I carelessly typed “restarting bridge after lockdown” but quickly corrected myself. While the pandemic has had many tragic consequences, bridge has been a fantastic pastime for lockdown and enormous energy from the bridge community has gone into the online game, with new and improved bridge platforms, help for members who struggle a bit with the technology, and transforming face to face competitions into online events that have sometimes proved more successful than before, because there is no need to travel or find a suitable hall.
We have a group of around 20 novice players who play online at my own club in Winchester and they absolutely love the game – I will say a bit more about this later – but I mention it now because it is so rewarding bringing new people into the game and seeing the fun they have, with every session bringing up new challenges, plenty of mishaps but it is all part of the adventure.
But what happens now, with government restrictions lifted, but some club members understandably cautious about returning to face to face sessions? While it is fantastic that we are able to meet again and play with real cards, it also presents some new challenges. In lockdown it was simply a question of how we could support online bridge; now we have a mixture of online and face to face with some puzzles about how best to handle it.
This is a membership development site: and we must remind ourselves of two things. One is that we know well that when bridge is enthusiastically promoted and carefully taught, there is strong demand, though getting all the pieces in place is challenging and some areas are easier than others. Second, we are very aware of the demographics of our members, with the average age of an EBU members somewhere in the seventies and some smaller clubs still facing the challenge of either bringing in new members, closing, or merging with another club – and for some of these, lockdown has been the last straw.
Everything that was true before lockdown remains true today. We have an urgent recruitment task, and speaking for the EBU, we want to support our clubs in the task of marketing, teaching, and then making the tricky transition from classes to the main club sessions. We are also aware that it is not just a matter of teaching more bridge but also helping clubs to be enjoyable places for novices to play, with friendly directors and members who understand that novices make more mistakes and sometimes inadvertently break the rules and to treat that sensitively and sensibly. Recruitment is not just a matter of persuading people to turn up at our clubs, but also about making our clubs even more lovely and enjoyable places to be, and benefiting from the best recruitment method of all: word of mouth.
What about the restart though? We must acknowledge that we face some real challenges simply getting our previous members to return. In my town of Winchester we have three clubs in the same town, Winchester bridge club with two sessions a week, Badger Farm Bridge Club and Badger Farm Acol Club with one session a week each. Prior to lockdown, each of those sessions was typically between 7 to 10 tables, a little smaller for Badger Farm Acol Club. All three clubs have restarted, and for the first face to face sessions, there were just 2.5 or 3 tables. Numbers are creeping up, as people begin to feel more confident, but it is a long way back. The picture nationally will make a difference to how ready people are to return.
Looking at the numbers for last month, I see that just over half as many EBU members played in sessions as in July 2019. What have those missing members been doing? Some of them did not want to play online, some of them did not know how, some of them did not feel they had the opportunity if their regular club was no longer meeting. Others will have played but not in EBU sessions.
I promised to tell you more about our group of novices at Winchester. We are fortunate to have a relatively large group keen to play bridge, and during lockdown they have been playing online on Thursday evenings, in supervised or gentle play with four or five tables. At our club pre-lockdown we ran a supervised bridge session on a Monday evening and the club’s first instinct, following the government’s lifting of restrictions, was to ask our novices to transition to face to face on Mondays. The first Monday just one turned up. The second Monday, three. Worried about losing the group, we put on an online session on a Thursday, we got five full tables, all novices.
This seems a good illustration of how online bridge does not always translate easily to playing face to face. What went wrong? There seem to be several factors. Someone can play on Thursdays but not Mondays. Another gets home from work in time to play online, but not in time to travel. There is more though: there are people who have learned bridge online and have never held a hand of cards at a bridge table. Of course we are ready to help but I think we need to run a specific session on the mechanics of how to play face to face, with people who can play bridge quite well but have never used a bidding box or moved from one table to another.
It is still not that simple. We have had considerable success having novice pairs join one of our main club sessions online – we did have two such sessions, now we have one – and it seems that the classroom to clubroom transition is easier online. The environment is familiar, and if you can cope with not scoring very well, it seems to be quite comfortable, less intimidating than moving from a more social gentle duplicate to what may seem a very serious club session where it feels like any slight misdemeanour is frowned upon.
Similarly, we are discovering perhaps that transitioning from online to face to face is itself challenging, even if moving from gentle duplicate online to gentle duplicate face to face. We can address this in part with some special sessions but I think we also need to reflect and think: well maybe this group just prefers playing online and we should not try and force them in a direction that they do not want to go. If nothing else, I hope that the lockdown period has shown us that online bridge is still bridge, it is not quite the same as face to face bridge but neither is it radically different. At our club we will be making the same journey as others, playing some bridge at our lovely premises, some online, and likely some hybrid sessions too.
We have also discovered that the online environment is in many ways better for teaching and novice play than face to face. Whole categories of error, such as insufficient bids, playing out of turn, and revoking, are eliminated. Movement happens automatically. The system automatically records not only the score and the hands, but also the exact bidding and play, and you can review later exactly where things went right or wrong. You can also speak at a table, presuming you have video and audio as we do, and not be heard at any other table. It would be foolish for us to ignore these advantages.
I realise that we have landed ourselves with a new category of problem: how our clubs flourish in a scenario where some play online, some play face to face, and some do both. The issue of transition from online to face to face will not go away, and of course there is also a group of members who prefer to play only face to face, and that is fine too, we love them just as much. Accommodating all these different needs and preferences is going to be a challenge: but another way of looking at it is that the advances in online bridge and our familiarity with it has given the bridge community some great opportunities to bring new people into the game. That is an opportunity for us to learn together about how to make the most of it.
The EBU recently put on an online restart seminar covering how to make face to face sessions as safe as possible (I spoke briefly at the event and the above is mostly drawn from that), how to do hybrid scoring between online and face to face events, and several other topics including Q&A. The recording is below; and there is a second Restart Seminar on Tuesday 17th August, from 9 – 11am, via Zoom. If you would like to attend this event, please email email@example.com. Please let us know if you have any topics that you would like to see covered or if you feel you have valuable experience that may help other clubs and would like to give a short talk at the event, please let us know.