More than five thousand bridge players from 15 countries have descended on downtown Reno for the Spring North American Bridge Championships this week. According to the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, the event contributes about $8 million to the local economy. And as Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray discovers, it also brings in some passionate devotees.
Picture this: about a thousand mainly silver-haired players are in a ballroom at the Silver Legacy. Hundreds of card tables are in neat rows with four people sitting around each one.
Tournaments draw in mostly hobbyists including musician Mark Maggipinto who’s from the Monterey Peninsula.
“The first thing I love is the game and the playing of it,” Maggipinto says. “It’s just a mind puzzle that is different with every deal of thirteen cards.”
As the game gets going at each table, a deck of cards is dealt to four players, comprised of two pairs of partners. The objective is to win as many plays—or what’s referred to in the game as “tricks”—for your side and score points. For enthusiasts like Maggipinto, he says tournaments have another upside.
“What else I love about going to the event is that you have a chance to rub shoulders with, sometimes sit at the very same table and play against these professional players,” Maggipinto says.
Those elite players are like rockstars in the bridge world, including a rather easy-going Fred Gitelman, former world championship winner who started playing in high school.
“For me, I think the biggest appeal to it was that you never see it all, that no matter how good you get, there’s always something new,” Gitelman says. “I’ve been playing seriously for 30 plus years, if I go and play this afternoon, there would be three or four bridge deals that I had never encountered before.”
Gitelman is a retired pro and founder of Bridge Base Online, a web-based community of players. He says as many as 100,000 people log on each day. It’s through his company and his notoriety as top-notch player that billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet found him.
“On one of these vacations, they needed a fourth person to play and they had both seen some of the early software I wrote and really liked it,” Gitelman says. “They thought I might be an interesting person to include and so they invited me to go on a train trip with them—a private train, that they had commissioned—and to sit on the train and play bridge. We went from Bozeman, Montana to Denver.”
Gitelman and Gates are now business partners.
In the packed ballroom, some of the chatter reveals the international following, including a London-based pro named Zia Mahmood. He shot to bridge fame in the early 1980s when he led a Pakistani team to an upset second-place finish in what’s called the “Bermuda Bowl" tournament. It’s a prestigious competition that was primarily dominated by American and European teams. Reflecting on the allure, he compares bridge to another game.
“Bridge, many people don’t realize, is a lot like golf as well,” Mahmood says. “Now, golf is an outdoor physical game, but the mental attitude, the ability to play well when you’re feeling strong, the ability to crack-up when you’re under pressure, they’re all very similar and if I spend five minutes with you playing bridge, I’ll know more about you than if I spend six months living with you. Bridge is a very revealing game.”
Although Mahmood says he enjoys life as a pro, he’s hesitant to recommend that path to everyone.
"I love to see young people and great talent of course, they should really be encouraged,” Mahmood says. “Bridge, to be a success as a professional, you really have to be in the top half or one percent, after that, it’s a wonderful life but you won’t make a living.”
But of course, in any competitive endeavor, there’s always a few striving for more. Twenty-seven-year-old anime artist Sylvia Shi is vying to make her mark.
“Honestly, I would like to be one of the top bridge players ignoring gender,” Shi says.
Women make up at least half of recreational players, but only a handful compete at the highest level. While in Reno, Shi made it to the last day of a three-day contest called the “Platinum Pairs.”
“The recent event, the Platinum Pairs, if you look at the final day, my partner and I, we were both female and I think there were maybe three other women in the event,” Shi says.
Shi will have more opportunities to sharpen her skills. Even though the event wraps up Sunday, the American Contract Bridge League— the largest bridge association in the world—will host more competitions all year. The group has nearly 170,000 aficionados. Many are already eyeing the next national tournament in July for another chance to revel in the card game known for its infinite possibilities.