By Patricia Lightfoot
I have been thinking about Nora Ephron’s account of her obsession with Scrabble Blitz, “a four-minute version of Scrabble solitaire,” which left her with “all the symptoms of terminal attention deficit disorder,” as she dreamed about scrabble, fell asleep memorizing two- and three-letter words and tuned out of conversations. I am now beguiled by the Bridge Base Online (BBO) app. I play the anonymous form of the game with three robots. My symptoms are not as pronounced as Ephron’s, but there’s no telling how far this might go.
I was reluctant to take up bridge in spite of my husband’s encouragement, because I thought I would not be able to remember which cards had been played. I learned otherwise when playing two-person whist as a gateway card game, while travelling around the Baltic: Helsinki — Saint Petersburg — Helsinki — Tallin — Helsinki. We played on ferries and trains, in train stations and airports, and even sometimes at dinner. The next step was bridge class, because one of my relatives told me that she would not play bridge with me until I had taken classes, which was very wise of her. We want those who wish to share our pastimes to commit to learning the basics.
Once those basics had been acquired, it was time to start playing bridge with other people. This proved to be very absorbing, clearing my mind of any thoughts unrelated to the cards in front of me, as I attempted to make the contract to which I had committed or had been committed by my partner. When bidding, I enjoyed trying to divine the contents of my partner’s hand. You learn a lot about a person from how they bid. All in all, it proved to be an entertaining way to spend time with people. As the enigmatic tour guide, Valeria, observes in Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters, “Bridge is an amusing game…. One can never have too many holds on happiness” (page 186).
It was with the intention of improving my bridge skills that I first logged onto BBO, which provides an easy opportunity for one to play at any time. BBO allows me to practise counting which cards have been played, to suffer no rebuke from a human partner for rookie errors and, yes, it’s free to play. I do find, however, that my robot partner often seems to bid against me for reasons that I do not understand. I have these lovely hands of cards that it fails to support or suddenly vastly overbids in apparent support of my bid, committing me to winning all but one trick. The bidding ends. I see my robot partner’s hand, and it does not seem to support this misplaced — could it be vindictive? — enthusiasm. A useful enhancement to BBO would be where if I lose the bidding to my robot partner, then I get to play the hand. Now I get sucked into constantly selecting re-deal, where the cards re-appear all too gratifyingly quickly, in search of that ideal hand to bid, maybe with five high cards in one of the major suits, hearts or spades for the uninitiated. It’s one thing not having the cards to play a hand when playing with real people, but another when I’m playing with robots. And, yes, there are a lot of other things that I should be doing. Maybe it’s time to get back to playing with humans.