Contract bridge is experiencing a resurgence amid research that playing the card game not only may make kids smarter, but keeps players smarter longer.
When stories of competition are revolving around aging quarterbacks and lab rat outfielders, here's one about how some Minnesotans, sitting almost silently around a card table, ended up with the New York Times proclaiming them "giant-killers."
Let's go to the replay, Skip: Here we are at the Summer North American Contract Bridge Championships, watching as two-time national champs from Florida's District 9 are -- can it be? -- faltering against this Midwestern Cinderella team from District 14. Are the defending champs going down? Yes! The Minnesotans win! Do you believe in miracles?!?!
The "giant-killers" were Cynthia and Bob Balderson of Eden Prairie, Peggy Kaplan of Minnetonka, Carole Miner of Rochester, Paul Meerschaert of Eagan and Bill Kent of Iowa City, Iowa. Their victory lap lasted just a day, as they were in turn defeated by a New York team. Nevertheless, Kaplan said, "This was a thrill that nothing could squelch."
Despite being among the best bridge players in Minnesota right now, and the current national champ in fast pairs, a timed game, Kaplan will tell you that she loves bridge because she hasn't mastered it.
"You're always learning new things," she said, perched before her laptop on which she almost daily plays bridge with any of the more than 15,000 players logged on at any one time.
Contract bridge is experiencing a resurgence, with an estimated 25 million players nationwide. The mean age of players also is trending younger -- it's now down to about 51. The boom is driven in large part by baby boomers who picked up the card game in college only to let it lapse and, now retired, have time to play again.
It doesn't hurt that a 2003 study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York found that playing bridge (or chess or a musical instrument) significantly lowers the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.
"If chess is a science, then bridge is an art," said longtime player Evan Sachs, 77, of Golden Valley. "Let me put it this way: If you give a problem to 50 computers, they will eventually come up with the same answer. If you give a problem to 50 bridge experts, there will be at least 25 answers that are right -- at a given moment. Bridge is about creating a picture of truth from snippets of information that come to you from people saying something, and from not saying something."
Along with keeping you smarter longer, there's evidence that bridge can make you smarter in the first place.
A 2005 study tracked fifth-graders at a public school in Illinois who were similar in academic ability. One group learned to play bridge as part of its math instruction, but the other did not. When they took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the bridge players had a greater average increase in their test scores than their nonplaying classmates -- double-digit increases across all five subject areas, from language to science. The researcher credited how the card game develops inferential reasoning.
You might expect such news to send parents storming into schools demanding bridge classes, and there have been clubs that come and go, said Sachs, who used to help out at one school. But students face a lot of competing interests, schools can only schedule so many activities and the trendy card game of choice often is poker. Also, unlike with older generations, it's doubtful that these students' parents have ever gotten near the game.
Still, Sachs said, "if we've lost one generation, by God, we can't lose this generation. Once they play, they discover the intoxicatingly addictive aspect of the game. It's like quicksand."
(If you haven't caught on yet, bridge players are passionate, even rhapsodic, about the game.)
Brendan Byrne, 21, is a senior at the University of Minnesota who's been playing bridge since 2002 and now is a junior ambassador for the American Contract Bridge League. He's always scrounging for fellow students who play and has found only a few on campus, he said, although several professors are accomplished bridge players. It's a Catch-22 situation for younger players.
"It can be awkward for teenagers and people in their 20s to spend time with older people," Byrne said. "Another thing is that many young people are not exposed to bridge, and it can be difficult to learn it on your own. It takes some time, effort and patience to become competent."
Kaplan says that youth bridge also has two formidable advocates in Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, billionaire bridge nuts who regularly attend tournaments where younger players from around the country come to meet and compete. "They have been enormous supporters of bridge, especially youth bridge," said Kaplan, who has played against "Bill" and "Warren" several times.
And she's won, which is part of bridge's allure. While technically a game of chance, it's also a game in which card sense, a strategic bent and general smarts can put a teenager on par with a grand master, or let a bus driver contend with a bazillionaire.
"It's the greatest mind game in the world," Kaplan said. "Like trying to beat people up with your brain."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185