My last "official" event of 2006 was to visit a very exhilarating bridge club, having been invited to their Christmas party. The club is the Aylesbury Vale Bridge Club, nice and convenient to the EBU office. The club is run by Sue Maxwell, who has been teaching bridge for many years and who has developed her own methods for doing this, of course based 100% on Bridge for All, and so successfully that over 200 new members of the EBU have been taught by her in the last four years and almost all of them remain EBU members, and active members at that!
I was joined at the party by the EBU Chairman, Peter Stocken, who has presented a trophy for their Teams tournament, while I was charged with presenting a trophy donated by Helen Schapiro. At the same time, Sue announced a list of other prize winners and members who had made notable advances. So why have I gone into all of this detail, you may ask? Well, my visit confirmed to me that what I saw was the future of duplicate bridge in England; the only future that makes sense.
These players, almost none of whom have been playing bridge for more than a couple of years, now play in the local Leagues and have begun to do very well, they have started up the ladder of achievement by winning master points, so derided by many of our more established members. It was quite something to hear people applauding new County Masters! We have received many comments on our recent survey which have been rather dismissive of the Master Point system. I defy anyone who criticises the system to come along to Aylesbury Vale, see the benefits in action and then inform us that MPs are a waste of time. Only a total cynic would say that the obvious pleasure gained by a newcomer to Bridge on receiving their first official ranking was not worthwhile.
I believe that this is the ONLY way that the EBU and duplicate bridge in England has the faintest chance of existing into the next two decades. Sue teaches delightful people, mostly in their middle age or later, who have come to bridge for reasons that are perhaps beyond Bridge itself. At the end of the evening, one of their "senior" members, Tony Schaffner, gave a short speech of thanks to Sue for what she does and included a quite emotional comment about how many of the members of the club had taken up bridge to help replace a major loss in their lives.
We have all heard descriptions of how bridge players form a community. Even the dourest competitive tournament player is part of that community, known to many thousands of people across the country. Some of us, who are fortunate to have played in other countries, or online, form communities that span the globe. It is far more than just a game - it is a way of life to many people, one that transcends master points, rankings and behaviour at the table. It is simply about community. The ability to meet in convivial company with people who have similar desires to add more to their lives, to keep their brains active and to add a wider meaning to their lives that may have well been blighted by the loss of a job or a life partner. What better thing can we contribute to the wider community?
All of this was visible to us at Aylesbury Vale Bridge club. I have seen it too at other clubs I have been able to visit in my early days in my job with the EBU, as did our membership development group on their visits last year. These clubs are always run by people who want to give something back to the game that has provided them with such enjoyment. Nearly always it relies on volunteers, the lifeblood of bridge. While at Aylesbury Vale I was introduced to one of the younger members who, having been first taught four years ago, is now a qualified Director and runs league teams. Wow! How can we replicate this level of success across the country? Should we not be concerning ourselves about this at least as much as we worry about who and how someone won the Tollemache or the Gold Cup?
If we don't worry about the future of bridge who will be competing in our tournaments in twenty years time? At the moment, I would say there is a very good chance that competitive bridge, as we presently know it, will not be around in twenty years. Our numbers are dropping year on year as our membership ages, and as fewer new people come into the game. We entered some years ago into a spiral of decline that we have not yet escaped from; now I believe our escape route is visible.
We must embrace the community that we are part of, and work towards enriching and enlarging that community. This is why the EBU have collaborated with Sue to formulate our new "Focus on Value" project. Whatever else we do, we must learn from Aylesbury Vale and similar clubs, the lessons for developing new members of our community.
Please consider joining our new way of doing things and whether you can sign up to become a partner teacher and make a big difference to your bridge community. Click here for further information.
But don't forget, you can make a difference every time you play by being welcoming and understanding to our newer less experienced players.
Aylesbury Vale and similar clubs are the future of bridge. Let's hope they can produce many more County Masters in the next twelve months. If they don't there will surely be many fewer Grand Masters in 2027.