On a recent Monday night in a common room of Middlebrook Hall on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank, about a dozen honors students sat at tables, most with their heads down, intensely focused on deciphering what they held in their hands.
Yet, there wasn’t a single phone to be seen. The students pored over playing cards — 13 each — as they tried their hands at what for many has been their grandparents’ game: contract bridge.
Offered every spring since 2017 as a way to gather away from the pressure of grade-point averages and 4000-level term papers, the weekly class not only is creating a new generation of bridge players but is helping them forge new friendships.
“Bridge connects different people from different colleges. It gives us more of a common ground to talk with each other and to get to learn about what the others do on any given day,” said Morgan Johnstone, a senior and earth science major from Milwaukee. Johnstone plays in collegiate tournaments with a dental student from Iowa who’s also in the marching band.
“We never would have crossed paths otherwise,” she said.
That social cross-pollination is exactly what Matt Bribitzer-Stull, director of the University Honors Program, had in mind when he made a card game popularized in the 1930s one of the first Honors Nexus Experiences — classes that range from playing tabletop games and making art with Legos to exploring environmental justice and experiencing the Mississippi River.
“What I wanted to see us do is find ways to bring faculty and students together from the nine different colleges that have undergraduate majors, because it’s very easy to get siloed here at the university,” Bribitzer-Stull said.
“And I wanted to put ideas at the center of the honors experience and find ways to take the pressure for grades and course credits off and just offer spaces for people to think together.”
But lest anyone think this is just a spring semester social hour, well, you don’t know honors students. And you certainly don’t know bridge.
Sean McNally, a senior from Wisconsin who started playing bridge when he first took the class freshman year, said he was “immediately hooked” by the game’s complexity and myriad maneuvers. He and a partner in national tournaments from the University of Chicago keep 150 pages of notes that chart sequences of moves, bidding “languages” and “artificial systems” meant to subtly communicate what each player holds in their hand and how plays should be made depending on which cards are laid.
“It’s very all-consuming,” said McNally, a mathematics major who is heading to graduate school and intends to earn a Ph.D.
“In high school, I was more well-rounded. I used to play board games. Chess. Now? I play a lot of bridge.”
McNally, who started dating Johnstone after they attended a bridge club meeting together, said the game is appealing exactly because it’s so challenging. Where many honors students weren’t used to having to work very hard in high school, he said, bridge’s complexities can vex even the strongest students. He likes that, adding that he and other players often meet for hours after class to discuss hands they’ve played and moves they’ve made.
“Bridge is supposed to be fun,” he said. “There is a steep learning curve, but people need to not worry about that and just have fun.”
The class is held from 5 to 7 p.m. each Monday. There were around 45 students enrolled that first spring, Bribitzer-Stull said. This year, it’s down to 13 as students are taking advantage of a wider variety of NEXUS offerings. There were just three choices that first year. There are 14 now, he said. Nonetheless, Bribitzer-Stull said bridge’s status as a NEXUS experience is unfaded. He calls the game — which evolved from the 19th century card game whist after the Vanderbilt family got ahold of it — “mankind’s greatest intellectual sport.”
After all, he said, look at the people who play it and play it well — such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
Glen Meeden, a statistics professor, doesn’t need to be convinced of bridge’s excellence. The soon-to-retire instructor started playing the game as a college student years ago, drifted away and has returned to competitive play with a passion — he owns dozens of bridge books. One of five of the class’ faculty volunteers, he said he enjoys teaching a new generation of players. And working with the newcomers is a reminder that even the smartest can struggle.
“It takes years to become a real expert,” he said.
At Meeden’s table sat freshmen Claire Arnold and Maggie Popovich and sophomore David Ha. All admit to being more than occasionally perplexed. But …
“I like it a lot,” Arnold said, adding that her grandparents and parents are frequent players.
“I really like how deep the strategy is,” said Ha, who’d played a lot of board games but said this class is his first foray into bridge. “It’s one of the most complicated games I’ve ever played.”
To Popovich, “the hardest thing so far is memorizing what to do in certain situations. It’s more than just playing cards. Suddenly, you’re bidding and you have no idea what to do.”
In an effort to entice more players to the game, Johnstone encourages even the most intimidated to stick with it. There are rewards. In just three short years, she’s gone from neophyte to playing for collegiate teams finishing among the nation’s best. And the travel is a wonderful perk.
“You can go far,” she said of trips to tournaments in Toronto, Philadelphia, Memphis, Atlanta, Las Vegas and, this summer, Italy. Most of which were paid for by national bridge organizations. “Bridge has been great. And I get to meet people from all over the world.”
James Walsh • 612-673-7428