Learning Bridge:  Group lessons and self-teaching

If you've ever wondered what bridge is all about -- or if you've always wanted to learn but have been afraid it's too difficult -- here are some tips (and encouragement) to help you join the millions of people who are hooked on this fascinating game. With all the new learning opportunities now available, there's never been a better time to take up the game. More and more communities, bridge clubs and schools are offering group lessons, and there's a wealth of new material on the Internet to supplement classes and help you teach yourself.

It takes only rudimentary knowledge to begin playing and enjoying bridge, but be forewarned: this is not an easy game to learn, and it's even more difficult (most say impossible) to master. But that's precisely why bridge is so popular, and why it's called "the game for a lifetime". No matter how many years you play, you'll always find new challenges, and the learning process will never end. I've been playing non-stop for 30+ years, and I learn something new every time I play.

There are several ways to begin learning the game. Here's a look at some of the different approaches you can take, and some advice about which work best for most people.

Think twice about asking a friend or relative to teach you.

I've taught hundreds of people to play bridge, and one of the most frequent comments I hear from students is, "My husband (or mother or sister or room-mate) tried to teach me to play years ago, but we were both miserable!"

Of course, many people have been successfully taught by close friends and relatives. The one-on-one teaching can be fun and can even bring the two of you closer together, but just know that there are pitfalls.

One is that teaching the game is very different than playing it, and even the most skilled player may not know how to share his knowledge. Inexperienced teachers tend to overload their students with too much information too fast, and the learner can be quickly overwhelmed. And if you're in a close personal relationship with your tutor, he or she may have unrealistic expectations of how fast you should progress.

Another problem is that for many people, the closer the relationship, the more difficult the teacher-learner roles are to handle. My experience with my husband is a good example. We first met at a duplicate-bridge club when I barely knew how to sort my cards. He was much more experienced, and when we began playing as partners, he was a tremendous, and patient, teacher. I hung on his every word and even took notes. After a year or so, though, I started to feel that my skill level was approaching his, and the conflicts began. I started questioning some of his advice about how to bid or play a hand, and even began offering him some of my own. I was anxious to stop being the "student", but he was reluctant to give up his role as the "teacher", and it was very difficult for us to adjust to thinking of each other as equal partners.

Sign up for group lessons if they're available in your community.

Even if you want to have a friend or relative teach you, consider supplementing that instruction with a series of outside classes. The learning process is easier -- and usually a lot more fun -- if you're part of a group of beginners. There's much less pressure than with one-on-one teaching, and you'll get a lot of support from classmates and the teacher. A lesson series also puts you on a learning schedule -- it gives you a set time each week to get out of the house and immerse yourself in the game.

How to find classes and teachers:  Many park districts, adult-education programs and community colleges offer group lessons. The classes usually begin in early fall and early spring, but bigger cities may offer year-round lessons. A typical lesson format is 6-8 sessions of 2-3 hours each, with much of the class time devoted to play. Bridge lessons are also offered to junior-high and high-school students in a special program from the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL).

Your best source of classes and information is probably your local duplicate-bridge club. If the directors there don't offer classes, they'll be able to tell you where you can find one. Your town's bridge club may be listed in the white or yellow pages. To get a complete listing of the clubs in your area, check the ACBL  Directory of Duplicate-Bridge Clubs. The listing is organized by state and city and will give you the club address and the name and phone number of a contact person.

The ACBL also maintains a state-by-state listing of bridge teachers. Check their Bridge Teacher Directory to find the name and phone number of a bridge teacher in your hometown.

Try teaching yourself to play.

If you can't fit a group class into your schedule, don't give up. It is possible to teach yourself, especially if you take advantage of all the new sources of information. Learning on your own has become fun, and almost easy, with the availability of new bridge books, television programs, web sites, online clubs and bridge software. Some good websites for beginners are listed on this site.

Start by downloading the free Learn to Play Bridge software from the American Contract Bridge League. These self-teaching, interactive programs allow you to learn and practice offline, at your own pace. You need no prior card-playing experience.

Put some energy into the learning process.

Whether you're teaching yourself or taking group lessons, bridge can't be learned passively. The fastest learners are those who jump in and make the game their personal projects. They take advantage of all the opportunities for learning and devote time to reading and practicing on their own. Some tips and ideas for personal practice are in the article "On-your-own" Learning Activities on this site.

Copyright Karen Walker