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Running transition classes to help novices move up to club level

It is one thing to get people learning bridge and playing in gentle bridge sessions – but the next move, migrating players to full club sessions, can be particularly challenging.

Camberley bridge club had a bright idea. Why not run classes specifically aimed at this transition?

“Like all clubs we want to get new members to come and play at the club,” said club member Penny Moody. “We had people who said they’d like to come to the club but were worried about doing things wrong.”

The club decided to run classes specifically aimed at people who wanted to make this move, calling it a Transition Group. “I decided to put into the course the things that people were most bothered about. I didn’t intend to teach any bridge, but we did a tiny bit. But it was mainly on etiquette, pace of play, alerting, stop cards, announcing, calling the director, using the director, those sorts of things,” Penny explains.

The course was a sell-out. Penny felt 5 tables was the maximum and after 20 people signed up she started a waiting list. It shows that there are plenty of bridge players out there who want to make the move to club bridge but need some support.

Each session had a theme, and Penny used the sample hands and Hand Generator from the EBED (English Bridge and Education) teacher site. “That was brilliant because I could say, I want a hand that needs things that are going to have to be alerted, likely to have a stop card, and things like that,” she says.

The group was supported by other club members, who acted as mentors.

What was the hardest thing? “System cards. Why I thought I could look at system cards in one week I don’t know!” says Penny.

The courses were publicised mainly through word of mouth. A number of attendees were learning bridge through U3A (University of the Third Age), and UCA agreed to put something in their worksheet for the course.

“The whole group was about trying to get some confidence about playing in clubs,” says Penny. “Of the 20, I think at least 6 or 7 are now playing at the club.”

There is another 8-week Transition Group starting in September.

The Transition Group concept is a great idea for several reasons. One is that it sets up the expectation that members who complete the course will in fact move on to regular club sessions. Of course they will need support in doing so; clubs need to be accepting of novice players and show some common sense in welcoming them into what can at first be an intimidating environment.

The Transition Group is also a great place to demystify club sessions and answer questions that may worry people, such as what happens when the director is called.

Finally, making transition easy is not just a matter for those coming in. It is also something for directors and experienced players to take to heart, by making every club session one where those less confident will soon feel at ease.

How to run a bridge taster session

First impressions count for a lot – and can often be hard to overturn. That is true for bridge clubs just as it is in other areas of life, which means that what happens the first time a visitor or prospective bridge student comes along is super important.

“Taster sessions,” where potential bridge students come to a special event to learn whether what you are offering is for them, are a great idea for lots of reasons. They are the initial focus point of a membership campaign. Every campaign needs a “call to action”; it is no good simply publicising bridge as a wonderful game to learn, true though that is. People need a date for their diary, an event to look forward to, and an introduction that feels safe: if they do not like it, there is no pressure and they can easily back out.

Putting these two thoughts together means that it it is worth putting lots of effort and planning into running a taster session. It will directly impact how many students sign up for your course.

What will make a good taster session? In some respects the detail does not matter. What matters is that those who turn up feel welcome and that they have made a great decision in exploring how to play bridge. We need to convey something about what a fantastic thing it is to play in a bridge club. They will never be bored again. They will make new friends, they will engage with something that is both fun and mentally challenging, they will find every game has its surprises – did you know there are 53,644,737,765,488,792,839,237,440,000 possible deals (I am not sure how that number is pronounced but you could try 5.36 x 1028). Get them laughing with you, then they will be on your side.

It is worth working hard on creating a lovely atmosphere. That means refreshments, some existing members of your club who can answer questions and/or some existing and enthusiastic students, and making sure the venue is warm and well-it (or in high summer, well ventilated!).

What is a good time for a taster session? It makes sense to have it at the same time and place as you will be teaching – then you know that the people who come can normally make that time. Start on time and do not go on too late; it is always better if people leave wanting more and with no worries about how late it is getting.

What will you actually do? Opinions vary. Some teachers make the taster session an actual lesson, aiming to teach a number of basic points about the game. Others treat it more as an initial exploration without any real teaching goals other than to give people the broadest possible flavour of what bridge is all about.

