31. Old dogs, new tricks

A couple years ago, a group of us set out to answer that age-old question: Can you teach old dogs to take new – and more – tricks? Our bridge teacher says yes.

Twelve of us decided to take bridge lessons together. Our instructor began the first class with some statistics about the impact of bridge playing on our addled brains. It’s like mental gymnastics, he said. The more we exercise our brains, the more nimble and flexible our thought processes will be. Hmmm, I thought. We’ll see about that.

From the get-go, the group had an identity problem: Was this a bridge class or a bridge party?

Each class was accompanied by wine, beer and snacks, which definitely made it a social event. As the instructor explained the absolute importance of having at least 13 points and a 5-card major (or 4 diamonds, or 2 clubs, or…) to open at the 1 level, someone would be refilling his plate with pita chips and brie, and another would be getting more wine. When they got back to the table, invariably one of them would ask, “Okay, how many points to open?”

The party atmosphere was heightened by the fact that we all knew each other. Of the six men in the class, five of us have played poker regularly for years. And poker games are not known for their classroom regimen. So we called it bridge class, but it bordered on bridge party.

Over the past two years, our collective expertise has advanced beyond the 13 points/5-card major level. We’ve explored when and how to open the bidding, how to respond to our partner’s or our opponents’ bid, and how to determine how many tricks we can take.

That’s kid stuff. Now we’re learning bridge conventions, which get pretty complicated. Our mental gymnastics have advanced from jumping jacks to bench presses and leg curls.

I began playing bridge 30 years ago as a favor to my wife. She loves playing bridge and dancing, and God knows I can’t dance. So she taught me to play bridge. I’ve enjoyed it, but it was always her strong suit (😉), not mine. And we didn’t do many conventions.

For the uninitiated, a bridge convention is a way of communicating information about your hand to your partner. You’re discreetly telling her how many points you have, how many cards you have in a suit, or whether or not the partnership should go to game. You might say “two clubs,” for example, and it has nothing to do with clubs.

Ironically, it’s like a dance. Your partner knows that when you go this way, she goes that way.

Some conventions – Stayman, Jacoby transfer and Blackwood – are fairly simple, even for old guys’ brains. Beyond those three, it gets complicated. Let me throw out one example: the splinter bid, one of hundreds of bridge conventions.

I’ll try to make this as simple as I can. Your partner opens 1 heart, and you come back with 4 diamonds. You’re saying, “Partner, I have at least 4 of your hearts, I have 12-14 points, and I have 0 or 1 diamond.” Your partner recognizes this as a splinter bid, and she responds accordingly, probably with 4 hearts. And you respond accordingly, probably with a pass. In just 3 bids, you’ve taken it to game, and have promised each other that together the partnership should take 10 tricks. A lot of information communicated in few words.

Mental gymnastics, indeed. More like memorizing many serial numbers, and knowing precisely when to use each one.

In the beginning, I understood what was being taught. A little later, it seemed like those basic rules changed, and I was overwhelmed. Then I slowly began to understand the new stuff… until I didn’t. I go from getting it, to glazing over and almost giving up, to surprising myself with how much I know. And then something new is introduced, and I’m stupid again.

The cycle continues, but I never go back to where I was at the beginning. That’s the key.

Have we answered the old-dog/new-tricks question? We have, sorta. The simple answer is yes.

But… new tricks come a lot slower than the old tricks did when we were young. Bridge class doesn’t resemble AP algebra. And I have to keep remembering that bridge, unlike algebra, is supposed to be fun, not strenuous. It’s frequently both.

By the way, it’s probably a good idea to serve soft drinks during bridge class. (Now I understand why my 8th grade algebra teacher didn’t serve wine.) Save the wine for the bridge parties, after you understand when to use a splinter, reverse-Bergen or Jacoby 2-no-trump response.

Right now, I’ll pass.

3 thoughts on “31. Old dogs, new tricks

  1. I am not surprised you still have a few tricks up your sleeve (not allowed for bridge I suspect). But indeed you can still learn some new ones – go you!
    Sit. Stay. Rollover. Just testing.

  2. You lost me at two clubs. That’s why I didn’t sign up for the lessons. My poor mother, the life master, is gnashing her teeth in her grave (yeah, mix those metaphors)!

  3. I lost interest in your blog early on — no offense…. One may be able to learn new tricks but bridge tricks are not one of them for me.. I played bridge for a bit in college when someone in the dorm needed a 4th (I think this involved Charlie Sullivan, Larry) sorry. sigh..

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