In this week's feature, "He's Got Game," Westword takes a look at the state's bridge culture and the importance of young players for a card game generally associated with your grandparents. After meeting him at a bridge holiday party (where he actually played against a friend's grandparents), Westword spoke to seventeen-year-old Nick Riley about his beginnings in a pastime many think has ended its cultural reign.
Westword: How did you become interested in bridge?
Nick Riley: In the beginning, there was my grandfather and my uncle and my mother and father, and they all played bridge. We went to my father's house in Michigan over the summer, and they would all sit over the table and play bridge over cocktails. There wasn't a lot else to do. This all started when I was four, so I didn't drink yet or play, but my older brother started to pick it up, and I was interested, too. I was nine or ten when I started to play for the first time and actually got into it.
It was party bridge, so people would laugh and talk and make jokes, but I noticed there was dead silence during the bidding. It's a combination of the fun, happy side of the family and our competitive nature at the same time, and I don't know why other families haven't been able to spread it the same way. I kind of consider myself an out-of-the-ordinary bidder, so I don't always play the way you're guided to. I feel like there's a lot of flexibility, and at my house there's always a lot of table talk to take into account. I once jumped from one diamond to seven no trump at a game with my family, and I made it. They all stared at me like, "What are you doing?" It's just fun.
WW: Your normal partner is your mother. Have you tried to attract other partner options by teaching your friends?
Riley: Right now, I'm forcing my girlfriend to learn how to play, and we've sat down to go through the basics. I shouldn't say force, but it is tough to get people my age to care, as you know. I've also had a friend of mine who is two years older, but unfortunately he didn't stick around long enough for us to become partners.
WW: Why is it so difficult?
Riley: It's not as flashy as Call of Duty, and I feel that in the young communities, chess has a much stronger appeal in the lower schools. Often chess and bridge are for some reason considered synonymous. Kids play chess instead of bridge, and when they get older they transition to video games. I find that bridge is more intellectually stimulating than video games, and there's a sense of community among bridge players. It's more interesting to me than video games, because they're entertaining, sure, but they don't challenge you like bridge does. But video games have lured away most of the people my age who like games.
WW: How would you suggest selling bridge to people your age? What is the best strategy?
Riley: One of the key things that really should be sold is that groups of friends often come in groups of fours, and it's something you can do as friends. It can happen anywhere versus computer games that have to happen at a computer. Video games should be something you can do on the side, but for bridge all you need is four people, a table and a deck of cards. The best way is not to say, "Hey, look, this is something that is going to take the place of your video games and your entertainment," but to approach it as another option.
I feel like the community is getting smaller and smaller. There's a generation gap: With my grandfather's generation, not all of them taught their kids. I think the bridge community should try to get a really young group, the elementary school age, just like chess does. But the fact is that chess already has them and video games are going to get them soon.
WW: What do your friends think of the fact that you play bridge? Do they know what it is?
Riley: At the holiday party, I played with one of my good friends' grandmother, so I got a little crap for that. My friends chuckle at it, but it's almost an anomaly, this thing that old people play. They have no idea what it really is. They know it involves cards, but that's the extent of their knowledge. It gives me a certain amount of street cred to play with my friend's grandmother, I try to tell myself. It's a nerdy game, but worse things have happened.
WW: What's next for your bridge life?
Riley: I want to get into duplicate so badly, so I'm trying to convince my mom to get us into duplicate tournaments. It's tough because I'm so busy with theater at school (Riley is a senior in high school) that our schedules don't match up often enough to enroll in tournaments. I don't care about being a life master. All I need is a junior master and I'm set, as long the word master is in there somewhere.
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WW: Have you heard of Burke Snowden, the subject of our cover story?
Riley: I haven't met him, but he has a strong reputation. I've heard he's a little hubristic, but if you're fourteen and a life master, why not be a little hubristic?