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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.

The challenge of photographing bridge

“Your looks are laughable, unphotographical” wrote Rodgers and Hart in the classic song My Funny Valentine, “but you’re my favourite work of art.”

Is bridge also “unphotographical”? Such a thing matters little to us when absorbed in the game, but it is a bit of problem when publicising the game to others. How do you convey what bridge is all about, including the fun and the emotion of the game, with a picture?

Here are some of the problems we have encountered in our search for good pictures:

  • In a game of bridge, people are looking down at the cards, not smiling at the camera
  • If you photograph a game of bridge, at least one person will have their back to you
  • The interest of the game is hard to encapsulate in a picture. You have to explain what is going on

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What is the solution? I am not going to pretend that this is a solved problem, but there are some approaches that may work better:

  • Photograph just one hand or part of the table
  • Don’t photograph people actually playing bridge. Photograph your lovely facilities, or people smiling because they are about to play bridge with the bridge tables in the background
  • Use a cartoon or drawing where the artist has freedom to make it look good

Of course photographers love a challenge, so maybe there are many creative ways to photograph bridge that we have not thought of. Needless to say we would love to see your photos or learn from your ideas.

We do also have some suitable pictures in our resource library for those registered to use this site, and we are about to add some drawings, so you will not be completely stuck when assembling publicity for your club or teaching course.

One final but important note: both common courtesy and the law require that people who are identifiable give their permission before you use pictures including them for publicity, including social media as well as printed publicity. Get written permission so there is no room for doubt.

Keeping bridge alive: EBED’s partnership with The University of Stirling and a fascinating blog on learning the game

For several years, EBED (English Bridge and Development) has worked with The University of Stirling to carry out research into the health and wellbeing benefits of bridge.

Scotland international Samantha Punch is also Professor of Sociology at the university, and along with the research she has helped to support a new “intergenerational” university bridge club.

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You can find out more about this research by following the link above. In the context of club membership development though, there are a few points worth highlighting.

First, this research is invaluable for marketing bridge locally. If you are approaching local press, for example, it adds weight and interest to your articles when you reference academic research in support of the claim that bridge is an asset to the community, particularly among the elderly (but also for people of any age).

Second, if you are making a grant application, the data from this research is worth mentioning. Grant committees love to have evidence for the community benefit of a project and it will help your application succeed.

What prompted this post though is to bring your attention to the associated Keep Bridge Alive blog:

As players we are aware that bridge is great for our well-being, for healthy ageing, and for social connection. However, we are failing to communicate and demonstrate these benefits beyond the bridge world in ways that entices others to join our bridge community. One of the problems is that not enough younger people are taking up the game, and we are all getting older. Hence, the time is right for us to develop research to address this issue of a declining bridge community.

Sociology is a way of exploring and understanding how society works. Thus, the Sociology of Bridge is about understanding how the bridge world works: what motivates players, opportunities for skill development and the dynamics of the game. By doing research which highlights the benefits and skills that playing bridge provides, we can develop an evidence base to persuade governments and employers to consider investing in introducing more bridge into schools, universities and local community projects.

Part of this study is being done by Kevin Judge, who is researching a sociology PhD on the game of bridge.  He himself is learning bridge for the first time and is writing blog posts about the experience.

It has been explained that the lessons are far more advanced than those experienced at a local club. The agreement by the mentors is to package a crash course on Bridge over an 8 week period. At this stage, terms and turns are spoken but the definitions are lost. It does feel overwhelming. It is the second week and a breakout group has formed for new players that have missed the first couple of sessions. The room settles as a briefing and a flipchart are used to demonstrate examples. I hear the names of Bridge theorists, or a particular Bridge approach associated to an individual, and it is completely lost on me. We race through the examples, and the feeling of being lost does not improve. I appreciate that we need to understand how to communicate, we need to, in a coded format, provide information to our partners. We are trying to convey information to our partners, while two other competitors oversee and eavesdrop our intentions. It is an awkward situation, learning a language of play that is coded in discretion and deceit, and specifically directed towards the correct table-member to interpret.

I found this fascinating as a perspective on how bridge can look to someone unfamiliar with the game. There is a lot to take in, especially if you come to the game without previous experience of card games. This is common for young people for whom games consoles and computers are more familiar; they may never have picked up a pack of cards.

Younger people do learn more quickly though, and bring a lot of fun and energy into their playing. 

On this site you will find more focus on bringing older people into the game, rather than younger. The reason is that this is what works for most bridge clubs. That said, it is obvious that for bridge to flourish long-term we have to get young people playing as well. Strategically, it is probably better to nurture school and university bridge clubs rather than attempt to get a lot of young members into existing clubs where many are retired; but do not let that stop you if you can make it work!

Which bridge clubs should plan membership campaigns–small and struggling, large and flourishing, or in between?

