Burke Snowden's bridge skills trump those of players six times his age
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.
"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.
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."
One of the most common tools promoting bridge is the notion that it keeps the mind young, that it's a potential means of warding off Alzheimer's. The mental activity is part of what attracts Burke, but this age-based advertising strategy doesn't do much to advance the game.
"I don't care about Alzheimer's," Burke says. "I just turned fourteen years old. The game's effects are long-term, not short-term, and we have to find a way to promote the reality in a way that speaks to people my age as well as their age."
Buying his own club was a big move for Burke. It provides a way for him to not only promote the game, but also to bring his parents together again. The two divorced when Burke was six, and he's traveled between their homes on a weekly basis ever since. But now his club puts them in the same room every Thursday from 6:30 to 10 p.m., when they help their son facilitate games.
Burke is elated about this. "My mom cooks all the food, and my dad plays in the club, so I get to work with both of them a lot," he says. "They're the reason I started playing bridge, and it will be great to work with them again and see them together."
Because Burke's club game is geared toward intermediate newcomers, his status as a life master prohibits him from doing anything but monitoring. His main function is to make calls on bridge rules when players ask for his advice, and he worries about the realities of a fourteen-year-old telling a 74-year-old that he cheated and needs to leave. Bridge directors are frequently called upon to make risky decisions during heated moments; this is where his dad comes in handy. Even at Sands's holiday party, an event presented without competition, one team had to be silenced when a loud argument broke out and each player accused the other of playing so poorly that they lost the game.
Burke had worked as a director at Fort Fun for two years when the club's owners, retired married couple Marilyn Pultz and Bill Foliss, announced that they planned to sell the club in order to travel. Burke, who was at a music camp in Wyoming at the time, learned of this via e-mail and immediately called his parents to convince them they should buy the club. The three of them offered $1,200, but for months they competed against another group vying for ownership.
As the January 1 deadline to turn over the club approached, Pultz and Foliss took an informal straw poll and asked club members which new director they'd prefer. The vote came back in Burke's favor, and though his parents anted up the up-front costs, Burke must cover maintenance, liability insurance, rent at Saint John's Lutheran Church, where the games are held, and a sanction fee to the ACBL; he plans to repay his parents at a rate of $50 to $100 every Thursday. The move has made him a young businessman, and he is an aggressive one.
"They want to keep their talons on it as long as possible," Burke says of Pultz and Foliss, "so we said we'd go ahead and pay them now instead of in installments. And the list of items they're giving us isn't even itemized. They're claiming they're giving me a great deal, but I'm not so sure."
He's far more sure of how he plays the game. After rounds, he tends to point out any mistakes his partner made — an action that pits his personality against players who are senior in both age and master points. "I tell them, 'This is what you should have done instead; that wasn't logical,'" he says. "I'm trying to make them better."
As a game, bridge is a great equalizer: Depending on which cards you are dealt, it's entirely possible to beat one of the country's highest-ranked players based on chance alone. But some members of the Colorado bridge community have yet to grow used to seeing a fourteen-year-old as their equal.
"When I'm playing with Billie, she gets angry, even though I'm probably about as good as her or better at this point," Burke says.
According to Craig, his son is decidedly better — even though Turner has earned almost 3,000 master points in a game where it is possible to earn as little as .4 after eleven hours of play.
For what it's worth, Turner boasts that she has yet to compete in a tournament with Burke in which the two earned fewer than 35 points — though this is not technically true. "When my kid was that age, he wasn't nearly as smart," she says. Turner praises Burke as though he were her own grandson, boasting about everything from his grades ("straight As") to his maturity ("fourteen going on forty") to his handwriting ("beautiful") to his latest oboe concert ("very impressive"). "She still thinks she's trying to teach me, so she tries to tell me something, but I know I've done it right, and she gets mad and yells at me," Burke says. "I'm more of a natural at it than she is. She doesn't have the talent for it, but she's been playing since 1976."
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.
"It's dependent on people wanting to play and how I do at tournaments until then," he says, quickly couching the possibility behind logical probability. "So many things have to fall into place for it to work. I might become a paid partner, though, because all these rich women from the mountains hire these guys, pay for them to fly out and to play, and they make a living like that year-round."
But Burke's dad, who has never pushed his son to pursue bridge nearly as much as Burke has pushed himself, hopes for something a little more concrete. "We try hard to make sure he has a real life alongside his bridge life," Craig says. "I hope he gets a real job."
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