By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
Bridge is more than a game. It's a way of life for a lot of folks in Temple and Belton. They play online, they play with friends and they compete two to six times a week in one of the many local bridge clubs.
There's not an official tally of how many area residents suffer from the bridge bug, but area club leaders say it must be close to a thousand.
'Oh, I'm quite addicted to it. Or at least that's what my husband thinks,' said Malissa Baugh of the Queens of Heart Duplicate Bridge Club. 'The dishes get done, the clothes get washed and then I play bridge. There's not much I'd rather do.'
That's the sentiment of fellow bridge players Dale Allen, Janet Bartoo and James Goodwin. They say it isn't unusual for an entire day to be devoted to the game.
'You keep on playing for the challenge,' said Allen, manager of the Rolling Hills Bridge Club. 'You could play one game a day everyday of your life and never see the same hand.'
That's not an understatement. According to the American Contract Bridge League and Bridge World Online, the number of possible bridge hands exceeds 53 octillion, a really big number with nine commas and 27 zeroes.
That figure is based on the math of the game. Bridge uses a 52 card deck divided evenly among four players who form two, two-man teams. So that's 13 cards to a hand - 13 cards that have equal probability of being any suit and any value.
'The odds are literally millions to one that you'll ever see the same hand,' Mrs. Baugh said.
So when it comes to playing bridge, there's no explicit set of steps to take.
'There are only guidelines,' Allen said.
The basic premise of the game is to win as many tricks as you can. A trick consists of four cards, one from each player. In any given game, there are 13 tricks possible.
The player to left of the dealer, called the lead, plays the first card. Every other player must play a card of the same suit. (A suit is the type of card: Spade, heart, diamond or club.)
'If he can't, he's free to discard,' said Goodwin, an area bridge instructor. 'And the person with the highest card of the suit that matches the lead wins the trick.'
The only time those rules don't apply if someone plays a trump, a suit that automatically outranks the lead suit. And in that instance, the highest card of the trump suit takes the trick.
Trumps are determined through a bidding process.
'Bridge players bid to say how many tricks they'll think they'll win,' Goodwin said. 'And the bids make a contract, or a promise that says 'I'm going to take X number tricks.' If they hold up to their contract, they win points, and if they don't, they lose points.'
And that's your basic party bridge - two two-man teams wagering who will win what.
Duplicate bridge, the bridge that people play in competitions, is party bridge with a twist. There are several tables of four people who play 22 to 27 hands of bridge. The four seats at each table are labeled North, East, South and West.
'And the players move from table to table, continuing to play East if they were East, North if they were North, you get the idea,' Allen said. 'There's more challenge because for each table, the cards are only shuffled and dealt once.'
Continuing to explain, Allen said if you've got nine tables, you've got nine Easts. There's an East hand at each table, so when Jane, the East at Table 1, moves to the East seat at Table2, then she's playing the same hand as Jack, the original East of Table 2 who moved on to East at Table 3.
'So every East plays the same hand as every other East,' Allen said. 'And that lets every East compare his or her performance to every other East. The East with the highest score wins. Same for North, South and West.'
It's definitely more challenging than Go Fish.
'You don't learn bridge in five minutes,' Allen said. 'I've been playing since 1952, and I'm still learning how the game works.'
He and other veteran players say people new to the game shouldn't try to learn it on their own.
'You need to take lessons,' Allen said. 'Lessons will walk you through the process of the game and will teach you the language of the game.'
There are hundreds of abbreviations and bridge terms - like RHO, IMP, dummy, declarer, no-trump and doubleton - that sound like gibberish to the untrained ear.
'I compare it to learning a foreign language,' said Melody Euler, a local bridge competitor. 'You have to learn how to communicate with your partner. Not to mention the strategy and analytical skills involved. Bridge is not something to be taken lightly.'
Mrs. Euler has mastered it rather well, though. She'll be competing in the ACBL regional competition this March in Houston. If she wins that, she'll be eligible to compete on the national level.
'It's such a fun, fun game,' Mrs. Euler said. 'And a lot of studies show that like chess, bridge is a good exercise for your mind. It can help slow the effects of Alzheimer's and dementia.'
Mrs. Baugh is aware of those studies too. She said her forgetful mind has been helped by the therapeutic effects of bridge.
'The bridge helps my mind stay on track,' she said. 'It's like exercise for my brain.'
For that reason, she plays as often as she can - with friends, at bridge clubs and online.
Yes, like the rest of the world, bridge has gone digital, not to mention multi-lingual. People can play bridge online in almost any language imaginable, from Spanish to Cambodian.
For Temple and Belton bridge players, the most popular site to play bridge is www.bridgebaseonline.com. Mrs. Baugh, Allen and Goodwin to Mrs. Euler and Evelyn Smith all play there.
'It's just $1 per game,' Mrs. Baugh said. 'Which is what you pay to play around town.'
Playing bridge online for two hours every morning and evening isn't uncommon for Mrs. Baugh or Allen. They say it's not just the benefit of the game's challenge, but also the opportunity to meet new people.
'You don't play against the computer,' Allen explained. 'You play against other people who are online. And after a while, you get to know people pretty well, at least intellectually.'
Allen doesn't play on the sites where you're required to upload a picture of yourself. He prefers to remain anonymous.
Mrs. Baugh, on the other hand, has grown quite chummy with bridge players she's met online.
'We decided to have a bridge bash, a few of us who had been playing with each other for a while,' Mrs. Baugh said. 'We decided to meet in Tyler. And women from other states came. And there wasn't one weirdo or murderer in the bunch. They just liked bridge, and I ended up getting a lot of good friends out of it.'