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Time for Bold New Leadership

I'm running for District Director in District 24 - New York City and Long Island. I believe the ACBL is at a critical juncture, as it decides whether to continue doing business as usual and gently fade into oblivion or to embrace the modern world and ensure its long-term future. I think this is a very exciting time, and I believe bridge is on the brink of a resurgence. But only if we find forward-thinking leaders willing to take some risks and make decisions with the long-term interests of the game at heart.

Since I’m relatively new to the district, let me take a moment to introduce myself before discussing why I’m interested in this position and how I hope to improve the ACBL and keep the game of bridge alive in North America.

I grew up in Cincinnati and went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. My grandmother taught me bridge when I was a teenager, and I really learned the game in college. I had amazing mentors both in Cincinnati and the Boston area who took me under their wing and taught me the finer points of the game. I have tried to pay that forward with my youth-bridge efforts and mentoring promising young players.

I have been interested in bridge governance since my early days in the game. I served on unit and district boards in Cincinnati and Boston and joined the board of the GNYBA as soon as I moved to New York a couple years ago. I helped start New England Youth Bridge and have overseen NYC’s youth-bridge efforts, meager as they have been.

In my non-bridge life, I am a playwright. I also write screenplays and musicals. My first day job was an a corporate governance analyst, so I am well versed in how companies should be run. (Newsflash: the ACBL is not a model of corporate governance best-practice!) For the last seven years or so teaching bridge has been my primary source of income. I am one of the partners of Bridge Winners and the founder and publisher of its Bridge Winners Press division. I have published and edited the last two IBPA Books of the Year, in addition to writing three books of my own.

 

Now, onto the important matters. The ACBL has a lot of problems, and the current board seems to spend more time worrying about adjustments to the masterpoint formula than our demographic problems, shrinking number of clubs, and decline in tournament attendance. My primary goal is for bridge to exist in 30-40 years, when I am hitting retirement age. At the rate we’re going I don’t think it will – not in the form we’re used to today.

ACBL membership has remained relatively stable for the past decade, hovering around 168,000. This sounds acceptable, but it is incredibly dangerous. We have the largest stream of potential new bridge players – the retiring baby boomers – we will ever see. This is a huge generation with time and money to spend, who actually know a bit about bridge! They grew up when bridge was ubiquitous: their parents played bridge, there were bridge games in college cafeterias. This opportunity will never happen again. If we cannot grow now, we are in trouble. If you’re just getting by – not storing extra food – during the good years, when a famine comes you’re going to starve

The ACBL adds around 10,000-11,000 new members each year. Six percent growth isn’t too bad, though as stated above, right now we need to be doing much better. We’re not actually growing, though, because we lose that many members each year. Some are dying off, but not nearly as many as you’d think. Here’s the scary statistic: over half of new members quit within the first five years. It turns out retention is as big a problem for the ACBL as recruitment.

With this in mind, I see four areas the ACBL needs to focus on in order to solve its membership crisis. And it is a crisis, despite what the current board says. There are of course many other issues, some of which I will discuss briefly at the end. But these four are the keys to growing the league and keeping it healthy:

  1. Recruitment
  2. Retention
  3. Education
  4. Player Experience

 

Recruitment

We simply need to find a way to advertise the game and attract more players. That means finding these baby boomers and getting them into bridge clubs. But it also means reaching out to other demographics. My generation has become wildly interested in games. Mostly people are playing video games and European-style board games. Why not bridge? Chess is insanely popular in schools. Why not bridge?

We need national leadership to effectively market the game, but in the end the work is done by clubs. We need to recognize that clubs are the lifeblood of the League and treat them with the reverence they deserve. We need to incentivize clubs to teach and create new members. And then incentivize them to encourage those new members to play in tournaments. In the current system, it is against a club owner’s interests to advertise a local tournament. We need to give club owners a stake in the new members they create. Give them a percentage of their tournament entry fees until they become life master. As a teacher, I can tell you that teaching beginners is not much fun, and I avoid it as much as I can. If the financial incentives changed, so would my attitude toward teaching and recruiting beginners.

 

Retention

As noted above, retention is as big an issue as recruitment. There’s no point filling a bucket when there’s a hole at the bottom. The ACBL has sent surveys to players who let their membership lapse. Some of the reasons they gave for leaving are difficult issues to solve – “I wasn’t having any fun,” “People were mean.” I’ll discuss these in the following two sections.

