By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
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By Melanie Asmar
"One day, our club director called me and asked me to be his partner, saying she was having trouble finding people to play with him because he's a kid and they don't think he's any good," Turner remarks. "She begged me to go in and play with him, but I'll tell you one thing: I played with him one time, and I got rid of all my little old ladies."
Burke is confident and demanding, and he was much the same way when he began playing, at age six. At the time, he was competing in chess (large trophies still decorate his bedroom), and he learned bridge sitting on his father's lap. First he wanted to hold the cards for his dad, then he wanted to play them for his dad, then he wanted to play by himself, then he wanted to win, then he won, and then he kept winning. When he started, his hands weren't large enough to hold the necessary thirteen cards, so his dad gifted him with a cardholder.
"What really helps is his ability to focus," Craig says. "He has an almost singular obsessiveness when it comes to planning his bids and his moves throughout the game, and I've seen few other kids think like that. Bridge has changed that aspect of his personality." At every tournament Burke attends, at least one player asks Craig how he persuaded his son to play bridge. The blunt answer is that he didn't. Early on, Craig and his now-ex-wife, Katie Snowden, actually discouraged their son from the game to protect his chess skills and his future social life.
"When I started, the quote-unquote 'good players' in Fort Collins didn't like me, and everyone got crabby with me because they've all been playing for 45 years," says Burke. "They were all kinds of annoyed with me because I'm a kid and I'm supposed to be playing baseball or something like that. Playing bridge means I lost out on parts of my childhood, but I don't think that matters."
Four years into the lessons, books and Burke's constant training in both bridge and chess, the Snowden family hit an insurmountable obstacle. On September 20, 2007, close to his tenth birthday, Burke was scheduled to participate in the seventh and final round of a scholastic chess competition that he was expected to win — on the same weekend as a bridge tournament he had never attended.
His parents chose chess. Burke chose bridge. He won.
And chess lost: Burke never played the game again. Instead, he joined the ACBL, earning his first points toward his life-master status and pouring the cement for his national reputation that first weekend. That same year, he applied to become an accredited bridge-club director — just in case, he says. In order to be officially sanctioned by the ACBL, a club must be run by an accredited director who has passed a test on the game's rules and regulations.
"The test is a joke," Burke sighs, slouching on a couch in the Southwestern-themed living room of his dad's Fort Collins home. "I didn't even have to try."
"You should take that with a grain of salt," Craig warns. "Bridge is different for Burke than everyone else. Most people take a class to become accredited, but he just asked me for a book called The Laws of Bridge."
The book, Burke corrects his dad, is actually called The Laws of Duplicate Contract Bridge as Promulgated in the Western Hemisphere. He pronounces the word "promulgated" wrong, but you get the point.
Burke looks and dresses like a five-foot-tall Old Navy ad, but he talks like a Metamucil ad. He smiles almost any time he is not losing, an act that opens a mouth structured by braces strung together with blue rubber bands. When that mouth opens, it drops phrases picked up from the older players at his club, which sound like they were borrowed from The Great Gatsby. He calls his fellow players "cards." He says that Turner is "75 years of age," "a real character" who "thinks she's the world's fair." (Turner, it is worth noting, has 2,400 master points on Burke.)
When discussing his accomplishments, Burke calls himself a "talented chap" — then proves his chronological age with an unsubtle round of show-and-tell. Burke keeps his bridge achievement cards inside a blue plastic sleeve so that they will not get dusty — in addition to cats and various common outdoor plants, he is allergic to dust — and he will show them to you one by one. He will let you touch them. He will tell you what each one means. But only one of them really matters. Separated from six white paper cards is a gold plate marking his greatest achievement to date: At thirteen, Burke Snowden became a bridge life master. That meant that only 20 percent of ACBL players were at or above his status. And since then, Burke himself has surpassed it, upgrading the title to bronze life master.
He recognizes that his attention to the game has required some sacrifices. "I guess I'm not the dictionary definition of normal, but bridge is what matters about my life, and it's what I'm good at," Burke says.