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On teaching beginners to play

Here is the talk I had prepared to give at the ABTA convention in Atlanta. Due to circumstances, I actually modified it at the last minute.  

Five Weeks to Beginning Bridge.

I'm Jeff Bayone. I am now the managing partner of three New York City clubs, Honors, Cavendish, and Aces. with a combined yearly table count in excess of 27,000.   I'm so glad you invited me back.  

Who finds teaching beginners easier than teaching intermediate players?  Right, it's the hardest thing in the world. Everything you introduce must be explained, nothing can be taken for granted. Everything introduced must be done in the correct order. You can't forget or leave a thing out.  And god forbid, you tell them it's 6 to 9 and another teacher tells them, or they hear from someone else, that it's 6 to 10. That will keep them up all night.   If it turns out that half the class is getting it and the other half isn't, that will keep you up all night.

Once you have a new class for a session or two, you pretty much know what you have. Whatever expectations you had on day one may have changed. Are they talented? Do they have card sense?    Teaching skills can be taught more easily than teaching teachers to empathize with their students. I look for empathy in selecting teachers. When they say someone's a born teacher, I think they mean that that person has both those abilities. The ability to explain and the ability to see when they are getting their point across. Once you know what you have, set a realistic goal for the course. Knocking out an ace might be the limit for them. If it is, look at the bright side. If they are having a good time, and starting to bond as a group, they'll probably stay with you.    The best classes we ever have are the ones that gel. When a class likes just being together, learning becomes almost secondary. Whether you are an independent or part of a club, doesn't matter. If your students start feeling like they are coming to their own new community, you've got them.

Even then there are still two ways you can screw this up. Going too fast. And forgetting it's a game. No one leaves a class because the teacher introduced the material too slowly.   I like to remind myself  that "It's the economy, stupid", becomes, " It's a game, stupid" when walking into class. I know of countless groups, my own included, that have gone on for years, twenty is not unheard of, where the group hasn't progressed much past the advanced beginner stage. It's the shared experience they are having that's at the center of it. Again, the bridge is almost secondary.

There are at least two ways of introducing the material.   Both start with concentrating on play and slipping in the bidding. A ratio of two or three to one feels about right. Give them two to three times as much time to play as to bid, at least for the first two courses. That feels about right. "It's a game, stupid."   There are two very different approaches to teaching bridge. You are probably aware of both.  My style is, I want everyone to see the logic and beauty in the game. How everything makes such beautiful sense and fits so wonderfully together. I also want world peace and a chicken in every pot.

Sometimes you just have to fall back on giving them notes and offering stuff for them to memorize. There are a lot of students out there that don't seem to be able to process the game logically or visually. They need the structure and safety of note taking and having cutesy sayings to memorize like, "Second hand low" or "Remember to cover an honor with an honor." I do not know what needs are fulfilled by people wanting to learn to play bridge who really find themselves struggling to get it. But you have to account for them. I do know that bridge teaching methods need to try to accommodate as many of them as possible. 

Which finally brings me to the topic at hand, "Five Weeks to Beginning Bridge".

What should be the goal of that five week period? In five lessons, all we can hope to do is give our students a taste of the game. We can expose them to what bridge is and hope it grabs them the way it grabbed us. Even better would be if it grabbed them and they have begun to enjoy their new community. That's a win/win.

Allan Graves has been forever drumming into me his concept of teaching beginning students by starting them on rubber bridge.  Remember "plastics"? That's what "rubber bridge" is to Allan. I always thought I understood what he meant. But I really didn't. I think I do now. It's not teaching them bridge and then having them play rubber as opposed to duplicate. It is his philosophy of trying to recreate the golden age of the 1940's and 50's, the learning environment back then that spawned an entire generation of bridge players. That care free, rules be damned approach. The bridge world was simpler then. Stayman was played by only a fraction of the population. How did they learn? They learned by simply watching and jumping in. Seat of the pants. Shuffle and play.   

That's what Allan's been trying to get me to understand all this time. Classes should start with giving out decks of cards and having your players try to win tricks.  Bidding and rules be damned. Until they are relaxed and having fun, don't ruin it with your teaching, your analysis, your meddling. There's no right or wrong yet. Let bridge grab them. Let them experience the same joy that our grandparents did over a bottle of cheap wine in a dormitory room at college till all hours of the morning. Working together and winning tricks is a powerful aphrodisiac. 

Over the years, I've kept trying to make my intro teaching course easier and easier because no one seems to have any card sense any more. How can they? No one plays cards anymore. Even the simplest rules, when added on every week become overwhelming. In the movie "Seabiscuit" there's a line, " Hell, he's so mixed up he just needs to learn how to be a horse again." Play, play, play, rule, play, play, play. What's the rush?  

Before the bidding rules are introduced, here's a little trick to get them playing right away. There are 40 points in a deck. 13 tricks. 13 into 40 equals just about 3. For the first few sessions, start students off with this: Everyone counts and announces their HCP. The side with the most points declares. The player with the most points on the declaring side plays the hand. The number of tricks needed is the points divided by three. Your side has 27, your goal is 9 tricks. Making nine, no one wins, that's what's expected. Make ten or more, your side wins, less they do. The dummy player never sits behind the dummy. They sit with the declarer and either help or not, that's up to you and the person declaring. Some want it, some don't. BTW: In a class this should always be the case. Not so much the help part, the part about not having someone wasting ten minutes sitting doing nothing.   Let them start each of the first few sessions this way. It's relaxing and builds a sense of community. If you feel it's right, point out a thing or two. If not, score it up, and shuffle and play another hand or two.

Before I introduce Barbara, my wife and the head of our novice program, who will be walking you through our wonderful partner in teaching, the online Israeli site, Best e-bridge (bestebridge.com), I'd like to share a technique that I have started using that I think is quite new to this whole area of trying to get  absolute beginners to "get the game."

Between our weekly meetings I ask the class to work with just five specific hands that I selected for them from the BeB program. (They receive this free for the entire class series.) I challenge them to go over and over just those five hands until they are able to "see" the solution without needing to play out the hand. Their ability to "see" 26 cards as a working unit is key. At day one, they see 26 cards the same way you see Chinese. Gibberish.   If you are an expert player, think back, probably way back. At some time you found a book of bridge puzzles or challenging hands that at first you couldn't get. You probably read it through the first time then continued going back until you could "see" the solution to each hand as soon as the hand appeared. These hands became your building blocks. The patterns and the specific suit combinations are now things you are so familiar with that you probably don't realize that they were what now gets you to find solutions to those difficult hands today.

 If you learned this way, shouldn't it follow that your students would also? I haven't been doing this long enough to state unequivocally that this works. But if you care to adopt this homework technique, would you please let me know how it was received and what results you are getting?

Thank you.

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