"How I have dealt with my undying passion"

SIMON HEFFER from the Daily Telegraph December 2010

I learned bridge at about the age of 12,from a rather decadent classmate one filthy afternoon, and it became an immediate obsession



My father used to say that men were split into two categories: those who were card players and those who were chess players. The chess players - a group of people who always take themselves ineffably seriously and who seem to be of a profoundly sober disposition - are good at strategic thinking, and cannot just see ahead for several moves of their own, but can see ahead for several moves of their opponents.

The card players - who are slightly more self-deprecating and raffish, perhaps because of the amount of drinking associated with their activities - learn nothing about future plays, but come to rely on using cunning and ruthlessness to compensate for those moments when a bad hand is, literally, dealt out to them. Life is a battle between members of these two forces. I, like my father before me, am a card player.

It was the snow this week, and the now customary imprisonment indoors

because of the failure of the requisite authorities to keep the roads of East Anglia open, that once more turned my mind to indoor games. As a child, in these circumstances, we had the odd outing into chess, though somewhat half-heartedly, it having been decided that we lacked whatever genetic strain it was to play the game with any proficiency, or even to take much pleasure in it.

Scrabble was in vogue for a time, until one or two of us were accused by the defeated of being bad winners. Monopoly enjoyed some favour, until one or two of us cracked that it was not a game of chance at all - so much for the luck of the roll of the dice - but, like contract bridge, a game that one could do exceptionally well at with a certain amount of skill, irrespective of how the dice landed. And, talking of dice, there was the late-teenage craze of poker dice, a thoroughly sordid and wildly enjoyable occupation that must rate as one of the most corrupting pastimes ever invented.

A game of cards, though, was the king of indoor activities. The first to be mastered were cribbage and whist, the former one of the most enjoyable games imaginable. There was a time, even just 30 years ago, when it was hard to go into a rural pub and not see a couple of old boys in a corner. sipping their pints of mild and chanting"15-2, 15-4, and one for his knob". I fear those days have gone. When I was a little older, pontoon (or vingt-et-un, for the snobs among you) and the insanity of Black Maria (in which, in case you are not familiar with it, the knack is not to win a trick with the Queen of Spades) took over.     
But all these were just a preparation for the great excitement and love of my card-playing life, bridge.

I recall being taught it when I was about en1, 12, by a somewhat decadent classmate on a filthy afternoon, when the option of going out-of-doors would not have been invoked in even the most Spartan of schools. It became an immediate obsession. As I have hinted, bridge has one arresting characteristic, which is that the hand you are dealt does not automatically decree how successfully you and your partner will emerge from the round. 

I have seen people with hands packed with high cards be flattened by opponents who seemed not to have a prayer either because they played their cards so abominably, if they ended up in the right contract, or bid so atrociously that they ended up in the wrong one. There is   to nothing more mindless and boring and futile than a game of chance: and bridge is not remotely a game of chance. For the good player, or for the player who is determined to be good, a superb hand is always a challenge - the challenge to play it to its full potential.  
I dread to think how much of the rest of my school life I devoted to its pursuit. How I passed any examinations or got into a decent university remains a mystery to this day. Every spare    moment was assigned to it. Four of us had packs of cards stuffed into our blazer pockets. No break between        lessons was too short to find the opportunity for a hand. The obsession continued through university, but other diversions inevitably started to compete and eat into the time available. That, however, was a good thing. Bridge was in danger of becoming almost a way of life for me at one point; now it is a joyous and occasional recreation, savoured

particularly when staying in a house-party the night before a day's shooting. I have met those who did decide to play it more or less full-time, and they are neither especially nice nor particularly rewarding people.

It would be nice to think that, during the confinement to barracks that many of us have endured over the last few days, that some people somewhere have been initiated into this great game, and have therefore turned mild adversity into a life-enhancing experience. Somehow, I doubt it. If my children and their friends are anything to go by, the notion of playing any sort of game indoors that does not entail the use of a 43-inch plasma screen television, computer software and various space-age-looking objects is simply absurd.

This is a terrible shame. I know cards still feature in the lives of many people, albeit rather unpleasantly in the form of the near-ubiquitous obsession among a certain class of person with poker.

However, I fear they are retreating, and minority indulgences such as cribbage are going the same way as dominoes, shove ha'penny, bar billiards, and the very jolly, unpretentious boozers in which they used to be played day and night.

Now I must make a confession. I quite sensibly married for reasons that did not include my bride's proficiency at or interest in cards, and as a result found myself high and dry without a bridge partner. There followed years of isolation from the game I love, punctuated by occasional flings with men I met at shooting parties, who would pair up with me for an evening at the table after dinner.

Then, however, I discovered the hand-held bridge computer. Having railed at my children for years about their mindless interest in such games, I was hoist with my own petard. The seductive appeal of a technological friend was too potent to resist. Now, without a partner, and indeed without a pair to play against, I and my computerised friend can while away snowbound evenings, or even long-haul flights. But there is nothing like replacing it with the human element; and perhaps, after the paralysis of the past few days, that element may be a hit more in evidence at last.