First of all, Dan Morse wants you to know that Texas is home to more than its share of world-class bridge players. In September Texans dominated the World Bridge Olympiad, held in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Well, okay, he admits, the main event, the open, was won by the team from Italy. But in the other two divisions, Texas ruled. The United States won the seniors division; three of the six members (including Dan) were Texan, and so was their coach. The U.S. also won the women's division -- and won it with an all-Texan team. That, Dan exults, is unheard of. It's like having an Olympic basketball team composed only of Californians, or an Olympic rowing team drawn entirely from Michigan, or an Olympic anything drawn only from North Dakota.
Which brings us to the Olympics.
Dan also wants you to know that soon, if he has anything to do with the way the world runs, bridge will be an Olympic sport. He's the U.S. representative to the World Bridge Federation, which is courting the Olympics' organizing committee. Last year the Olympics "recognized" the WBF and asked it to conform to Olympic drug policies. That action put bridge on the same footing as more traditional Olympic-hopeful sports such as karate, squash, golf and rugby.
At 62, Dan thinks about giving up his day job, maybe selling his pharmacy to his brother. That would leave him more time for bridge -- more time for playing, but also more time for politicking, more time for getting bridge into the Olympics.
Boxers have gyms. Baseball players have fields. Bridge players have clubs like the Bridge and Games Studio, where Dan is playing Sunday night. Tucked inside an office park off the Southwest Freeway, the club basically amounts to a big room full of tables. For $6.50, you buy the right to play a session of duplicate bridge. Sessions last around three and a half hours, which works out to less than two bucks an hour. It's cheap entertainment, and cheaper still if you sit around later, as many players do, eating a $2 sandwich and reliving the hands you just played.
On Sunday Dan was playing in a doubles league. Shawn Quinn, his partner for the night, was on the women's team in Maastricht, and in Dan's estimation, she's an up-and-comer. She's only 38, he says -- young for a bridge player.
Shawn is wearing card colors: a black tank top, a red quilted vest, black pants, red nails, red lipstick. In '96 she moved to Houston from California, and that, she says, is when her game took off. In Texas, she could play against experts, because the state's experts play every chance they get; in California, they don't play in the clubs or the small-time tournaments, preferring to play at home or against paying students. "Bridge in Texas is social," Shawn explains. "You dress. You put on makeup. It's a way to spend Saturday or Sunday night."
Before the league game starts, its ten or so players chat and drink coffee. Dozens of other players are already immersed in games; they started at noon, in a different session. Most appear to be in their sixties; baby boomers are bridge's lost generation. In the '50s, people like Dan played bridge in college, but in the '60s and '70s, cards' charms paled in comparison to psychedelic drugs and disco.
Hope for the future, Dan thinks, rests in youth's new dissipation of choice: the Internet. Young Web surfers learn to play against machine opponents, then graduate to on-line games against humans. As their addiction grows, they stumble into bridge clubs, looking for real-world action.
Shawn, an engineer as well as a bridge champion, is betting heavily that Dan is right; she recently became the site manager for winbridge.com. The site is undergoing a face-lift, but most of its programmers don't know how to play bridge. Tomorrow morning, at eight, Shawn will fly to Nevada to teach them the fine points of scoring. The prospect of getting up before dawn means that Shawn isn't entirely disappointed by the evening's low turnout. Fewer players means that she'll go home earlier; fewer players means more sleep.
At the drink table she pours coffee into a Styrofoam cup. Coffee, of course, contains caffeine, which the International Olympic Committee considers a performance-enhancing drug. Last year, as part of the campaign to win Olympic approval, the WBF agreed to begin random drug testing in its high-level tournaments. The process seems a bit silly -- even now, "zero tolerance" in a bridge club refers not to steroids but to bad manners, like offering unsolicited advice -- and the tests mean that a bridge player could be disqualified for taking the wrong cold medicine or downing too many cappuccinos. If drug testing is necessary to be considered for the Olympics, so be it. But tonight isn't the big leagues, and Shawn wants a cup.
"Playing with Dan is exciting," Shawn says. "I'm always surprised by what's happening at the table."
She means it as a compliment, but usually bridge players hate to be surprised. Bidding, the first stage of the game, is both an auction, to see which team will win control of the game, and a form of communication more ritualized than kabuki. Dan and Shawn, like most of the players, carry multicolored computer printouts to remind themselves which conventions they're using tonight -- what exactly it means if your partner bids "four spades" after you've bid "four hearts."
The language of bidding, like most languages, leaves much room for ambiguity, and it's in those gray areas that bridge players develop their individual styles. Texans, Dan says, tend to bid high; they'd rather risk a stiff penalty than miss an opportunity.
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It's not entirely certain, of course, that bridge will become an Olympic sport. The U.S. Olympic Committee seems vaguely embarrassed by the prospect; other purists scoff at the idea that "mind sports," such as bridge and chess, belong in the games. The WBF's strong bid to land a spot in the Sydney Olympics, sneered a New York Times op-ed piece, "would have made it the first Olympic sport to have mixed nuts on the field of play."
"What's next?" asked the Ottawa Citizen. "Scrabble?"
"With bridge," cracked a sports columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, "there shouldn't be such a drug-testing controversy unless the IOC bans Viagra."
Dan has heard the jokes, and they don't seem to faze him. He's a Texan. When in doubt, he bids high.