But there is a lot of low-hanging fruit here. “I couldn’t find a partner.” “My partner died/moved and I couldn’t find another one.” There are lots of people out there who want to play bridge and don’t because the barrier to entry is too high. We need to lower it! Make it easier for these people to find each other and play.

I think the biggest reason people quit bridge is because they’re not enjoying themselves. There are two main causes for this: (1) they have been taught poorly and so cannot progress past a certain point and (2) the experience at our clubs and tournaments is often poor. These are fixable problems.

 

Education

We teach bridge terribly. Rote memorization, rules without explanation of the reasons behind them, complicated conventions above basic logic and deduction. It’s like bridge teachers never learned the maxim, “Buy someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach her how to fish and you feed her for a lifetime.” We need to teach our beginning players how to fish!

That means teaching concepts, not rules. It means explaining why a bid shows what it does, not just asking them to memorize things. And it means making learning fun! Starting with play, focusing on the fact this is a game.

To begin with, I want to sanction mini-bridge. This is in my view the best (and only) way to learn bridge. Start with the play, learn the mechanics, then add bidding. No reason we can’t hook them on masterpoints along the way.

We also need to standardize what and how we teach. Innovation and variety are great at the expert level; at the beginner level they are disastrous. No one with under 2,000 masterpoints needs to know more than one defense to notrump or carding method! Let them focus on what really matters. We need to get the top teachers together and create a curriculum everyone can use. This will lower the barrier to entry tremendously.

 

Player Experience

The experience at clubs and tournaments varies widely; some are pleasant and well run, most are not. We’ve all dealt with our share of unpleasant personalities. We’ve all had directors be rude or give bad rulings. We’ve all stood around waiting to pay our entry or get a Swiss assignment thinking, “It’s 2019, we really still do this manually?” Tournaments and clubs are the face of our organization, and we need to make sure it’s a friendly face that keeps people coming back.

  1. We need to make bridge friendly. Zero tolerance hasn’t been enforced nearly enough. If you’re nasty, you need to be warned and then asked to leave. We especially need to be friendly to newer players. Even if an unpleasant person is good business, a regular patron of clubs and tournaments, they cost more than they add. We have to get rid of them.
  2. We need to improve the quality of our directing staff. They are the only employees of the ACBL most members will ever meet. Customer service needs to be a priority, as does competence. Unfortunately, it’s hard to recruit suitable candidates when we pay them less than a living wage. This is a high skill job and needs to be compensated as such. We have a real crisis in the directing ranks, as the best and most senior TDs have begun retiring in waves over the past few years, and there aren’t many younger ones ready to take their place.
  3. We need to invest in technology to make the game better. Young people walk in and see the paper and cash and laugh. It’s frankly embarrassing. The ACBL has been terrible at every technology project it has attempted. That doesn’t mean we abandon innovation. It means we need to learn from our mistakes and make sure technology projects are managed professionally, with a clear goal, a detailed spec, and clear expectations for delivery of the final product. We need to lean on the technical expertise of our membership and not rely on the uninformed guesses of management and the board.

 

Other Matters

There is a big push toward shrinking the board from its current 25 members to 9 members. I applaud this move. I think it’s essential, though, that representation be more than geographic: certain constituencies need to be represented. Club owners should have a dedicated seat. So should teachers. The idea of shrinking the board so that it can be more efficient is a big step forward, but it needs to be done right. At the same time, much of the work currently done by the board – masterpoints, for example – needs to be offboarded to expert committees.

 

I want to see the culture of the ACBL change, acknowledging that it is a membership organization that needs to be transparent to its members. We still don’t know exactly what happened with the ACBLscore+ debacle. Board members are denied access to basic financial details. Board members and staff are told not to post anything on Bridge Winners. This is ridiculous. We have no proprietary information to keep secret – there’s no corporate espionage happening with the EBL or the ABA. The only reason to keep these things secret is to cover up incompetence. We need to shine a light on it, learn from mistakes, and replace team members who aren’t up to the job.

 

There are a lot of issues facing us, but I am genuinely sanguine about our prospects. I think bridge is poised for a resurgence. I have seen how the kids we manage to introduce to the game take to it. But we need new leadership. We need bold action. Not everything we try is going to work. But we know where maintaining the status quo leads us.

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