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It's hand-to-hand combat

The players are serious in the Los Angeles Bridge Unit

May 04, 2010|Sandy Banks

"Bridge is the most diverting and intelligent card game that the wit of man has so far devised.... You can play bridge so long as you can sit up at a table and tell one card from another. In fact, when all else fails — sport, love, ambition — bridge remains a solace and an entertainment."

W. Somerset Maugham

The British novelist had it mostly right: A solace, an entertainment ... and a way to ground the opposing team to dust.

At least that's the spirit among tournament players at the Los Angeles Bridge Unit's Inglewood clubhouse.

Never mind that some of these players are pushing the century mark. And tourney director Agnes Snowden has to maneuver around walkers, oxygen tanks and canes when she's summoned to a table for a rules dispute.

"This isn't party bridge," said Snowden. "We are very serious about winning. We want to see our names on the wall."

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The wall of the Bridge Unit's Market Street clubhouse bears the logos of six all-black bridge clubs. They're the Los Angeles offspring of the 78-year-old American Bridge Assn. — the legacy of an era when blacks were not permitted to compete in tournaments of national bridge organizations.

It wasn't until 1967 that the American Contract Bridge League changed its bylaws to bar discrimination. By then, the black group had developed its own traditions and camaraderie. Now, many Inglewood members also play at mixed club tourneys. It's the caliber of the competition, not the color of the faces, that matters. But there is a special sense of intimacy that comes with a lifetime of shared history and culture.

I felt it Friday when I visited the Inglewood clubhouse, where card players bantered and bickered like sisters and brothers.

For generations in black America, bridge was a pastime of the upper crust. The Inglewood club reflects that tilt: Many members are retired teachers, military officers, lawyers.

Most of the players I spoke with learned the game as college students, in small black Southern schools such as Prairie View and Wiley. "It was the only thing to do in the dorms," recalled Snowden, who began playing 60 years ago at Langston University in Oklahoma.

After graduation she played for years at CBS with co-workers before joining the Inglewood club. "When we were younger and working, we held our games at night," said Snowden, now 80. "Playing bridge was more fun than going to the movies and cheaper than a night at the club."

As club members aged and moved into retirement, the games shifted to afternoons. Now the bridge club hosts tournaments four days a week. Dozens of players are regulars.

New members have trickled in over the years. Like Gloria Shannon, who joined when she married 12 years ago. It was the way to keep up with her husband, who played Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. "I took a class and I loved it," she said. "I loved the competition. And I loved the winning."

Newcomer Kathleen Carter was once put off by the intensity. "I used to say, 'These people are here every day. They need to get a life,'" she said. I asked how often she came out.

She hadn't missed a game all week.

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There are 165 members on the roster, but Friday's turnout — eight tables, 34 players — was considered a good crowd.

The oldest member is 98. And the youngest?

"Anybody under 60?" Snowden asked. Several silver-haired ladies raised their hands, amid bursts of laughter. Snowden went table to table asking. "Let's just say everybody is over 60," she told me when she hobbled back, with a cane of her own.

Age and infirmities have taken a toll. Nine members have died since last summer. Players have to get used to switching partners.

"We've tried to get younger people interested in the game," said Shannon, one of the youngest in the group at 68. "They don't realize the fun we have."

And they probably wouldn't be bothered by the buzz of hearing aids, a source of complaints at some tables but a sound I couldn't even recognize.

Few concessions to age are made or offered.

Silver-haired Velma Davis needs a fifth chair at her table now. Her hands were crippled by a recent stroke, so a caregiver accompanies her, arranges her cards in a plastic holder and plays the hand as she directs. But that offered no reprieve from a warning from Snowden when the 85-year-old Davis took a moment too long to bid.

And when Col. Robert Friend, a former Tuskegee Airman, rushed in 30 minutes late, players chided him for holding up the game. Never mind that he'd just driven up from Irvine, after four hours at the hospital with his wife, Anna, who needed a transfusion for a blood-pressure problem.

Friend — who quoted Somerset Maugham to me — doesn't let much keep him away. "It's a thinking man's game," he said. "It keeps your mind young. It's exercise!"

He's right. Studies suggest that mind games such as bridge can help stave off the dementia of Alzheimer's. But they clearly don't do much to improve patience. When Friend veered off into poetry, his opponents let him and his partner have it.

"Anna, bid or pass? What are you gonna do?"

Snowden reached for her cane and got ready to amble over for another challenge.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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