By Joel Warner
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But Craig, in turn, points out that Burke helped select and cut down the impressive Christmas tree immediately behind him — a normal activity for a normal tradition that lots of normal boys perform. And what was underneath that tree on December 25? What did Burke request for Christmas?
A subscription to Bridge World.
Because Burke is familiar with most of the country's bridge-club directors, his reputation precedes him. Recently it came up at a regular Thursday duplicate bridge game at Denver's Northwest Bridge Club. One of seven ACBL-accredited clubs in the Denver area, Northwest is a mainstay of the region's fierce but aging duplicate bridge scene. Burke's wins and frequent trips to play at Denver clubs have made him a common topic of conversation.
Tucked into one of seventeen card tables covered with red cloths and scattered across the scuffed dance floor of the Arvada Lions Club, a woman named Connie mentions Burke. "Oh, he's adorable," she says, her speech punctuated every three seconds by the hiss from her oxygen tank. "But he's kind of a rude little boy, isn't he? He corrects you all the time, like he's never heard of respecting his elders."
"He can be as mean as he wants," her partner says. "We need more of him. Nobody will care about bridge after we die if everyone who plays it is right about to die."
The two laugh, and the conversation moves to a frequent complaint: Neither has been able to interest her own children in the game, so how did Burke's parents manage it? It's a common theme at clubs across the metro area.
"Kids these days have too many distractions, and most of those come from technology," says Steve Wainz, the 62-year-old co-owner of the Denver House of Cards, one of the area's largest clubs. At his club, players use handheld devices to track their points — one of the ways the game has started preparing for the future. "If they had any skill set other than killing and blowing people up with little remotes connected to their TVs, they might take an interest in the culture of bridge. That's what it is: a culture."
Along with a handful of recreational clubs, the Denver area's generous selection of accredited clubs — the Denver House of Cards, the Bridge Club, Castle Rock Bridge Club, Heather Gardens Bridge Club, Denver Metropolitan Bridge Studio, Northwest Bridge Club and the Arvada Bridge Club — are connected by their ties to Unit 361 of the ACBL, a history of shared infighting, and aging players. Verbal directions to the games include stops at filling stations, not gas stations, and references to landmarks that no longer exist. Individually, the clubs are distinguished by geographic situation, the number of games they offer, the quality of food served at each game, and the personalities of their owners, a scale that slides from "pleasant" to "quite difficult," with few points in between.
Wainz, for example, was banned from the Denver Metropolitan Bridge Studio, still run by former colleague Mike Thompson, after an argument — and he has since attracted players from Thompson's club because some find Thompson tough to handle.
Four of the seven clubs claim they are the city's oldest, and the real title is almost impossible to trace. Although some, like Wainz's Denver House of Cards, kept their original identities when they were purchased from previous owners, others have morphed into different entities each time they changed hands and addresses. All of the clubs, though, face the same challenge trying to enticing younger players:
The largest obstacle, says Marvel Heinsohn, is a lack of promotion by the ACBL. Nationally, the ACBL maintains a non-profit organization called the Foundation for the Preservation and Advancement of Bridge, founded in 2008 to do exactly what its title says. The primary way it does this is by granting small scholarships to youth players who win national titles. Burke's college fund, for example, includes $2,000 he earned last year in Toronto through a North American Bridge championship. But the grants are few and far between, and the Greater Denver and Northern Colorado chapters of the ACBL, units 361 and 363, devote "absolutely nothing" to promoting the game at the local and state levels, Heinsohn says.
"The opinions vary widely, but the reality is that only old people play bridge right now, and that's neither how it used to be nor a remotely good thing," says the 82-year-old owner of the Bridge Club. "We continue to get new players out of retirement, but I worry that the game will no longer be relevant if the only people passionate about it are in their seventies and eighties."
Not everyone shares his worry: Sands insists that attracting youth to the game doesn't matter as much as attracting players in general — although she says her classes have drawn younger students in recent years. One of these is seventeen-year-old Nick Riley, who attended Sands's holiday party with his mother in tow. "I'm also trying to teach my friends the game," Riley says, noting that he's instructing his girlfriend, too. "And while I keep hearing from everyone that the game will die without people my age, I'm more concerned with the fact that it isn't adapting. Even if the numbers weren't changing at all, it's unhealthy for a game to stay in stasis with only one generation for so long."