Intriguing, challenging, ‘good for the brain’
Bridge tournament intended to addict more players to game
Bob Gromatka is a very enthusiastic man. He is determined that “if you build it, they will come” — or in this case, if he can introduce potential players to bridge, he can keep them coming back.
That’s why the August Bella Vista Arkansas NLM Regional and Sectional Bridge Tournament has opportunity written all over it for Gromatka. It’s not just a chance for master-level players to compete, it’s a chance for newer, younger, less experienced players to dive into the deep end — with a promise there will be plenty of people willing to help them swim.
“I know there are a lot of ‘social bridge’ players out there,” Gromatka says. “And I want to get them into tournament play.”
Bridge is played with four people sitting at a card table using a standard deck of 52 cards (with no jokers), explains the American Contract Bridge League website. The players across from each other form partnerships as North-South and East-West. Each player gets 13 cards, and bidding begins.
“Bidding is the language of bridge,” the ACBL website continues. “Its purpose is to relay information about the strengths and weaknesses of each player’s hand to his partner.”
That, says Sharon Judson of Bella Vista, is when an observer can tell whether this is a game of “kitchen bridge” — also called “social bridge” or “party bridge.” If it is, in between bids, she explains, players are chatting about the grandkids or sharing the recipe for one of the afternoon’s finger foods.
“Duplicate, which is what [the Bella Vista Duplicate Bridge Club] is, means serious bridge players,” says Judson. “When you’re playing in a tournament, you might sit down and introduce yourself and where you’re from, and that’s about it. Then it’s serious. It would look like a serious chess match to an outsider — but if you were a bridge player, it would intrigue you. I played kitchen bridge for a long time, then in
2003, when I retired, a lady took me under her wing and introduced me to duplicate bridge, and I loved it.”
In duplicate bridge, a hand — a “board” — is dealt and played, and then that same hand moves on to be played at another table. And the East-West players also move, while the NorthSouth players stay put.
So, says Judson, she’s competing not just against the players at her table but “against all the North-South people in the room.”
In a tiny sampling of Bella Vista Duplicate Bridge Club members, it appears that players come from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Andy Fritsch, who drives down from Joplin, Mo., to play with the group at Riordan Hall, is a retired physician.
“I tell everybody, in my recreation I’m a type A personality, and the rest of the time, I’m a type B,” he says. “[Bridge is] addicting, and you can never get perfect. You only get better, and the way to play better is to play with people who are better than you are.”
That’s what brought Fritsch to Arkansas when the card group in Joplin ceased to exist.
“If we wanted to play duplicate, we had to go out of town,” he explains, and the closest games were Pittsburg, Kan., and Bella Vista, where he was “impressed with how nice the people were, very welcoming, and the quality of bridge is good. We’re friendly, and we talk to each other, but when it’s time to play the cards, we’re serious.
“It’s the competition,” he says when asked why he plays. “That’s why we enjoy Bella Vista better than Pittsburg: The competition is better.”
Judson, who moved to Bella Vista from Okoboji, Iowa, two years ago, played bridge with her parents.
“I lived on a farm, and the winters were quite brutal in Iowa,” she remembers. “They needed four people to play bridge, and I had one older brother. I started playing bridge when I was 14 — and believe me, it was basic bridge.”
But as Judson moved around as an adult, she discovered playing bridge was a great way to meet people. “You become very good friends,” she says of her card-playing cohorts. “And at age 72, it’s good for my brain. It’s intriguing, challenging — you can’t wait to see what that next hand is going to bring you!”
Jo Bain, who retired to Bella Vista in 1984 “all the way from Prairie Grove,” says bridge became more important to her when her husband died five years ago. She too started as a teenager sitting in on her mother’s bridge groups and played off and on throughout her life, “but now I go at least twice and usually three times a week, twice in Bella Vista and once at the Wellness Center in Rogers. It is really a remarkable game.”
NOT TOO SERIOUSLY
Bain admits that her husband — “a great player” — “was not fond of duplicate bridge because he thought people took it too seriously.” And even Gromatka admits that the game wasn’t always known as welcoming.
“If we’re going to build the game of bridge, we have to be friendly,” he says adamantly. “And we promise new players their experience will be pleasant.”
The tournament, set for Aug. 4-6 at Riordan Hall, will include a hospitality table, a table where those who need partners can find them, a new players’ table and even a half-hour orientation before play starts. “We intend to treat them right when they come in,” he says. And come they will, from a multi-state region that includes Missouri, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
“We are not just a local tournament. We might as well be called the Northwest Arkansas or Bentonville-Rogers Bridge Tournament since we draw many of our players from the metro area,” Gromatka says. “Last year, we set a record with 209 tables, and we’re hoping to beat that this year.”
“Bridge got a reputation of being a game mainly for senior citizens,” he adds, “and right now, the target group we’re focusing on are
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“The main obstacle is there’s no instant gratification at bridge,” Gromatka continues. “You can’t just sit down and be good at it. You have to keep at it and take your hard knocks and pick yourself up and try again. Over time, you’ll develop the skills to be a good player — but it doesn’t happen overnight.”
“I think maybe it’s like anything else you do as a group,” says player Eric Olsen of Bella Vista about the lure of the game. “You form relationships. I think of our bridge group almost like a second family. And I like learning new things.
There’s so many details you can learn in bridge. It’s interesting, it’s challenging, and you’re always trying to do better than you did last time.”
The Bella Vista Arkansas NLM Regional and Sectional Bridge Tournament had 209 tables in play in 2016 — which set a record. The previous record was 204.5 in 2012.
In “social bridge” or “party bridge,” players might be chatting between bids about the grandkids. Duplicate bridge is much more serious.