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In Memory of Ciara Burns

Yesterday was an extremely sad day for many UK bridge players as it was the funeral of Ciara Burns who suddenly passed away at 45 years old. She was one of the top bridge players in Northern Ireland, playing in many Lady Milne and Camrose Championships, and representing Ireland in three European Championships. The loss of Ciara-ness (fun, laughter, friendliness, generosity of spirit) will be sorely felt. I was fortunate enough to have interviewed her in January 2015 as part of my Sociology of Bridge research project. Some edited extracts appear below.

Why do you play bridge?

I've been playing cards since I was seven. I used to go to whist drives where people smoked in parish halls so I grew up in a house that played cards. I took up playing bridge when I was about 18 in second year at university but I didn’t really have to learn bridge because I kind of knew how to play. It was great because I lived in a house and we were six alpha females who did law at Queens. I went out once a week and played bridge to get away from all the madness! So that's why I started playing bridge but now I play because I love playing bridge.

You see such a wide variety of people playing bridge and I think it teaches you so much about people. When you're young you think that people are always the age that you meet them at but I think bridge teaches you that 80 year old people are interesting. I think most people who play at a serious level are very interesting. There's more to them than just bridge, they're kind of eccentric, they're not just people that bore you to death!

What do you personally like about the game?

I like the social aspect of it. I'm very, very competitive but probably not as competitive in work as I ought to be and I find that bridge gets my competitive juices going. I find I get from bridge what I probably should get out of my working life. I'm a solicitor who does defence litigation and a lot of my work is fairly routine and I probably haven’t challenged myself as much in work as I ought to have done. Whereas I find that in bridge I channel that competitive energy. I cried when I was doing my mock 'A' levels because I only came joint first in one of my subjects - that's competitive! There's a pair who play bridge in Northern Ireland - they come over to me and say, ‘well done you were 2nd’ and I've trained them to say bad luck! I don’t want to be second, I'd rather be last.

Why do you think that men to be more successful at bridge than women?

Men are more focused, men have less going on. If you're a professional woman you probably have to try harder in your job than men do. I think, particularly as a solicitor, if you're a man, you wear a suit, you put the tie on, you automatically look like a solicitor, where women have to try harder somehow. I can remember the first day I qualified as a solicitor, and I knew I knew feck all, going down with my friend on the bus, I said, ‘Thank god I'm not a doctor I can't actually kill anyone today!’ Women are much more aware of their failings than a man is.

There’s a bridge player in Northern Ireland, she'll think about nothing. You watch her and you know that 10 minutes later she's no closer to the answer than she was when she first started thinking! She's says sorry, sorry, I'm just contemplating! So the rudest I’ve ever been at the bridge table I said ‘Philosophers contemplate, bridge players think!’ [Laughter] That's the rudest I've ever been at the bridge table but she was doing my head in.

What do you least like about the game?

I don’t like unpleasantness, I don’t like gamesmanship. I don’t like people who take advantage of weaker players. I think if you're good enough to win you should win - it's not hard to be pleasant at the table. Well, it's not hard for me to be pleasant! I don’t think that manners cost anything. It wouldn’t bother me though because I think if people are unpleasant to you then you're a threat!

What would you say are the key qualities of a good player?

Focus probably more than anything else. Temperament also has a lot to do with it. A bad board is a bad board - it's not the end of the world, particularly playing teams. I've been criticised in the past because I make people too much at their ease at the table. I'm too easy to play against. So focus, concentration and competitiveness.

What about characteristics of a good team mate?

Characteristics of a good team mate - not a woman! No! [Laughter] Sorry! Characteristics of a good team mate you just score up. You should be able entitled to ask what happened and go through the hands without people getting defensive. I think if people get defensive and have to defend their position as to why they did something they should be prepared to apologise and say sorry, look we dropped the ball here, we made a mistake. Being supportive I think. But most of all be prepared to admit your mistakes.

Do you play online?

I don’t really like to play online because I like cards, I like the smell of cards, and I like the feel of cards and I might have a glass of wine while I'm playing online and the phone goes, it's just not the same.How important do you think team spirit is?

