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KBA: Reflections on Learning to Play Bridge

At the University of Stirling in Scotland, we are developing the Sociology of Bridge as a new academic subject. I’d like to introduce Kevin Judge, the Bridge PhD Student who is researching ‘Transitions in Play through the Lifecourse’. His ‘Bridging the Gap’ PhD (funded by the UK and Irish Bridge Unions and the University of Stirling) explores what helps and hinders the learning of bridge as well as later transitions from lessons to clubs or to tournament play.

He is being supervised by Dr Louise McCabe a social gerontologist also at Stirling, Dr Caroline Small a Trustee from the lead partner English Bridge Education and Development (EBED) and me (a sociologist). Below Kevin has provided an extract from his latest post at As an early research project, running parallel to the PhD, Kevin conducted participant observation at the new University of Stirling Bridge Club, which we set up last October at the same time as the PhD project started (and as a result of the Double Dummy film screening). It gives vivid insight into learning the game, from a Scottish perspective, by a completely new player. His observations offer a unique viewpoint for new players, and a reminder to experienced players, of the social connections that are fundamental and important to Keeping Bridge Alive (KBA).

We would like to combine our Keep Bridge Alive activities during the Crowdfund campaign in February and March with some of our bridge research interests. For example, we’d be keen to hear what things you suggest help or hinder beginners transitioning into the game? What do you see as the challenges and opportunities in setting up and sustaining a University bridge club? Please note that your comments may be included anonymously in our ongoing bridge research (unless you indicate to us that you do not want your views to be used).

Kevin’s extract based on his fieldnotes: “We have been playing together for five weeks and through this short period, just over a month, we have gotten to know each other well. The group is always encouraging; there is no emphasis on length of time between plays or bids. In fact, it is common for the game to grind to a halt as decisions are explained out loud. There is little to no advantage in being covert about gameplay at this stage, and decisions are nearly always qualified with additional information. This may include discussing the shape of busy workloads, our PhDs or college demands, or the weekend. So, we are not always talking about the cards. It is important to know that while we are learning this game, there are so many other commitments simmering in the background during the interactions at the table.

This is the week, for example, that the table was reduced to hysteria. Some of the table have teaching at the university which means arriving early, contact teaching time at some point in the day, bookended with PhD study and work. It can be quite fatiguing, and pointless going home at any point in the day, therefore it is normally a 12-hour day at the university, including the 2 hours of Bridge. Others have college course commitments and the journey into Bridge of Allan around the 5pm rush hour period. So, for some in the group, we are mentally fatigued, perhaps not had dinner (or tea), and we are doing our best to concentrate on learning Bridge. This can lead into all sorts of unintentional mischief. Echoing rumbles from hunger pangs are completely involuntary, however, they can set off giggles and laughter among the group who are really trying. Even the simple act of counting, Ace = 4, King = 3, Queen = 2, and Jack = 1, is a chore. It should be relatively simple; as long as there is an AKQJ of any suit it means 10 points. Another Jack or Queen in hand and I could be inviting game, possibly? This is another great source of amusement; we are even open about how we cannot retain this simple act of addition! We can’t count, we can’t retain information, and our stomachs are being extremely vocal, but despite our gut protests we carry on playing.

[…] You realise how vital sport can be for social engagement. Time can pass, people relocate, but we find ourselves together, again, ‘for the game’. […] You get a strong sense of this during Bridge. We pick up on conversations that were started the previous week, or remember to ask about an event or occasion that was important enough to disclose with Bridge partners during a prior lesson. We probably all accept that the version of Bridge we are playing is a slightly pretend one, for the purposes of instruction and tuition, but the importance of the social aspect, and how it is becoming ritualised, is emerging.”

The Sociology of Bridge is a key part of the global Keep Bridge Alive Crowdfund Campaign which we are hoping the bridge community will support by donating here:

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