I see that there is a lifetime of beautiful positions and challenging hands ahead of me; the game is endless, full of gorgeous details that will only reveal themselves to you slowly, over a long period of time, as you play more and more bridge. To me, happiness in bridge is not measured by coming in first necessarily, but by making a beautiful play to land a contract or pulling off an intricate, perfect defense with partner. That's what makes me feel great after a session -- the memory that you were inspired, that you made a beautiful play (and maybe there even were a few experts at the table who noticed it!) You were "in the zone," to borrow a sports term. We performers live for these moments. We know they will not happen every time we sit down to play bridge, but their scarcity makes us appreciate them all the more.

Finally, I play bridge because it is an escape from the world and its chaos. I titled my web-site "Michael's Bridge Sanctuary" for a reason: to me the bridge table is a holy place, a quiet place where we meditate on the beauties of the game. A place where the world's "rules" don't apply. We bridge players have created our own space -- that's why we have so many special rituals, so much protocol. Without the ritual our illusions fall flat. You have to hold hands at a séance, you know...

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