We have heard though that too much complexity is counter-productive. People may be put off before they get started. There is more risk in saying too much than in saying too little. The most important goal of the taster session is get people to sign up for your course.

When it is time for a presentation, get people sitting at bridge tables – they will likely be playing some cards later.

Icebreakers are good. When I went on a bridge teaching course with EBED’s Lorna Watson, she got us to think up songs with cards in their title, in the groups at each table. No purpose other than to get people talking and relaxing.

There is a video, The Game of Bridge, which is less than four minutes long. It gives an idea of how the game works. If you have the right equipment, showing this or another video is worth considering – bearing in mind what I noted above about avoiding complexity.

People will want to have a go for themselves though, and for this playing some actual Minibridge is a great idea. Minibridge is essentially bridge without the bidding, where the pair with the most points win the contract automatically, the declarer is the hand with the most points in that partnership, and decides the contract after seeing dummy. We have all the details here. It is a lot of fun even for bridge players. So you can play some minibridge for a bit, with lots of help and supervision.

Of course there is some admin to do. Take names and contact details. Have a handout with details of the course you are running, the aims of the course, all the dates, how long the lessons are, what it costs, and what happens when the course ends.

Leave plenty of time for informal questions at the end.

All the above are just suggestions. Every club, every area and every group varies and there is no substitute for local knowledge. And if you have some good tips let me know or post in the comments below.

Joining students to your club: how to do it, why it matters, and a special offer!

Running a membership campaign and having some new students turn up at your bridge club is exciting, but it is only the start. Our goal is not just to teach people bridge (good though that is), but to strengthen the membership of EBU clubs so that bridge continues to thrive.

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We do quite often hear about clubs who run classes with apparent success but end up a couple of years later with hardly any new members from those classes. Needless to say, this can be dispiriting. What is going wrong?

Some dropouts are inevitable. One person may start with enthusiasm but discover bridge is not really for them. Another may enjoy it but prefer to play without the formality of a normal club session. This is all to be expected.

Other things though are avoidable. The most obvious is that clubs must have a strategy for taking students all the way from the first class through supervised play, gentle play and then to join in a standard club session. We encourage clubs to develop a culture of mixed ability sessions, so that it is not too intimidating for a less experienced pair to join in.

There is another thing too, which is to make sure that students feel part of your club from the beginning. They are not just attending a class on your premises, they are joining a club and need to be made welcome. What this means in terms of membership fees and so on is something for a club committee to consider, but the EBU’s position is clear: any member of an EBU affiliated club is also a member of the EBU with a number of benefits including the English Bridge magazine, eligibility for EBU events, My EBU section on the EBU site and so on.

For this reason, we recommend that clubs themselves run classes, working with local bridge teachers, rather than simply letting teachers use their premises and equipment. 

There are a few subtleties to EBU membership. One is that we do not offer printed magazines and diaries to everyone, but only to our more active members. This is measured by what we call magazine points. The details of how this works are explained here (PDF), but the quick summary is that you need 12 magazine points to get a printed magazine and diary, and you get a point for every regular session, so playing once a month is sufficient. Bridge classes and novice sessions do not count for this though.

Another facet of membership is that each member normally has a primary club. Many belong to multiple clubs, but only one is primary. The primary club is the first club the member joins, or can be changed by the member (not by the club) if they belong to several clubs.

The process of joining a new student to your club (and therefore to the EBU) is normally straightforward. First, you should get the student to complete a membership form. This is important as it indicates the person’s agreement to have their personal data recorded. See here for more details.

A club secretary or other administrator logs on to the My EBU section of the web site, selects Members, and hits Add Member.

When you do this, you get a dialog asking if the person has an EBU record:

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If you click No you add a new member with full name and address details and so on. If you click Yes you search existing records in our membership database to find the one you are adding.

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If you are not sure, you can always start by searching, then go back and add from scratch if you cannot find the person.

It is possible to register a student with the EBU without joining them to your club. To do this, you must uncheck the option “This player is a member of your club”. If you do this, the person is joined as a potential member. If they later become a full member, you must not forget to confirm their membership! This is suitable for trial members or people just trying out the club.

