Mike Zimmerman realizes he sticks out a bit at The Bridge Center. "I'm definitely always in the youngest 10 percent," he says. "My partner gets asked if she's my mother." Rosa Lin says her fiancé makes fun of her "for playing with the old people."
Although Zimmerman, 36, and Lin, 31, are among the younger bridge players who gather regularly to play their favorite card game, they have this in common with the elder set: They love bridge.
"It offers a fun mental challenge, and you can be social at the same time," says Zimmerman, an electrical engineer who lives in Cary. "There's some good healthy trash-talking."
"It's a great game," says Lin, a doctor who lives in Durham. "If you love cards, it's a great game. It's very, very fun."
Playing bridge is ... well, it's complicated (see box below). If you've ever played spades, euchre or hearts, bridge players of all ages promise you can play bridge.
According to eHow.com, bridge "is a partnership bidding game emphasizing communication between two sets of two partners. The object of the game is to win the largest number of tricks." A trick is won after players go around the table and each plays a card from their hand.
Bridge has two aspects: the deal, like any card game (if you get good cards, great), and the auction, which comes after the deal and before the tricks. This stage is where experience, technique and good communication with one's partner make the difference.
Or, as bridge player Jay Bates, 36, describes it: "Bridge is still a trick-taking game, but there's a whole lot more talking. In code."
Septuagenarians Jeanne Madigan and Gerald Holt, who live at the Carol Woods retirement community in Chapel Hill, have been playing bridge a long time. They both remember when their mothers would host bridge clubs. Only the best for the bridge ladies; out came the china, the best linen and the fancy desserts.
"We couldn't wait to be old enough to play," Holt says.
Even as they grew up and had (in Holt's case) their own children and careers, bridge remained a major social outlet.
"When I was working, bridge was meeting people, having fun," says Madigan, a retired occupational therapist.
They both still play often, in social and competitive games.
"If you're a card player, you'll play anything," Madigan says. "If there's only two of you, you can play gin. But if you [have enough people], bridge is the best."
Holt says playing bridge is so absorbing, it makes you forget your troubles for a while.
"Not only is it absorbing, but every single hand is different," she says. "Every time you pick up a hand, it's different."
A sign in the entryway of The Bridge Center, near Southpoint mall in Durham, reads "If you're not here to have fun, please go away!" Bridge players--especially ones who come to the center to play the more difficult, "duplicate" form of bridge--acknowledge their competitive natures. But the game provides a venue for polite, social competition.
"We play bridge because it allows us to be totally obsessive about something," says Arthur Moore, 63, who says he's played for 50 years.
Whereas poker is about the odds, psychology and bluffing, Moore says, bridge is about technique. The game provides a "fabulous combination of skill and luck," he says. "But skill generally prevails."
Engaged couple Kerry Smith, 29, and Gabe Trout, 32, both of Raleigh, are poker players, board game enthusiasts and bridge novices. On a recent Wednesday evening, they came to The Bridge Center for the first time. "It helps that we're starting together," Smith says. They were a little nervous, but they were reassured many times by their different opponents.
"People are generally very encouraging and welcoming when you play bridge," Smith says. "People who play always want to recruit new players."
Also in the entryway are handouts announcing the center's schedules and contact information, along with a bowl of candy, a bottle of hand sanitizer and a peace lily.
So why--with all this good, clean fun and mental challenge and socializing--why don't more young people play? Why are the 30-somethings a rarity at the bridge table?
No one seems sure. "Too many entertainment options?" Smith asks.
"I think it's just because of everything else that's available to us," Lin says.
"Our generation has a lot more disposable income for entertainment," Zimmerman says.
It does seem that the younger set has something in common: a technical background. "There's a definite geek factor to the game," although that's not exclusive, Zimmerman says. "The numbers and the math appeal to a technical person."
Lin agrees. "To play bridge well at some level, you need a bit of logic," she says.
Whatever the reason, new players are always welcome, and even encouraged, by everyone interviewed for this article.
"We're used to new people coming in, and we want to keep them coming back in," says Bates, who teaches a newcomer class called Easybridge ("We don't even expect you to know what a deck of cards is") at the Durham Bridge Center. "More and more of us are understanding that you can't drive anyone off. It's become a much friendlier game in the past 10 years."
The best way to learn is to play, they all say. "You need to learn with people who are better," Madigan says.
"The absolute best way to learn is to come and play," Zimmerman says.