A card player’s journey

When I was a kid every summer for years on end we’d head down to the beach somewhere as a family after Christmas to spend two weeks lounging in the sun, body-surfing, and generally taking it easy. Looking back from this distance it seems like a special time. It has a glow to it in memory. It was family time, a time when I still felt the innocence and joy of being an irresponsible child yet, riding my bike and mucking up and accepting all the simple pleasures of that hedonistic lifestyle as my very due. It has novelty value now also, because it has become so unfamiliar.

One of the things we would always do is play cards in the evening. It wouldn’t be every night. We’d go out sometimes, or else there might be something on TV – likely sport – to watch. It was a regular occurrence though, perhaps every second night. We’d play 500, either solo or in pairs, or else another favourite game called Oh Hell (aka American Bridge). We were kids, but we took to it easily and had a lot of fun playing. Over years I acquired a proficiency in playing cards in general, and took great pleasure in the skill required to play a winning hand. I can safely say that playing card games is one of the things I’m very best at.

Later, as I got older, the occasions when we would play cards became much less frequent. Becoming a bloke some of the games would change also. I haven’t played 500 for a long while, and Oh Hell only infrequently in the years since, but I’ve played plenty of hands of poker with the boys, and the odd casino card game. The only variation to that was when travelling, where a pick-up game of cards was always likely waiting for a plane or sitting on a train. I remember 10 years ago travelling through Egypt and Jordan I fell in with some keen card players. We would play Hearts at every opportunity. Most of them were good players, but one of the girls – an alluring Kiwi – was an exceptional player. I loved pitting myself against her, and had many hours of pleasure sitting on a dhow playing, or in the shade of palms at a red sea resort, or in the hotel lounge, and sometimes even in the bus.

Now I’m learning Bridge.

How this came about is that a few weeks ago I’m at the Cheeses for dinner when afterwards Mrs Cheese says to Cheeseboy, what are you going to do? The inference was that he had no hobby or diversion, as he should, and I was the reference point – a keen writer after all, and a cook on top of that. To be fair to Cheeseboy he is not without interests. He’s coached the local junior soccer team for years now, and once was a keen cyclist. In any case in response to his wife’s question Cheeseboy blurted out: Bridge.

I admit to being confounded at that point. I know Cheeseboy pretty well, and we’ve been mates for years – but I had no idea of this secret interest. I think Mrs Cheese was just as taken aback.

Turns out as a kid, just like me, the old Cheeseboy had been a keen card player. Like me he spent years playing cards with his family back in Holland. He enjoyed cards but, as with me, finds little opportunity to play.

Somehow in those minutes after I told him that if he wants to learn Bridge then I’d keep him company. As always Mrs Cheese, who is extremely diligent and efficient, found a local club where we could learn and play, and made sure that Cheeseboy organised it. Last night was our first lesson.

In the weeks leading up to the lesson we would josh around in anticipation of it. Let’s face it Bridge, and Bridge players, have a certain reputation. I took the mickey from myself by suggesting I might find a ‘foxy’ widow who would look after me. We joked about playing with a glass of sherry or Pimms, only to discover that tea and Arnott’s Family Assorted was strictly the go. In one thing our expectations were proven absolutely correct: we were the youngest there.

We rocked up and had the ladies at reception quickly flirt with us, commenting on our relative youth. Inside we were introduced to our fellow trainees – all older couples – and our trainer, a very proper type, as befitting the game of Bridge.

I’m not sure we were entirely approved of. Too much levity. We’re mates and have a lifetime of chiding and gentle abuse. It was novel to us, and amusing in its novelty, especially in the myriad rules. One of the other guys at the table joined in the banter.

The game itself was fascinating, unlike anything I’ve played before. It has common elements, but what makes it different is that you play virtually with a 3D perspective. Playing cards over the years I’m used to watching cards closely, and my opponents. You keep a rough count of cards whilst figuring out your own strategy, and scrambling to deploy alternative tactics as needed as the cards fall in unpredicted ways. A lot of it is predictable though if you’re thinking straight and haven’t missed anything. The game is in your head.

Bridge has the added complexity of having to play two hands, yours and your partners when you’re the bidder. I found this additional requirement tested my ability to keep everything in my head. It was almost as if by taking on this also something had to come out. It was quite a challenge, but I assume a challenge I’ll adjust to.

In any case I learned the game okay, albeit in an incomplete version – other bits are added in next week. The one game when I was the bidder was testing, but worked out well. These are the sort of things I like to master. As always, it feels almost like a direct challenge to my intellect. I enjoy those challenges greatly, and I love winning. I can’t ever imagine ever being part of a Bridge club, so my playing career may be brief, but before I part from it I want to get it absolutely right.

I may even absorb the etiquette.

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