Playing their hearts out
Silence reigned. Six score or more, aged 15 through 90, sat at tables of four, cards in hand, brows furrowed.
The last club night at the New Plymouth Bridge Club was ticking. After seven minutes the call to move was made and one pair from each group moved to another table, some with a glass of wine in hand.
At the table closest to the door John Frengley, 15, partners his dad Bill. John, who has been playing for a year, says he likes the challenge and that bridge is so competitive. He is not fazed at matching his wits with people much older.
Utter the word bridge outside these walls and someone will tell you their grandmother played or that you have to be posh and elderly to play.
It is an image long-time addict Colin Carryer is trying to dispel. He has played the game for 35 years, since he was 20, and just finished his third term as club president.
Attempts to attract younger players have struck obstacles such as computers, X-box, television, sport . . . the choice for youngsters is immeasurable, he says.
"We have some young people in their 20s. They are all engineers. I asked them how they felt playing amongst people their parents and grandparents age and they said it was cool. If you like cards, age becomes irrelevant."
The game is mentally stimulating, intense even, so much so that Carryer often heads home after a club night with a headache.
"And you can't sleep because your brain is whirring so much. Some people can go home and switch off. I can't," he says.
He remembers every card played in every hand, so he replays them, wondering how he could have done better. That recall skill can be useful during a game.
Carryer's swansong as president was the president's charity night.
"It is the last playing night of the year, raising funds for charity. It was the hospice this year. It was St John the first year because I'd just had a heart attack, then the Heart Foundation. We generally raise between $1200 and $1500. The bar is open all night. And a fines person tries to extract as much money from people as possible for any reasonable or unreasonable excuse."
The New Plymouth Bridge Club has about 300 members and runs five sessions of bridge a week - A, B, C grades and an open night - 7.30pm-10.30pm, and Friday afternoon 1-4pm.
In 2013, newbies at the club will have lessons for 12 weeks before being let loose at a club night.
Clare O'Connell began playing last year and says the cards is not the hard part - it is the bidding that is complicated.
"You have the same code, but it's different if you're the first one to say it or you're the third one to put a bid on. I thought 'Oh my God, will I ever learn this'?"
Before she started, people told her it took three years to learn, do not expect to get it until the end of three years.
"And I remember thinking to myself, 'Oh that may be all right for you, but I'll get it in a year'. But when I went in with all the other players I was thinking to myself, oh yes, three years."
She was not scared when she finally finished the lessons and attended her first club night, she says, but she knew it would be a big night.
"It was a long time, three hours. I was playing north, south so I stayed sitting all night. I've never sat still for three hours before. Everything was zooming in on your head and I couldn't think clearly.
" I'm quite happy to make mistakes. I don't have to be perfect, I know that."
O'Connell went to the lessons on her own and found a bridge partner without any problem. The convenor takes care of that.
Bridge was something O'Connell thought she would do when she retired, but a work colleague talked her into starting now and she will be definitely going back next year.
"It's great fun. I'm keen to become good at it. It's three hours of intellectual stimulation, though some people may scoff at cards being intellectual stimulation."
Pam Livingston will tell you bridge is not only mentally stimulating, it requires stamina.
Livingston, 48, has been playing for more than 20 years and represents New Zealand.
"If I go away to a tournament, it usually lasts 10 days and it's quite intense. Playing cards for nine hours a day requires stamina."
About 11 years ago Livingston was thinking about giving up the game then she started playing with a new partner. Within five years they were representing New Zealand.
International competitions have four sections - youth ( 26 and under); seniors (58 and over); women and open.
Because Livingston's playing partner is male she plays in the open section, which is unusual for a woman, she says.
"Normally when I go overseas to represent New Zealand I'm the only woman in the open section.
"The best we've done at the Asia Pacific [championships] is fourth twice, which is OK."
A lot of the teams she plays against like those from China, Indonesia and Japan, are professional players.
"We fit it in with our day job, and for me, kids and others things, so I think we do quite well, considering."
Her bridge partner is based in Palmerston North and they practice online.
Livingston plays at the New Plymouth club quite often but most of her bridge is played at big tournaments, which are held all over the country every weekend.
"I also travel overseas - Australia, America - and I usually try to go somewhere each year.
"I've met a lot of really interesting people and I think you have to be a certain sort of weirdo to want to sit inside and play cards for a week.
"Like any sport - and a lot of people would disagree it is a sport but it is a mind sport - you have to put the work in. Just like any other international you ramp up the practice before you go and you put a lot of work in and make sure you are prepared."
Attempts by Carryer to enter Livingston in the Taranaki sportswoman of the year have been rebuffed because "bridge isn't a sport".
However, the World Bridge Federation website details the organisation's attempts to get bridge into the Olympic Games.
A statement says: "So far, bridge has reached the same level as golf, rugby, squash, karate, etc which, though recognised as sports, are not yet admitted into the Olympic Games."
Taranaki Daily News