When I arrived in Champaign-Urbana in August of 86 I’d been learning about bridge for a little over two years and trying out duplicate for about sixteen months. One of the first things I did after hitting town was figure out where the local club met. I learned there was an open game on Monday evenings in the meeting room at a motel not terribly far from campus. Karen, who ran the game, arranged for me to play with Brian; I biked out to my car in the lot beyond the football stadium and drove there in time to meet my partner and discuss a convention card (a piece of paper that, in the interest of fairness, discloses your partnership’s bidding and play agreements to the opponents).
I was a total novice with very little understanding of the game. Brian probably didn’t have too many more years on him than my twenty-two, but he had much more experience, much keener card sense, and much stronger table presence. I’d played against some fine players before, but most of my experience had occurred when the room was full of folks much closer to my level. This felt like a shark tank, and I was chum. Brian and I finished well below average that first night; after the same thing happened the next couple of weeks, I thanked him for his time and slunk back to the dorm, licking wounds and turning attention to other pursuits, such as coursework.
I didn’t give bridge up completely. Mark H had moved back to St. Louis, first for a Masters in CS from Washington University, and then IT work at a couple of major corporations with a local presence. He and I met up a few times for tournaments, in St. Loo or some downstate IL city. At that point, while I wanted to play well, it was more about the company, hanging with a friend—any Masterpoints we won were gravy.
Sometime in the spring of 89 I got wind that a bridge club was forming on campus—maybe I saw a flyer in the Illini Union, next door to the math building. Since the dream had not died completely, I showed up for the initial meeting. The organizers were Mark L and Marc; there were several folks in attendance. I don’t recall now how things proceeded, whether the cards came out that first night or not, but it wasn’t long at all before the Illini Bridge Club became an ongoing endeavor.
It turned out that Mark L was a first-year grad student in math—maybe our paths had crossed before that night, but maybe not. I eventually learned that he’d also started playing duplicate in April 85. He was an evangelist for, and a teacher of, the game, much more so than I. Early that summer Mark got me back to the Champaign bridge club—by 89 they’d relocated from the motel to a strip mall on the west side of town, and there were now sessions on some afternoons that were perhaps less intense. My comfort level, if not my results, rose.
In July, I attended my first national bridge convention. The ACBL runs three each year, usually mid-March, late July, and around Thanksgiving. The locations vary (right now, they’re close to wrapping up this year’s Summer Nationals in Vegas); in the summer of 89, they had conveniently chosen Chicago. Perhaps in part inspired by resuming somewhat regular play, I arranged with Mark H to go for the weekend after my duties at the math camp ended. On Saturday, in one round of an open game for players under 30, we encountered a couple of 12-year-olds, one male, one female. He turned out to be the then-record holder for the youngest Life Master in ACBL history. (They cleaned our clocks.) On Sunday, we retreated to the 0-20 Masterpoint room, where the competition was much more suited for us. We won a team game playing with two Chicago-area women and received a trophy that was maybe ten inches tall (that’s one thing I actually tossed out a few years ago). A good time, one that maybe helped continue to stoke my interest.
Come fall, the Illini Bridge Club kept growing. I believe it became a sanctioned ACBL club, making it eligible to award Masterpoints. Mark L helped publish an IBC newsletter (I do still have copies of those). I attended often but not quite weekly, and I remember quite a few IBC folks: Josh, Chris, Brian, Jordan, Jon, Kevin, Kelly, Nancy, Don, and Spencer (a former calculus student). Some became good and long-time friends.
Before too long, I realized that Mark L seemed to see some promise in me. He recruited me to join him on teams that competed in events, mainly for non-Life Masters, whose prize for winning was a trip to a national tournament. We enjoyed remarkable success: over the next three years, he and I, along with a rotating collection of teammates, went to four Nationals. It’s not clear to me that Mark’s initial confidence was well-placed, but I’m incredibly grateful for it, and for the friendship we’ve maintained to this day.
Meeting Mark through the IBC was an inflection point in my social life at Illinois. As a result, I was introduced to a whole host of folks, both fellow students and people from the area who loved to play bridge. At the beginning of 90, I fell in with another group of grad students who showed up at the Champaign bridge club independently of the IBC. They—Greg, Katie, Toby, and Karl—became the core of my social circle for the last two-plus years in C-U. I’ve jokingly said that bridge may have kept me in school an extra year; I’m not sure that’s really the case, but even if so, it was worth it.
Batman, the Nicholson/Keaton/Basinger flick that launched a franchise of sorts, was released toward the end of June that summer. I know I saw it sometime soon thereafter, but where and with whom has disappeared into the ether. It remains the only one of the various Batman movies I’ve seen. Prince’s “Batdance” got a lot of play at the time, but it has to be among the least heard #1 songs from the 80s now. It’s an odd duck, no doubt—mainly an extended jam with samples of the movie’s dialogue and the occasional interjection from the Purple One. Maybe because it is so underplayed now that I really don’t mind when it comes on.
The Joker still inspires—I see that another “origin of the character” movie is coming out later this year—but he seems to be a much darker and grim thing now than what Cesar Romero or even Jack cooked up back in the day. Ten years ago I spent a week in Kansas City, grading AP Calculus exams. The Dark Knight had come out almost a year earlier, but one of the late Heath Ledger’s lines from the movie still resonated with the 17- and 18-year-olds of 2009: it feels like there’d been some sort of social media campaign launched, as time and again—perhaps on questions that stumped them—we found “Why so serious?” written in the exam booklets we were marking.
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