Some musings by David Carmichael written during his visit to California over the Christmas and New Year Holidays 2012/2013.

1. Introduction

I have played Bridge with great enthusiasm over recent years after I retired. This includes time spent in Pleasanton during my frequent visits to the USA. My home is really in Cambridge, England, but I now have a home from home with my friend Sue, a former High School sweetheart who has lived in California for 50 years. We met again at a school reunion after not having seen each other for 47 years! We are both widowed and now we share our lives on one side of the Atlantic or the other.

I indulge my interest in the game by playing as much over here in California as I can, not quite as much as I play back in Cambridge but I’m working on that.

I have been struck by the numerous ways in which the game, supposedly the same game played to the same rules, differs between England and America.

2. Club structure and organization of games

Most of the small clubs in England are members’ clubs run by a volunteer committee with a further group of volunteers who take it in turns to Direct the games. Many of these have attended Director training courses run by the English Bridge Union (EBU). The Club members decide what to charge as an annual subscription and what to charge for table money, and they generally operate in rented premises, village halls and the like. Directors are usually playing Directors who receive the handsome reward of a free play for that game!

There are some bigger clubs in London, and probably most big cities, that run on a business basis and operate for profit with professional Directors but the majority of games are played in relatively small clubs with about 70 or 80 Members and playing with maybe 6 to 12 tables per game. Many games are evening games.

In the Cambridge area, the annual club subscription is the equivalent of about $25 and table money about $4. The EBU takes a small cut out of the table money (pay per play) and this means that Members of an EBU affiliated club are automatically Members of the EBU without paying any additional annual subscription to that body. The EBU operates in similar ways to the ACBL in terms of administering Master Points, organizing major tournaments and administering the game in general.

One consequence of clubs being members’ clubs is that the members decide on the equipment they want to use. Cards tend to be newer, bidding cards and boxes tend to be newer and cleaner, boards are newer and don’t need elastic bands around them. Many of the clubs have dealing machines and have had them for several years and players like them, no shuffling at the table, completely random deals and hand records to take home and study afterwards. Sometimes, smaller clubs share a machine with another club.

The Cambridge Club has been using Bridge Pads for a couple of years but their use has not yet become too widespread at the smaller clubs due to the cost. Generally, one of the Committee members will be the scorer for the club and be a licensed holder of a modern scoring software package such as ‘Scorebridge’ and will post the results on the club web site the next day and also email them to members. Most clubs still, therefore, use travellers and the scorer will take these home to work on them – the data on them is entered slightly differently, usually requiring the number of tricks taken by declarer to be entered rather than ‘Made’ or ‘Down’. This caused me some embarrassment when I first sat North in a game in California – if the contract was 3NT making 10 tricks, I inclined towards putting +1 in the Made column which made no kind of sense to anyone else at the table.

Each club will have its own programme of competitions over the year. This will include normal weekly duplicate sessions for master points as in California but some days will be teams of four competitions, some days will be Butler scoring, and some days will be special competitions for club trophies – for example, most clubs will have a two session Club Championship Pairs event with a trophy and a prize being presented at the Annual General Meeting of the club. Some days are qualifying competitions for bigger events like the County Pairs Championship, or the National Pairs. There are also inter-club and inter-County team matches. There are of course County and National level events somewhat equivalent to Sectionals and Regionals in California. Club master points are black points, and County level and above are ‘green’ points and a certain number of each pigment is required for rank promotions.

3. Master Points

I was amazed to find that there is no international system for translating MP’s of one country to another and there is not much in common in the ranking system. I was asked by Larry Smith when I first went to play at Livermore how many points I had. I didn’t know exactly but I said about 50,000 – he was in awe and thought I was some kind of inter-galactic Grand Master! It soon became apparent that I was not, and that EBU points are 30 or 40 times more than ACBL. For instance, coming first at a weekly club duplicate session might yield about thirty MP’s in England and maybe just one in California. After consulting the ACBL, Larry was informed that I would be given 2000 complementary ACBL points which would be used to determine my strat or level for competition entry, but they would not count towards a rank which must be earned in the local currency. So, I started as a Rookie member of the ACBL, maybe the Rookie with the most points, but still a Rookie.

From that starting point, I have advanced a little but not significantly. I might reach Life Master one day if I keep coming over and playing regularly in the Bay Area – that would be a realistic target perhaps. Back home my Rank is National Master which is not as great as it sounds. My next rank would be Life Master and I think that is higher than Life Master here - I might just about get there if I keep fit and playing frequently and enter a few big tournaments (it will be almost as big a feat as beating my age at golf which is another of my ambitions.)

In England, as yet, there is no system of stratification although I think the EBU is working on something like that. Games tend towards more Howell movements or Mitchell with arrow switching the last two rounds so that there is usually only one list of results for the game with MP’s going to about the top 30%. The ACBL system is good in that it allows developing players in B and C strats to accumulate points more rapidly.

4. Bidding methods

I find American bidding methods to be more standardized, or perhaps more disciplined, than in England. Most people play the same basic system, at least to the extent of 5 cd majors and a strong NT.

Back home the old fashioned basic system is Acol (pronounced Ackol, not Aycol) and the Standard English system taught by the EBU is based on Acol. However, very few play it in its original form which requires all 2 level openings to be strong. Most people play weak 2 openings in the majors but some play different meanings for minor suit 2 openings, Benjamin 2’s, Multi 2D, weak 2D, etc. This means that weak 2’s have to be announced as ‘weak’ and 2C’s should be alerted.

The majority of players use an Acol based system to the extent of 4 cd majors and a weak NT. However, there are significant numbers playing systems based on Standard American, and Precision is also popular. Hybrid systems like 5 cd majors with a weak NT are common. Mini NT openings are popular with some players and of course Cambridge University students like to invent their own systems!

Use of the Stop card is required for any jump bid and may result in a Director call if not used. The requirements for announcements and alerts are different.

One thing that I think should be considered in America is the protocol at the end of the auction. In England, the procedure is to leave the bidding cards on the table until the opening lead had been selected, placed face down on the table and questions asked and answered. The auction is on display to be considered during this process and no-one needs to be reminded of it. The lead is then faced and the bidding cards removed. I sometimes leave my bidding cards out, by habit, until the opening lead has been played, and in America I am frequently told that I can “pick ‘em up”! When I apologise and explain that is what happens in the UK, I sometimes then hear “that’s a good idea, we should all do it”.

5. Game time

Most games in England that I know are evening games, maybe 7.15 pm start, 24 boards,10.30 finish, that sort of thing. This has the advantage that working people can play although I have to admit that the age profile of players is still fairly high. I think that working, and particularly commuting, patterns are slightly different - in England, most people work 9 till 5.30 give or take an hour or so either way, and not many get up at 4 am for an early commute to beat the rush, so getting home at 11 pm is not a late night, and an evening game of Bridge is quite acceptable. This also means that people have had their main meals and do not require an endless supply of coffee and snack food when out for an evening’s Bridge. Most clubs provide facilities for players to make themselves a cup of tea or instant coffee, and perhaps biscuits might be available although one club I know has banned biscuits on the basis that eating at the table helps to make the cards sticky and dirty!

6. Conclusions

I enjoy Bridge wherever and whenever I play. The numerous small ways in which the game differs in England from the game in America just add to fun. If I were to be asked in which country I preferred to play, I would say whichever country I am in. I think my favourite bidding system is now American 2 over 1.