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What if the student leaves the club after just a few classes? If their membership of the club ends, you must remove them from the membership list on My Ebu. To do this, click the “Revoke membership” option in the member list. They remain on the EBU’s system as a contact, unless they are also a member via another club or via direct membership, in which case their status is not affected.

Try to avoid adding new members and then immediately revoking membership as this can cause complications for our office staff.

Teachers can add members too

There is another approach, which currently has advantages. A teacher can also add a new member to the EBU, using the Teaching – Students menu in their My Ebu site. This generates a magic web link which the teacher sends to the student. The student clicks the link and adds themselves to the EBU member database.

If you use this approach, there are two important things to note:

First, the student will benefit from a special offer. They get one year’s membership of the EBU complete with printed magazine and diary, even without any magazine points. And they get the Ruffian magazine, which is designed for newcomers to bridge.

Second, the student will NOT automatically be joined to your club. Once the student has joined, the club will need to go to the Add Member screen described above and add them to the club.

Currently then, the best way to add a student to your club is via the teacher route, and then to add them separately as a club member.

Is this a little more complicated than it should be? Possibly, but we are working on it!

The important thing though is that new students DO join your club and are made to feel part of it at the earliest opportunity. Then they will enjoy the learning experience more, and will be more likely to go on to join full sessions.

Tip: a pro-am session where experienced club members pair up with a novice for a special event is a great way to introduce existing members to the students, as well as giving the students vital experience of the mechanics of a normal duplicate session. Use UMS code 11 to upload this to the EBU and it will not count for NGS or Master Points.

Bridge clubs and technology: a key aspect of your service to members

In membership development it is not only the journey but the destination that is important. Put another way, if we seek new members for our club, we need to make the club as attractive as possible to them.

Among the biggest areas of change in bridge clubs is in use of technology. Many of us recall when shuffling, dealing and scoring was all manual, and to learn the results at the end of a session you had to stay late, or be patient until they were posted on the noticeboard at the next session.

The advent of the web enabled clubs to post results for all to see, complete with extra information like the percentage score for each pair.

More technology followed, though not every club could take advantage. Wireless scoring devices at every table. Dealing machines for hands that are better randomised than human shuffling can easily achieve, along with the ability to publish the hands with the results. Sophisticated web results with colour coding, double-dummy analysis, and the ability to replay hands card by card to discover the optimum play or reveal why you had a disaster.

There is also club management software that can help with assembling teams, finding partners, managing subscriptions and other matters.

The EBU’s National Grading Scheme (NGS) is also worth a mention, providing players with an indication of their current performance and rank. After every session, you can see whether you achieved a better or worse score than would be predicted by your grade, after taking into account the abilities of the other players.

All this is great, but it comes at a price. Dealing machines are expensive, and operating them is a considerable commitment of time and effort. Because they are expensive they have to be kept secure. The same is true of wireless scoring devices. Further, you need some sort of computer and internet connection to run dealing and scoring software and upload results.

Some clubs struggle with these requirements, maybe with nowhere obvious to keep equipment between sessions, or lack of funds or human resources to manage them.

There may also be dissenting voices in the club. Dealing machines are more random, so hands are less balanced than with manually dealing. This does affect the odds and the play, and there will be members who are used to what they had before and prefer it.

Despite these issues, it is worth investing in dealing machines and scoring devices if you possibly can. Expectations have changed, and once players get used to features like instant results and the ability to inspect and play back hands on the web afterwards, they do not want to go back. Further, these facilities are great for learners (and experts for that matter) who want to improve their play.

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Using Bridge Solver Online, accessible through Bridgewebs, to replay a board. The colour coding shows the best card to play and the small numbers how many tricks can be won if that card is played.

It is also worth noting that technology is not standing still. There are now options to use a mobile phone for scoring instead of a dedicated wireless device, reducing costs. There are even ways to have a robot pair to eliminate sit-outs. It is worth paying attention to see if you can use technology to make club sessions more enjoyable  – which is what bridge is all about.

