Fresh Blood

Prager_HeadshotWhen tag-team instructors Jo Ann and Contessa adjudged that I had achieved sufficient comprehension of the basics to merit risking exposure to the outside world – a determination less scientific than perceptual, given that I had begun to whimper and pant like a scolded puppy – the puppeteers deemed me apt for contextual socialization and training via weekly party bridge at the local senior center. “Mavis will turn Pinocchio into a real boy.”
Mavis Roberts, eighty years young and impressively credentialed, began each of her two-hour sessions with a lesson. Her zest for bridge was evident in spades from the get-go, and her mission was pure and simple: to promote and enhance enjoyment of the game. Whether or not her quasi-students ‘graduated’ to duplicate bridge, so long as they came away having acquired additional experience and tools with which to perform at a higher level and thereby derive greater satisfaction – that was the prize. (She did delight, of course, in seeing an acolyte progress from party to duplicate, where – pun intended – the rubber meets the road.)
For going on two months, I, plus anywhere from ten to fifteen other aspirants, absorbed and practiced. Responses to Notrump. Leads Against Notrump. Constructive Raises. The Takeout Double. The Negative Double. Vulnerability, Risk, and Reward. Jo Ann attended as well – as mentor and playing partner.
There was oh so much to take in and integrate, but a pattern seemed to be emerging, an overarching logic of interconnectedness, with tangential, closely related, and interlocking elements all making for a whole greater than the sum of its parts. I was intrigued and, like it or not, hooked. There was math, logic, data-gathering, and analytics in them thar hills, with all functions to be performed virtually simultaneously, in relatively rapid real time, using the tool of one’s wits and nothing more
Seven weeks into my apprenticeship, as Jo Ann and I prepared to depart after a session devoted to Weak Two Bids, Mavis took me aside and offered encouragement. “You really seem to be getting it, Gordon, but nothing beats tournament-style competition for a deep-down learning experience. Plus, the game itself needs fresh blood. In no time at all, I can see you sitting down for a Zero-to-Seven-Fifty at the club.”
Validation from the esteemed, nurturing guru. On the way home, I felt like a first-grader who’d earned a gold star for excellence in cut-and-paste. “You heard her, Jo. Mavis thinks I could be ready to play at the club soon. She said, ‘The game needs fresh blood.’ Isn’t that something? I’m like Grasshopper in Kung Fu.”
Jo Ann, riding shotgun, had her own take on the matter. “Of course. Yes. I can see that – maybe two, three weeks from now, trying a round at my club. We’ll sign you up with the ACBL first. So you’ll be all set when the time comes. Hey! Let’s stop at Angel’s and see if they have any good watermelons.”
When the time comes? Watermelons? I sensed reticence and deflection. I had to ask, “Was there a ‘but’ coming, My Precious?”
“Not per se, My Gollum. More like an although.”
“Which is?”
“Which is,” she sighed, “that ‘fresh blood’ cuts two ways. On the one hand, anyone under three score and ten qualifies. The average age of ACBL members is north of seventy-two and rising. You’d lower the mean and the median by a skosh.”
“And on the other hand?”
I could tell she was visualizing as she explained. “You’d be roadkill-in-waiting for the vultures of the morning session – the unlimited game. We’ll need to ease you into the afternoon limited game, and that’s no picnic either as far as killer instincts go. There are a couple of mighty pretty pennies there, let me tell you. Rub your eye the wrong way and it’s DIRECTOR, please!
Who knew there was a right way and a wrong way to rub one’s eye? What had they gotten me into, Jo Ann and Contessa … and now Mavis as well? The rope-a-dope carrots dangled before me had been exciting new venues, camaraderie, and healthy stimulation of the mental muscle. Now those sweet cherry pies in the sky had been transmuted into roadkill, vultures, assassins, and DIRECTOR, please!
Jo Ann sensed my unease. She softened the ego blow, explaining the meaning of the terms limited and unlimited as they applied to point total brackets and degrees of competitive strength. “As a rule of thumb, the more masterpoints you accumulate, the more experience you’ve had, and therefore the greater your expertise. For some people, though, having a ton of points can be more of a testament to longevity than to skill.”
As I pulled the car into the Angel’s supermarket parking lot, I realized that something had been bugging me, albeit parenthetically. Not a big deal, but still. Her use of the possessive pronoun my – as in my club – was not lost on me. It was her club, her domain, and I’d best be on my best behavior. She wouldn’t use those exact words, ‘best behavior,’ mind you. Too abstract. Too much wiggle room. She deals in the clean, crisp currency of unvarnished Pennsylvania Dutch straight talk.
I could hear the admonitions coming, anticipating that the first one would fly like an arrow straight to the heart of the bullseye on my rap sheet: no foul language. Alas, however, not a peep, as we went in for watermelon and came out with four bags to boot.
From the market to our breathtaking aerie on the Chesapeake Bay, we motored a scant three miles, each of us lost in thought until we pulled into the driveway. “I’ll grab two bags,” she offered, piling out, “and you can manage in the rest. Oh – remind me, please, if I forget – I want to give you a copy of the club’s Zero Tolerance rules. Do’s-and-Don’ts to ensure that everyone has a fair shot and a good time. They’re words to live by twenty-four seven as well, Grasshopper. And let’s remember the watermelon’s in the back seat.”
To Be Continued

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