Saturday 04 June 2016

Solitaire man: The games people play

Geelong Advertiser, Monday,26 March 2007, p. 17

Do people play card games at home any more? It is not so very long ago that card nights were a highly popular form of domestic entertainment and recreation. As children we played rummy, Newmarket, whist and poker for matches or tokens, though never real money. Card games have reappeared as pure gambling in casinos and high stakes or joke poker on television. They have not completely died out elsewhere. In the football (soccer) clubs and pubs you can still find small groups of older people with packs of playing cards of an evening. There are still whist, cribbage and euchre groups and bridge players meet in clubs. The Australian Bridge Federation flourishes with its national and state organisations, its own website and competitions at all levels.

Contract bridge, the most common form, was only invented in 1925. It involves four people, playing as two partnerships who bid for right to play a hand at the highest level possible. To take all thirteen tricks in a grand slam is a great coup, but most contested contracts set the declarer anywhere between seven and twelve tricks as the target. It remains highly popular around the world, with some 60 million players and over 100 countries in the World Bridge Federation.

My parents were keen but very argumentative players, who would have enormous debates over how to play a particular set of cards. It certainly helped you to count, to work out strategies and to remember which cards had been played, which I suppose was one of the reasons why they tried to get me and my siblings to play. Later my future wife and I would sometimes make up a four with my parents, which showed her forbearance, for it could not always have been fun. But it has been years since we last played. I still read the bridge column in the newspapers, marveling at the deviousness and skill of top players.

Zia Mahmood, who took over the Guardian bridge column from the legendary player and writer Rixie Markus, tells a lovely story of playing with the President of Pakistan and two of his generals. By way of introduction, President Pervez Msuharraf told Zia that in the Pakistan army they had a strict system of bidding where each bid had a particular meaning. After losing for much of the night, Zia was dealt a hand of complete rubbish but started with a confident opening bid. Then he declined to support the President’s attempt to raise to game level. Even the security guards wondered at his temerity in turning down the game bid. But Zia had sacrificed to prevent the generals from winning a slam contract easily. When the cards were played, everyone gasped, then burst out laughing and the President said, ‘You see how difficult my job is when my generals are so easily fooled.’

Ron Klinger, the bridge guru, claims that bridge will keep you mentally alert in your latter years and quite probably will therefore help you live longer. There is a negative correlation, he claims, between bridge players and those suffering from Alzheimer’s. Deaf and blind people can play, and you can meet lots of new people at bridge clubs. Or you can play on the internet round the clock. Perhaps not.

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