Another excellent use of technology is to enable novices to practice their bidding and play in their own time. There are online bridge systems where you can play in your own time, taking hours to decide what to bid or what to play if you really want to, or completing a game at breakneck speed if that is what appeals. The standard of computer play is now high enough that it beats most humans. And if you score badly, you can try again and find out what would have worked. There is no substitute for a real game at a club, but online bridge is great for learning and more fun than solitaire!

Technology is not just about games and results. Many EBU clubs use Bridgewebs which is excellent for displaying results; but what about other aspects of club management like the ability to email your members, help them find a partner, and have a web site that looks good on every size of screen? If that appeals, Pianola may be worth a look. It is always worth paying attention to see if your club can improve its service to members via intelligent use of what is available.

Every bridge club is constrained by resources and full-scale adoption of the latest technology may not be possible. You can still run fantastic sessions without it. But it is at least something to aspire to, and will make it easier to attract and keep new members.

What is it like to learn to teach bridge? Report from Bristol

The key to increasing membership for most bridge clubs is to teach the game. Our experience is that wherever a club puts together a package including teaching, gentle supervised play and carefully planned marketing, there is a ready supply of people wanting to learn. “We are now on our 3rd course and have enough people in the wings for a further course in September,” says an email from a Nottinghamshire club received earlier this week.

You cannot teach bridge without teachers though, and that is why we are encouraging clubs to train more teachers. There is even funding available for EBU clubs.

I am a reasonable bridge player and a qualified tournament director, but I have never myself taught bridge. Recognising its importance, I booked a place on a course at Bristol Bridge Club which took place a couple of weeks ago. The course was run by Lorna Watson, who is also the manager of EBTA – the English Bridge Teachers Association.

Bristol Bridge Club was founded in the fifties and has its own premises, formerly a printing works but the home of the club since 1981. The facilities are excellent, and I turned up with 8 other students early on a Saturday morning to be greeted with coffee and biscuits. Yes, it meant giving up a weekend: the course is quite intense and runs for two full days 9.30am to 4.30pm or thereabouts.

Lorna started us off with an icebreaker (“Name songs with a suit of cards in their title”) to get us chatting and then got us to think about different styles of learning. Do you learn best by seeing, hearing, or trying for yourself? The important point is that everyone learns in different ways, essential to keep in mind when taking on a group of students.

We looked at designing a course. You are not going to get far without a clear plan for each lesson. Fortunately EBED has devised some fantastic materials to help us to teach this wonderful but challenging game. Yes you can go and devise your own materials if you have the time and the skills, but for most of us being able to base our courses on material tried and tested by others is a huge advantage.

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On the course we were given an armful of Bridge for All (see below for what this is) books, of which we spent most of our time with three:

  • Beginning Bridge Book One: a course for complete beginners. It has 8 chapters but you are not expected to cover a chapter in just one lesson. Three or four lessons per chapter (on average) is more typical, which gets you through the course in around 30 weeks, perfect for a one year course with some holiday breaks.
  • Beginning Bridge Teachers Notes: an essential guide to how to teach the course, including notes, tips, exercises and practice hands.
  • Teaching and Methods Guide for Bridge Teachers: general advice and guidance on how to teach bridge. Covers techniques and activities, how to plan a class, how to make classes enjoyable, what visual aids you need, and how to assess progress.

Today we cannot assume that people have experience of card games or how to handle a pack of cards. Most of us will also be teaching adults, and no matter how enthusiastic, we all tend to learn more slowly when we are older. It is important therefore to take it gently, explain everything that needs explaining, and to go at the right pace for those learning.

Next we played some Minibridge, which is a simplified version of bridge that has no bidding. You can learn it very quickly and it is fun to play.

Bridge for All

The rest of the day we looked more closely at the Bridge for All materials. Bridge for All is a method for learning duplicate bridge, based on a simple version of Acol, the most commonly used bidding system in England. There are two distinct Bridge for All paths, one formed by the book Beginning Bridge and its successor Continuing Bridge, and the other consisting of Fast Track Bridge, where you can learn the game in 12 two-hour lessons.

