By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Burke started playing with Turner shortly after her husband and partner, a life master with more than 5,000 points, died of pancreatic cancer and left her alone at the table. Although Burke's relationship with Turner is mercurial, the two have developed clearly independent roles as their partnership has developed over the years. Anything related to the computer, which Turner is uncomfortable using, is Burke's job: It was he who booked their tickets to Reno, obeying Turner's instructions to save $25 by leaving at 6:35 a.m. the day after Christmas. After tournaments, Turner calls Burke to ask him to look up their rankings and points on the computer and read them out loud to her.
"Competitive bridge is a crazy world," he says. "Sometimes I wonder if I'll be like that."
Burke's plans to popularize bridge don't stop with playing the game. In November, as part of National Novel Writing Month at Kinard, Burke penned 50,000 words of an epic fiction experiment that he has yet to finish — or even let his parents read. Unsurprisingly, the plot centers on bridge, though his dad's girlfriend, Lisa, is attempting to convince him to add a female love interest named Abigail.
"It's about this older bridge club director and this younger director he's trying to mentor and improve, and all this other stuff happens," Burke says. This part of the plot mirrors his own life, but the details grow more complicated from there. "It kind of ended up being a Dan Brown book on top, and I'm not sure what's happening. It's all this politics, and some of the directors work against the league and are radical communists."
In the world where his book is set, video games are outlawed and everyone has taken up bridge instead. As a result, the ACBL plays a large role in the government. For Burke, it's an almost utopian society. In order to compete at a decent level, players must be able to sit stationary for three-and-a-half-hour rounds, and the biggest hurdle to recruiting his friends to play has been a combination of their interest in video games and their short attention spans: Was it the chicken or the Metal Gear Solid?
Since his first tournament, in the fourth grade, Burke has made three major attempts to recruit his peers. Because conflicts with other clubs and district rules prohibit him from starting an official after-school club, he has tried teaching during the lunch hour. When he was in fifth grade, he'd amassed a solid and regular group in his elementary-school cafeteria — only to see his friends leave for recess when the weather got nice. The other two times were even less successful.
"They'd much rather be playing video games," Burke says. "I'm going to try again next year when I'm in high school, when they have better attention spans. It's going to work eventually, and I know they'll be sorry they didn't start earlier."
Because of his strong memory and penchant for deconstructing and rebuilding VCRs, Burke's best friend, Spencer, is a particularly qualified candidate, and he remains Burke's pet project until the time when Burke can reach out on a broader scale. "We went to a tournament and met some kids from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, who have ten bridge champions there at the youth level but less than 10,000 people," Craig says. "The difference is just promotion. That's why he gets out there, to gain some notoriety through the game so that the other kids will see him and hopefully start to care."
In most other aspects of his life, Burke is a typical, if highly intelligent and particularly obsessive, member of the middle-school community. Ingrid Wu recently wrote him a note on one of the wide-ruled notebook pages inside his binder. It was in French, he says, but he understood it. On Facebook, his relationship status is "It's complicated." He takes private oboe lessons, though he'll have to switch to tenor sax or clarinet to join the marching band when he moves to high school; his oboe tutor is not happy about this. When asked for his favorite band, he opts instead to share his favorite composer, Hans Zimmer, and his favorite film scores, Gladiator and Angels & Demons. When his dad claims that Burke likes to ride bikes, Burke corrects him: "It's definitely not bad, I guess."
Burke definitely enjoys Dan Brown novels, and he augments the three bridge periodicals that come with his ACBL membership with books he checks out at his school library. He describes the quality of his school chess team as "glorified babysitting," and he complains that players take each other's kings and continue to play without realizing the game is over. In December, when his class took the pre-ACT Explore test, Burke scored 25 out of 25 possible points.
The same test challenged the students to answer questions about their future careers with the goal of prescribing them one, though the category that Burke self-selected falls at the exact opposite point of the circular graph from the one the data suggested for him. But he's not sure he wants to be a professional bridge player, either.