Mastering the human condition at play
Ross Quayle could make a grumpy camel enthusiastic about bridge. It would get over its hump and start to concentrate, its ears and eyes intent, memory fully tracking and probabilities calculating.
Bridge is about patterns and probabilities, about tactics and strategies, attack and defence, communication, psychology – the whole human condition played out over a hand of cards.
Quayle is one of Palmerston North Contract Bridge Club's tutors, and he is patient, knowledgeable and encouraging, and used to novices who know nothing about the game. His job is to unravel the glassy-eyed confusion and instil the theory.
He first assesses if the inquirer has played any card games at all – 500, poker, even Last Card gives you knowledge of the suits and a grasp of rules – and sets the explanation to the level required.
Bridge uses 52 cards: a whole deck, less the joker. It's dealt – by an automatic shuffling machine, that keeps track of barcodes on each card – into four hands of 13 cards. These get sorted into suits. The ace is high, or the strongest card, followed by the King, Queen and Jack, down through the numbered cards.
Contract bridge is played by two pairs of partners, with each partnership in opposition. The idea is to bid to set a trump suit, and to win the number of tricks, or rounds of play, that you say you'll get, based on the cards you and your partner hold, and the cards you believe your opponents hold.
It requires understanding of how to value the cards in your hand, and some feeling for how the cards should be played.
Through a bidding process, carefully choreographed and with tight rules about what you can and can't do, partners signal what's strong in their hands. The opposing partnership does the same. If you know your partner and know what you are doing, it's possible to be pretty clear at the end of the bidding about who holds what strengths and weaknesses in their hands.
Club secretary Andrew Brodie says libraries of books have been written about bridge, and bidding is a big section. It's the art; the science comes in the second stage, when the tricks are played out.
Which card to lead is a dilemma that changes with every hand that's dealt and with every successful or unsuccessful bidding contract. Quayle says he has never seen the same hand twice, nor does he ever expect to.
Quayle's been playing bridge since he was a teenager, and says he's still learning. Brodie learned as a teen, and came back to the game when he retired. Both say it's excellent for keeping the mind inquiring and supple.
The club runs lessons for people who want to learn, and Quayle says it takes about 10 sessions before people can begin to play meaningful bridge. Anyone who has played 500 will pick up the mechanics fairly quickly, but it takes application and work to get really good at the game.
"You have to play and play and play, to get the experience," Quayle says. "After lessons, you'd be ready to be a new player in the junior section.
"Some people definitely have an aptitude for the game; good memories, good at recognising patterns, enjoy statistics."
Gradings are determined by points players earn.
The Palmerston North club is New Zealand's top club. It won the John Wignall Trophy for the New Zealand Club Championships, which means its teams beat every other club this year.
The club has 10 grand masters in its membership, which is unusually high. Winning a grandmastership in bridge requires skill and dedication. Masters must have won 100 top tournaments.
The club doesn't gamble or play for money.
It holds five playing sessions each week: open section games on Monday at 1.15pm and Friday at 10.30am, juniors on Monday at 7.30pm, intermediates on Thursdays at 7.30pm and senior/senior reserves on Tuesdays at 7.30pm.
The clubrooms are on the corner of Cuba and Cook streets.
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