Which to choose? On this course we essentially learned to teach with Beginning Bridge. Fast Track is more intense. It is nice to make faster progress, but only if the students really are keeping up and taking it all in. Opinions vary and this is something that merits careful discussion if you are planning a course.

Bridge for All is quite prescriptive. It is based on a single bidding system and while there is some slight flexibility, for example if you decide to teach weak two opening bids, there is not much. The general thought is that novices have enough to do learning the basics, and it will not help to burden them with more decisions than necessary. The philosophy is to teach them one good way to play.

Show them the cards

One thing I will never forget is Lorna insisting to the group, “Show them the cards”. What she means is that whatever you are talking about, from balanced hands, to five card suits, to leading out trumps or taking a finesse, almost always makes more sense when accompanied with a hand of cards that everyone can see. Lorna had some giant cards with magnetic backs that you can stick on the right kind of board. You can also use hand records and have people look at hands in small groups (we were shown an easily taught technique for recreating hands from hand records).

This means that for teaching bridge some way of displaying hands is a big advantage. Of course you may be able to use a laptop and a projector instead of giant cards.

Day two and simulations

Day two kicked of gently with some open Q&A and a session on how to recruit students for your classes and how to get them playing, eventually, in normal club sessions. A key topic. We also looked at the EBTA online Teacher Zone and some handy tools like the Hand Generator which makes it easy to create annotated hand records in Microsoft Word.

The big deal (ha!) on day two though was the simulations. Each of had selected a topic and were give 5 to 10 minutes (in practice it seemed to take a bit longer) to teach it to the rest of the class. Topics ranged from basics like the concept of Trumps, to trickier subjects like Stayman. I picked Responding without a fit to a 1 level suit opening.

For an experienced bridge player, what could be easier than explaining Stayman? Many things, as we soon discovered. I think it is fair to say that most of us found the simulations more challenging than expected, however well prepared we were. Many things go through your mind. Am I speaking loud enough? Am I using jargon? Can everyone see the board or screen? Is this making sense? It is easy to get bogged down in over complexity, like Stayman edge cases where the responder holds 5-4 in the majors. Keep it simple, said Lorna, and show them the cards.

Observations

I was most grateful for my two days in Bristol, even though it was humbling. Simply knowing how to play bridge does not make you a good teacher. Teaching is a skill of its own.

That said, I feel vastly better equipped to take on the task having completed the course. I would encourage anyone who has in mind to take on a bridge class to do the course; it is likely to be well worthwhile.

The next stage of the course is to teach. There is no substitute for experience. What EBTA does provide is a network of teachers including the support you get by belonging to a community, including an online discussion forum and an upcoming teacher’s conference June 14th-16th in Milton Keynes – more details here.

By teaching bridge we do a real service not only to our club but also to the community, a thought which makes the endeavour richly worthwhile.

If you want to book a course you can see upcoming courses here.

How session tournament directors can help win new members for your club

I will be writing on this site about ways in which clubs can become more attractive to new members. This is another aspect of membership development, which is not just about getting someone to visit for the first time, but also about making a club a great place to enjoy a session of bridge.

Today the topic is directing. Although not directly related to membership, there is probably nobody more important than the director for making everyone feel at home and that the club is friendly and well run.

I am not going to pretend this is easy, but in the perfect bridge club it is no burden to call the director, because you know they will do all they can to be helpful and resolve issues with fairness and sensitivity, listening carefully to both sides if there is a disagreement, being well informed in terms of the rules of the game, and having abundant common sense, knowing when to apply the laws with rigour and when to make allowance for issues of health, circumstance or novice players.

Of course there is more to directing than being called to the table. In fact, summoning the director is relatively rare in my experience, and in many sessions does not happen at all. The director also does a lot to set the pace of play, ensure a quiet environment, and make sure that players of all standards feel welcome.

In an ideal club, there is a mutual respect between the director and the club members. The director knows they are there to help members have a lovely bridge session, not to bark at them or make them feel guilty for small infractions. Equally, the members do their best to follow the director’s guidance, to respect the decisions the director makes, and to remember that the director is a volunteer who may occasionally get things wrong.

