By Alan Prendergast
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If age were measured in symbols rather than numbers, Burke Snowden would be strawberry Pop Rocks. On the corner of his nightstand sits a half-consumed package that he opened weeks ago, then decided to save "just in case." Many of the items stashed inside his disheveled green bedroom speak of life in the eighth grade, where Burke stays out of trouble and in the middle of an enthusiastic crush on a classmate named Ingrid Wu. She is smart, he says, and she knows French. She is the Winnie Cooper to his Kevin Arnold, though he is too young to understand the reference; they are in like.
In the right-hand corner of the room, past a periodic table of the elements, a map of the solar system and a Bop-It, is an overstuffed cardboard box that holds 26 decks of cards and more than 900 score sheets — tools for Burke's after-school job. "We had to get new ones because the old cards were purchased in the '60s, and they're all gross and sticky," Burke says. "This is my bridge club now, and I want to do things differently."
Burke is the youngest director of an American Contract Bridge League-accredited club in the country. Bridge is a game that many people assume is dying — and culturally, they might be right, but Burke is bringing it new life. He has already achieved life-master status, the rough equivalent of becoming a chess master or grandmaster. In July, he and his youth partner won first place in both the pairs and the Swiss team events at the national youth tournament in Toronto. A two-time national champion, Burke is the best youth player in the state, if not the West, and he is 36 years younger than the next oldest player at his club: his dad, fifty-year-old Hewlett-Packard computer programmer Craig Snowden.
"It's gotten to the point where he won't just beat you, he'll beat you badly," says Craig, who is known as "Burke's dad" at national tournaments. "Most people in Colorado know who he is, and they know how old he is. Some of them don't like that."
Thanks to a school newsletter that refers to his success as the "Snowden Storm," Burke's fellow Mustangs at Kinard Middle School in Fort Collins know that a champion walks through their halls and runs in their P.E. class. But Burke isn't content with just mastering the game himself: He wants to win over an entirely new generation. If he can become the marketable face of American bridge before he turns twenty and moves beyond the youth category, he might be able to push the game out of the mothballs and into the mainstream. With two national wins, approximately 520 master points and a level of hubris that only a fourteen-year-old boy can possess, Burke has more than a few advantages on his side.
All his game needs now is the same thing just about every kid heading to high school wants: popularity.
There is no Bobby Fischer of American bridge. Bridge is not a sexy game. It is not even an easily approachable game. Although chess, its more popular strategy sibling, is commonly taught and encouraged in schools, there are no nationally sanctioned scholastic bridge programs. While chess requires two players and 32 black and white pieces, bridge demands four players and 52 cards for rounds that average three and a half hours at the club level and eleven hours at the tournament level.
In one of the most famous observations about the game, noted player Warren Buffett pronounced, "Bridge is such a sensational game that I wouldn't mind being in jail if I had three cellmates who were decent players and who were willing to keep the game going 24 hours a day."
Burke seconds the requirement for "decent players."
Bridge is a game of logic, and it is tough to master. Four players, split into two pairs, begin the game by counting their point cards (ace, king, queen and jack) and bidding on the strength of their best suits. From there, they spend the rest of the game calling their own bluffs and attempting to achieve at or beyond the level of what they'd promised the other players. "It's the smartest game in the world," says Norma Sands, Denver's only full-time bridge instructor. "It can also be the hardest. It requires an advanced skill that not everyone possesses, and it requires you to change the way you think and constantly adapt."
The Greater Denver Area, known as Unit 361 of the ACBL, currently offers more than twenty options for lessons — from beginning bridge to its advanced conventions — but few people who take these lessons are anywhere near Burke's age. More than 1,000 people are registered as ACBL members in Denver, and thousands more play but don't pay membership fees. But only one number really counts: The average age of ACBL's current membership is approximately sixty.
Burke, then, is a missing link between the game's most common enthusiasts (retired baby boomers) and the generation they must appeal to in order to survive and adapt (their grandchildren). This makes him the focus of much attention from both players and officials, even if it also makes it tough for him to find a partner. Billie Turner, the partner with whom he took on a regional tournament in Reno last week, is 75 — 61 years Burke's senior.