We take a licking at Bridge, but avert une crise internationale

I used to say that I minored in Poker in college, a reference to the card game my roommates and I would keep active in our living room from about 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. most days of the week.  Let’s just say it was the ’60s, and I wish I had been somewhat more engaged in my studies.

A scene from Aix's Mazarin district, where the bridge club is located.
A scene from Aix’s Mazarin district, where the bridge club is located.

Along the way I learned the game of Bridge as well. During my senior year at Haverford College, Kathy and I would play it with another couple every weekend that she would make the long drive to Philadelphia from Connecticut, where she had begun her first teaching job.

I liked Bridge a lot; it’s fast-paced and has its share of strategy. But, soon, we stopped playing, and I don’t think I’ve sat in a Bridge foursome for something like 40 years — until, that is, today. A few days ago, a fellow student in our language class, an Australian named Sarah, invited me to be her partner during a gathering at one of the two Bridge clubs she had learned of in Aix. I warned her that I barely remembered how to bid, let alone follow bridge conventions or etiquette. What I didn’t know is that this would be a progressive game, in which we rotated among 15 tables with different opponents every three hands. And I had no idea that instead of dealing the cards, we’d be assigned specific hands to play, governed by rules I had never heard of.

To add to my confusion as I tried to peel away 40 years of rust, everyone around us was speaking a language — yes, French — that continues to elude me most of the time. And we were matched up against some pretty wily natives who nonetheless exercised great patience as I struggled with the French names of the suits and with their system of using cards to show our bids.

All in all, things didn’t seem too humiliating.  Oh, I didn’t succeed in making my bid on four of the six hands I played. But I didn’t think that was too bad, considering that my opponents, most of whom were in their 70s or older, actually knew how to play the game.

Things, in fact, were going swimmingly well until our seventh or eighth table. That is when Sarah and I were paired against two women who seemed to move in slow motion. If most of our opponents were, shall we say, of a certain age, these two were well past it. But that made them no less competitive.  Au contraire.

On the second hand, they played a three-bid in diamonds and took 10 of 13 tricks, enough for them to have succeeded even if they had bid four (please, don’t ask me to explain the rules of Bridge).  But a job well done didn’t seem to satisfy them. When it came time to register the score, the older of the two insisted she had just bid and successfully played four hearts,  a difference that would have allowed them to earn more points.

Sarah was flabbergasted.

“But you just bid three diamonds,”  she said.

“Four hearts,” the woman said.

This went back and forth for awhile until Sarah put the hand aside and suggested we move to the next.  But our opponent wouldn’t let it go.

“Four hearts,” she said again.

I was relieved when Sarah, who I sense is a pretty serious Bridge player in her own right, finally relented. (I did my best to stifle a smile.)

But by then time had just about run out for our little bit of combat. Still, our opponents didn’t want to miss the third and final hand. We started it just as people began shifting tables. After perhaps four of 13 tricks, the club’s organizer told us to stop.

But there was still time for one more small spat.

“I have the rest of the tricks,” the older woman’s partner announced — or something to that effect — as she laid down the rest of her hand.

“No you don’t,” Sarah said, showing a trump in her hand that clearly would have won at least one of them.

Thankfully, new players had arrived to fill our seats.Though there was no bell, we were more or less saved by it anyway.

I suspect that the lesson here is not to get into an argument with the oldest person in the room, especially if the person happens to be French and you’re an interloper from someplace else.

But our little tiff didn’t put a damper on a wonderful afternoon. Sarah and I already are planning our next engagement.  Where else can you get four hours of entertainment in France for seven euros with language practice to boot?

Before we go back,  however, I’ll do a bit of homework on bidding. And I’ll practice how to pull out the little bidding cards without making a mess each time of the box they’re in.   In the meantime, I’m eternally grateful to all our opponents who showed considerable patience with our bad French and my worse Bridge.

My French may be progressing slowly, but I’ve certainly mastered one phrase: je suis desolé — I am sorry. Today, it came in handy more than once.

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