The director’s opening remarks do a lot to set the tone. Visitors are welcomed by name. Successes are celebrated, but notices are brief and the focus is on getting play under way promptly.

Now there is a tricky issue here, which is what a director should do when a player has correctly pointed out an infraction that merits a ruling such as a score adjustment, but on the other hand the person committing the infraction is a novice or someone easily confused, while the person calling is a capable and experienced player who generally scores near the top.

The English Bridge Union regulates the game in England and part of that role is to ensure as far as possible that bridge is played by the rules, which are carefully set out in the laws of bridge and supplemented by EBU-specific regulations and guidance.

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The most important thing is that the director sets the right tone. Perhaps there was a hesitation, an incorrect explanation in the bidding, or a revoke. We all make mistakes and the director is there to put things right so that the there is no disadvantage to the pair that did not commit an infraction. In cases where there is an imbalance of skills as described above, the director must make the correct ruling, but in a manner that is highly sensitive or even apologetic to the person who made the error. “I am sorry because I know you did not intend to misplay, but the rules of the game require me to adjust the score.” There should not be anything in the director’s manner that suggests unfriendliness.

Equally, it is not wrong to encourage a culture within a club where members are encouraged to make allowance for one another and not to take advantage inappropriately. This is a difficult judgement and may go against our competitive spirit on occasion; but what is more important, your score on one board,or the reputation and atmosphere at the club being friendly and welcoming?

How to create a novice-friendly culture in your bridge club

Bridge clubs need to attract new members, for lots of reasons which you will find explained elsewhere on this site. Why though does one club grow while another struggles? There are many factors (some of which are beyond anyone’s control) but one which bears examination is whether a club is an attractive one for a newcomer to join.

I may be a little biased, but I consider bridge players to be a friendly bunch in general and that most clubs give visitors and newcomers a warm welcome. Nevertheless, it is also true that a bridge club can be a little intimidating. Bridge is an exceptionally absorbing game that demands skill and concentration, and chatter at the table is difficult since it disturbs others and can give away information. This means we need to work hard to create an atmosphere in which every members feels welcome, from novice to expert.

How do we do this? Here are a few ideas.

First, the role of the director in this is critical. The director sets the tone of a club session. If there is a new player or pair, it goes without saying that the director should make sure they know the names and make them welcome in their announcement just before play begins.

Second, it is great if clubs celebrate the achievements of every member rather then just their top players. For example, the EBU’s National Grading Scheme shows not only the percentage achieved by each pair in a session, but also by how much they exceeded or fell short of expectations. You can see this by double-clicking a session in My EBU. This makes it easy for clubs to highlight not only the top scorers, but also those who most exceed their expected result.

Third, it is worth making an effort to make club management committees inclusive, seeking a balance between male and female, novice and expert. If the committee is entirely composed of top players, it is not surprising if the club inadvertently gives the impression to newcomers that it is only for bridge experts. People often learn bridge in middle age or later and have rich work experience; clubs can benefit by bringing them onto the committee and learning from them.

At the EBU, we have noticed that it is often the clubs with the highest bridge standards that struggle most to maintain or grow numbers. It is a dilemma because of course we love to see highly skilled players and for members to improve their game. On the other hand, we also want to see more people enjoying and benefiting from bridge which implies clubs with a diversity of playing ability. In the end, we believe it is not only possible but desirable for clubs to provide for members at every level.

Giving a warm welcome to novices is one of the secrets of a happy and healthy bridge club.

Making people welcome at a bridge club: the role of hosting and finding partners

We can all tell the difference between a place that feels welcoming and one that does not, though working out the exact reasons can be a challenge. This is important for bridge clubs, and perhaps especially for newcomers who are less likely to put up with a bit of discomfort for the sake of an evening’s bridge.

There are many factors which influence the atmosphere of welcome, and this is a subject we will return to, but for this post I want to focus on an issue that every club has to think about: what to do for those who want to play but do not have a partner.

Clubs that make it easy for those without partners to play have an obvious advantage over those who do not, when it comes to attracting and keeping members. For example, if a bridge player without a partner moves into an area, they will be looking for clubs that give them an opportunity to play. Equally, if a person’s regular partner is not available, it is great if they can easily get a game.

