AIDAN KLEIN STARTED playing bridge early, but casually. “I would go to my grandpa’s house and have ice cream and play bridge,” he says.
But he doesn’t think a bridge-playing grandparent should be a requirement for learning the game — and that’s one reason he founded a bridge club at Mercer Island High School, where he’s now a senior.
He learned competitive bridge from longtime lovers of the game who hope to share their passion with a new generation — and who are succeeding beyond what they imagined.
It began about a decade ago, when a handful of Seattle-area players in bridge’s, um, stereotypical age range launched an all-volunteer effort to teach the game to kids. Yes, bridge: the game involving 13-card hands and strategic bids, usually played with a partner — and often perceived as the stuff of child-free evenings and retirement villages. The volunteers started small and in person, calling themselves Bridge for Youth. Their summer camps (in August this summer) were a hit, and about 50 students came to in-person after-school lessons.
A few things happened in 2020: School went online; students suddenly had more time on their hands; and developers launched Shark Bridge, an online bridge-teaching platform. Bridge for Youth (bridgeinseattle.org/youthbridge, facebook.com/B4Youth) joined forces with a similar Seattle-based group, NextGen Bridge, and tech-savvy volunteers created an all-online curriculum.
Student numbers quickly doubled, then kept on growing. Seeing the Seattle volunteers’ success, the American Contract Bridge League Educational Foundation gave them a grant to build a North America-wide program. Called BridgeWhiz, it now involves hundreds of students fourth-grade and older taking beginner, intermediate and advanced lessons. There’s even a British contingent.
“The ones who take to it, they just can’t get enough,” says Bridge for Youth vice president and camp coordinator Ann Romeo. “There’s nothing like seeing that light when it goes on.”
Klein was one of those students. “The amount of free time during the pandemic, that really launched me,” he says. He started researching, taking classes and playing competitively. “I really like game theory, strategy and probability. Bridge is all that, plus communication.” Partners communicate silently through their bids during the game, and they and their opponents discuss the in-game action afterward.
The partner aspect makes it more social than many of the things you can do online. “Once you start to learn a little bit of bridge, you realize it’s a fun game,” Klein says. “It’s just another way to hang out with friends.”
Kids from all different backgrounds have signed up. It’s an egalitarian activity; girls and boys, as well as people with differing levels of physical athleticism, can play equally well.
It’s also a hobby they can practice for the rest of their lives. “Age doesn’t make any difference. It’s just a skill-based activity,” says Al Bender, a prolific teacher and BridgeWhiz program manager who also plays weekly with his 12-year-old granddaughter.
Interaction with people of different ages is rewarding for both the more experienced folks and the students. “Despite the generation gap, I’ve met a lot of great people,” Klein says. “There aren’t many activities that you can think of that span such an age range.”
The program helps more competitive players sign up for and play in tournaments, and a few students have gone on to excel in regional and national play. It’s OK, though, if kids only want to learn the basics and have fun. “I just want to create a bridge player,” Romeo says.
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