You don’t want nastiness but the most important relationship is with your partner; as long as you have a certain amount of respect for your teammates. But I don’t think team spirit is that important because I do think it's very much a partnership game. Your teammates don’t have to be your friends but its better if you respect them.

What do you think about professional bridge? Have you ever had an opportunity to play pro bridge?

Professionalism is fine. It’s hard if it’s your hobby - I can't imagine my hobby merging with my work because bridge is your way of not being at work. I am what I am, a solicitor, so I'm never going to be a professional bridge player but I enjoy going away to play bridge. If I'm going to a Congress I enjoy going away, having a few glasses of wine, and talking crap to people by and large! [Laughter] Putting the world to rights! But I can't imagine having to go with a sponsor; looking after someone for a weekend. I've never had the opportunity, but I don’t think I would enjoy it because it is my pastime and I wouldn’t like to think I was doing it for money.

Are there any tensions between having quite an important busy job and playing bridge?

The only time it was difficult was I was big into bridge admin over the last 2 years. That was hard with a full-time job. I was chairperson which is basically Chief Executive Officer and they run the Bridge Union effectively for 2 years. I put my heart and soul into it and I think in 2 years we got 25% more affiliated clubs. So we made quite a lot of money. I went to all the clubs in Northern Ireland and that was hard when working. That was probably the only time it conflicted, being a bridge player didn’t conflict with it, being a bridge administrator did!

Why did you do the bridge administration?

I love bridge, I think bridge is a brilliant thing and I got so much out of it that I thought it was time to give something back. I'm still Development Officer and President of the Irish Bridge Union now which is not really a real job. It's like sort of a turn up and present prizes job; chair a few meetings. Most people get so much out of bridge. I was the sort of person that turned up to a bridge event and thought the tables got there by magic! Then I realised how much actual work goes into it and thought I ought to give something back. I loved it! I was bereft when I had to give it up. I had to stop referring to my successor as 'The Interloper' or 'The Usurper'!

So what was it you liked about it?

I liked the fact that I found that if you're prepared to give a certain amount of yourself it's very easy to bring people on board. If you've got an enthusiasm for things it's very easy to get people enthusiastic about stuff. And I learnt a lot about myself that I didn’t realise, like the powers of persuasion that I had. … My mum would always say that I was the sort of person that would give somebody a kidney if they asked enough, whether they needed it or not! I've only one brother and he's a year and a half younger than me and my dad used to buy us two wee things of sweets during the day and I came home from school and my brother had already eaten his, and I had two of my own, I just gave him one every day! Every day! He got three and I got one!

Do you think your bridge has changed over the years?

I always say that bridge is a bit like when you learn to drive, here's my other analogy! You know, when you learn to drive and it’s all really hard when you've got the brakes, and the steering, and watching what's going on. When I started playing I thought I was a superstar but I was making loads of mistakes and didn’t even know I was doing it. Then I found bridge very frustrating, because there’s that stage where you're making mistakes and are powerless to do anything about it. Then at a point things start to click, to get easy but I think I was more fearless when I was younger. I kind of did the thing that my instinct told me, whereas now I'd be a bit more circumspect about what I was doing, that I'd think about the consequences more! [Laughter] More responsible.

Is that a good or a bad thing to be less fearless now?

A bit of both - sometimes good, sometimes bad! I make fewer mistakes but I think I do fewer really good things. I'm a player that mightn’t make a hand on a triple squeeze but equally will not go for 1400 - fairly dependable whereas I think when I was younger I would just bid 6 hearts because I kind of wanted to do it! [Laughter]

Any regrets in relation to bridge?

I probably ought to have read more I think. I came from a card-playing house so I've never not played cards. I'm kind of an instinct person I suppose. And I think maybe if I'd put more work into the technicalities of it I'd probably be a better technical bridge player than I am now.

And the final question, any ambitions now bridge wise?

To keep on enjoying it!

The longer interview will appear in the next issue of Bridge Magazine.

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