There are several possible approaches.

  • You can do nothing, insist that everyone comes with a partner, but encourage members to contact one another to find a partner if needed.
  • You can use an online matching system. For example, Bridgewebs has a built-in Find a partner system. The person who is looking for a partner makes a request via a web form, and can either post this on the club’s site calendar or have members who have opted in emailed with their partner request.
  • You can appoint a person at the club to be the official partner finder. Members or visitors contact this person with a partner request, and they then either make a match with other requests received, or call/email likely candidates who might be available.
  • You can have a host system. Members volunteer to be on a host rota. The club advertises that anyone can come to a session with or without a partner. If an odd number of people without partners turn up, the host plays with one of them. If an even number (or none) turn up, they play with each other and the host goes home.

All these approaches have pros and cons, but if you can make it work, the host system is the best. Here are a few observations.

The “do nothing” approach is not ideal, but you can facilitate this a little by getting permission from members to include them on a club directory leaflet with name, telephone number and email address. That at least makes it easy for members to get in touch with each other. You can also suggest that members tell the director if they do not have a partner for an upcoming session. It is a simple thing for the director to announce that person x is seeking a partner for next Tuesday (or whatever) and see who comes forward.

Online matching systems seem a good solution, and by all means give it a try, but it has several drawbacks. It is impersonal, and people may be reluctant to advertise to the world that they need a partner. Getting people to use it can be hard. Another problem is that it puts pressure on the person who makes the request to play with whoever responds first. It is understandable that people form preferences about who they like to play with. Online matching systems lack the insight to know that pairing X with Y might not be the best idea.

Having a person whose duty it is to find partners has a lot of merit. They are able to judge who is suited to whom, who might be happy playing 5-card majors, who is of a similar standard, who is particularly friendly and tolerant. However this is a demanding role. It needs someone who is mostly available, willing to spend time contacting people, and knowledgeable about the ability and preferences of other members. Time is another factor. It is awkward when someone makes contact the afternoon before the session, for example.

The host system on the other hand is fine for last-minute decisions. Those on the host rota know the deal: now and again, they have to be willing to play with whoever shows up. Those who come without a partner also know the deal: they might play with anyone or with the host. There is room for a bit of common sense about who plays with whom if three or four solo players appear. The host system completely removes the requirement to turn up with a partner.

That said, the host system also has drawbacks. One is that the host may go home. They may even have left their normal partner sitting at home too, so at worst the club could lose a pair for that session. The thing we hear most often though is that it is difficult to get enough volunteers to fill the host rota.

Having a host system is an advantage for everyone in the club. Therefore, one possible solution is to put members automatically on the host rota unless they specifically want to opt out, or are already burdened with other responsibilities like directing and scoring. The big advantage is that the more people you have on the rota, the less often anyone has to do it.

There are cases of course where hosting does not work well. The most obvious example is in clubs where people rarely need a partner and the host mostly goes home. The best way to find out if this is the case is to try hosting and log your results. Make sure though that the availability of a host is well advertised on the club website and by word of mouth.

Has your club found a great way to find people partners? It is always helpful to share experiences to please comment below or let us know.

Getting new club members in South Notts

In 2017 four bridge clubs in South Notts – East Bridgford, Keyworth, Phoenix (Ruddington) and West Bridgford – discussed the future of their bridge sessions. Bridge is popular in the area but issues included declining numbers especially at some evening sessions and concern about lack of local provision for newcomers wanting to learn bridge. The four clubs decided to set up a joint project to run market and advertise bridge courses, and to establish supervised bridge sessions so that novices would be able to play bridge in a safe environment before migrating to full club sessions.

Armed with a £250 grant from their EBU County Association, and drawing inspiration from the Yorkshire membership campaign, the South Notts Bridge initiative kicked off with two open sessions where people could find out more and register for a course.

Over 70 people attended, 25 signed up for courses, and two-thirds of those are either now full club members or continuing on courses.

