When to Throw Away the King

Liz Sumner Progress 2 Comments

I don’t like being a beginner. I’m sure I’ve spoken of this before. I never learned to play an instrument because I couldn’t tolerate practicing. Getting through the stage when you’re bad at something but have to do it anyway– it’s horrible. I avoid it whenever possible.

At the same time I tend to undervalue my ability and stay unchallenged out of fear. I self-select into a lower level than appropriate then get bored or resentful that no one is appreciating how awesome I am.

Recently a collision of worlds created an interesting set of mixed emotions in me. I learned there was an Italian Bridge Club. 

My first reaction was “Oh, Bridge!” I’ve been playing this card game for half a century. I learned at my father’s knee and had wonderful memories from over the years when I played actively with family and friends.

My second reaction was “Uh oh, Italian!” How might it be different? How would I re-learn all the conventions and signals? All of my shame for not having better language skills came bubbling forth.

When the opportunity to take bridge lessons presented itself I joined in with several English-speaking friends who’d always wanted to learn to play. Like many extra-curricular activities in Italy, the class meets after dinner on a weeknight. This means beginning at about 9:15 pm and lasting until after 11:00. You have to be really dedicated to get up and out at that time of night especially in the winter.

At the first lesson, I was able to follow enough of what was going on because I already knew what they were explaining. It was interesting because it was NOT the way I’d ever seen Bridge taught before. My friends were not thrilled with their first experience. I was withholding judgment.

By the second lesson I was starting to feel peevish. We were moving too slowly. Now that I knew the Italian words for the different suits and high cards I wanted to be observing the real players in the other room, not stuck at the kid’s table. I suggested that I go watch the others play. The teacher asked me to stay for one more hand with the beginners.

I was not, by any means, playing the hands expertly. I was out of practice. Once a hand was over I could see what I’d done wrong and how I should have played it. The skills were coming back to me, but slowly.

After the third lesson I decided to stop going for a couple of reasons. I was not having a great time and I had a more pressing commitment on the same evening. I told the instructor I needed to stop until after the new year. One of my friends was doing the same thing. But the instructor wasn’t going to let us go without a fight. She graciously offered to do the lessons at a more convenient time– Saturday afternoons– hard to say no. We decided to take her up on it.

At the next session, the first practice hand we played demonstrated something incredibly cool. I didn’t see it until the teacher walked me through afterwards. In order to win as many tricks as possible I’d have to throw away what appeared to be winning cards!  Mind-blowing. Who would think to discard a perfectly good king and ace?

When she showed me it became so clear, but without her explanation I never would have seen the move. It’s the kind of thing that makes bridge so interesting. By losing the hand then seeing how I could have won if I’d played it differently I’ll remember that lesson forever.

After that I saw this training in a new light. I’m not simply learning how to play– I’m seeing how to play at a much higher level, understanding the subtleties and mathematical probabilities. When I lose a trick I should have won I appreciate the teaching moment. 

Gaining mastery is extremely satisfying. And for some reason, maybe my advancing years, I’m not as concerned about making mistakes as I used to be. Errors seem to be really useful for instilling the lesson.

And speaking of mistakes, please note that I got through this entire Bridge story without saying NO TRUMP.

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