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This is only the start, and a new course is starting this month. It has been hugely worthwhile, inexpensive in money terms, though requiring considerable effort from existing club members.

We have set down here some of the learnings from the South Notts campaign. There is also more information on the South Notts Bridge site.

Playing with novices and how it affects NGS grades

The EBU’s National Grading Scheme (NGS) is a great way to see how your skill at bridge compares with others. Every member who plays regularly in EBU sessions has a grade based on the last 2000 boards (approximately) that they played, weighted to the most recent boards. The grade is a percentage that represents what percentage the player is likely to get in a session with average players.

Bridge of course is a partnership game, so the NGS algorithms make allowance for how good your partner is. If you play with a stronger partner, you need to get a better result to maintain or improve your NGS grade. If you play with a weaker partner, your NGS result will improve without you needing to get such a good result.

It is natural for players to value their NGS grade and to want to improve it. What happens though when a club decides to help its novice players migrate towards playing in full club sessions, by asking experienced players to pair up with them to guide them through the session?

Some players worry that the performance of the novice will drag down their NGS grade, making them reluctant to participate.

That is a shame, since these kinds of sessions are a valuable means of helping players make their journey from classroom to clubroom.

Fortunately there are several ways to reassure members who are concerned about the impact on their NGS grade.

  • When an experienced player partners a novice in a graded session, the first 150 boards have no impact on the experienced player’s NGS grade. That is around six typical sessions.
  • The NGS algorithms are designed to cope with this scenario. So far, the EBU has not seen any evidence that playing with weaker partners is bad for a member’s NGS grade, even though this has been studied carefully.

It is also possible to run sessions that are completely excluded from NGS. The EBU’s guidance on these novice sessions is here. Provided your session meets the guidelines, clubs have three options for these sessions:

a) Do not upload them to the EBU at all

b) Upload them with a special code (04) which excludes them from both payment and NGS

c) Upload them with a different special code (22) in which case it is half price, counts towards members receiving the English Bridge magazine, but is excluded from NGS

That said, the restrictions on novice sessions are considerable. No more than three players may be above Area Master (they must be below 1000 master points), which means most regular players cannot play.

Do not panic! The EBU has a further session type which does not have a name other than the very sexy description Code 11. A Code 11 session is for a supervised or assisted play session and can be used when there are too many stronger players for it to be considered a novice session. It does not count for NGS or master points, is charged at normal rates and counts towards receiving the magazine. There is no restriction on how many experienced or expert players participate provided it is a proper supervised session.

Next, there is always the option of actually including novices in a normal club session. This is the end goal after all. In this case though, it does of course count for NGS (subject to the 150 board rule described above). It must also be played to normal EBU standards; though note that simple best behaviour suggests not being too hard on novices who slip up with hesitations or glancing at their convention card during the bidding; after all, they are unlikely to be challenging for the top spots and your club will want to make them feel welcome and that they can enjoy their session of “proper duplicate bridge.”

One way to prepare them for this is to introduce the concept of “duplicate” events from early on in their bridge lessons, possibly as early as having duplicate mini-bridge sessions. That way the first visit to a regular bridge session will not be so daunting, since the concept of duplicate will be familiar.

Quick summary then:

  • Novice sessions do not count for NGS but have certain restrictions
  • The first 150 boards played by a novice do not impact their partner’s NGS grade
  • Code 11 sessions do not count for NGS and have no restrictions on who plays as long as they are supervised sessions
  • Normal sessions do count for NGS, but our data suggests that players need not worry when partnering novices
  • There is a further concession available for a single host player in each game to exclude themselves from the NGS when playing with an unfamiliar partner, providing they tell us at the start of the game that they wish to do so

Finally, why does the EBU have all these rules? It is because members expect the EBU to maintain a high standard for the game. A pair turning up at an EBU club can rightly expect a game played according to the rules. And the NGS would soon lose its value if there was any possibility of players arranging to exclude themselves from the risk of bad results.

That said, we want to do everything possible to support clubs as they bring new players to the game, which is the reason for all the various approaches outlined above. Further, if they can be fine-tuned and improved we want to hear from you so let us know.