Today, the biggest threat to the game of bridge is the aging demographic in our clubs. The problem is not the age group as such – it’s fantastic that older people enjoy bridge – but that numbers will gradually decline unless new people join. The question though: at what point should a club worry about its membership numbers and start planning a campaign to draw in more people?

Duplicate bridge is a game that works best with between 7 and 10 tables. Below 7, boards are not played so often and you have to consider 4 boards a round which is tiresome when there is a sit-out. Above 10 and you have to consider 2-board rounds or having fewer of the boards played by all the pairs. Of course there are good strategies for larger numbers such as dividing the room into two sections, but nothing is ideal for say 3.5 or 4.5 tables. It is doubly difficult when numbers decline too far, as players may be reluctant to turn up for a less satisfactory session, making the problem worse.

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This makes it particularly important for bridge clubs to keep their numbers up. If nobody is joining, having 8 or 9 tables may be falsely reassuring; it only takes a few people to leave and it is not so comfortable.

What about at the other end of the scale. Should large clubs with say more than 150 members consider membership campaigns?

We think it is important that they do. Large clubs are best placed to attract new people into the game. They have more people available to teach and support new players, they may have their own premises which helps enormously with room availability, they can more easily run sessions such as gentle bridge or simple system bridge which are easier for novices.

Bridge clubs do not exist in isolation. Someone may learn at one club and play at another, or play in multiple clubs, and this is a good thing. That may mean that in some areas small clubs benefit from the efforts of larger clubs in attracting new players. It is an uncertain approach though, in that novices may be less confident about joining clubs other than where they are learning.

The conclusion? There are strong reasons for clubs of all sizes to run membership campaigns. Small clubs, because they face a threat of becoming non-viable. Medium clubs, because without a membership drive they will become small. And big clubs, because they are ideally placed to expand bridge in their area.

For more information on running a membership campaign, please do get in touch.

Why your club should train a teacher in 2019–and it may well be free

Happy new year! If we want to get more people into bridge clubs and playing bridge (and we do, for lots of excellent reasons), then it follows that we need to teach them how to play. The EBU along with EBED (English Bridge Education and Development) has a ton of resources to help, including courses where you can learn how to be a bridge teacher.

It is our conviction that most EBU clubs need to be (or to become) teaching clubs, where newcomers at any stage in their bridge ability are welcome. In order to support this, we are offering free teaching places on EBED courses. All the details are here: but to summarise:

  • You book your place with EBED mentioning that you are an affiliated club, this gets you 20% discount
  • You then apply to the EBU for a free place based on this booking
  • There is a limit of one free place per club every two years

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Why should your club have a teacher, when there may already be a number of strong bridge teachers in your area? There are several reasons:

  • There is high demand for bridge teaching, especially if you do some marketing to promote your courses.
  • There is a benefit to having bridge teachers in your club, since it brings newcomers to the club itself, forming a relationship that is likely to result in a long-term club member.
  • Having club members learn how to teach will help the club understand the needs of novice players and develop a culture that is welcoming to them.

There is more information and a list of courses here – note this list is frequently updated so check back soon if you cannot find a course, or contact EBED.

From classroom to clubroom: how to bring new players into club sessions

Bridge is a lot of fun and getting people to learn the game in your club may not be too difficult. It is also well-known that new bridge players must be offered some form of gentle, supervised play before venturing into one of the club’s main sessions. The truth though is this: the club’s membership development is not complete until some of those players migrate to a main session. Otherwise, they are not fully integrated, nor are they helping to address problems of low numbers.

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There are several reasons why this is a challenge. One of the basic ones is speed of play. Playing a board in 7 to 8 minutes is stressful if you are not used to it, and experienced players may not be aware how many things which seem obvious to them take time for a beginner to work out.

Introducing players to the main club sessions is essential though, and we have prepared some tips on how to do it here.

Promoting bridge in your area with a dedicated web site

What does someone do if they want to learn bridge, or find out more about it, but do not have existing contacts in the bridge world?

Such people will likely turn to a web search and may end up contacting a local club, or finding the EBU’s site or one of any number of bridge sites out there on the web.

It can often be surprisingly difficult to get basic information on where you can learn bridge in your area, which is why we recommend having the county association, or a group of clubs, set up a web site dedicated to that purpose. General bridge sites and club sites tend to be dominated (understandably) by results, news of events, and information that looks quite specialist and perhaps off-putting to a casual visitor.

Here are a few examples. Learn Bridge Yorkshire was used in the Yorkshire membership development pilot and remains a very active site.

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You can see immediately the basic ingredients. It comes straight to the point: how can you find bridge lessons in Yorkshire. It has contact details, background on why learning bridge is a great idea, and schedules of where and when bridge lessons are available. It is also bright and friendly.

Another example is South Notts Bridge. This site was put together by four clubs in South Nottinghamshire who decided to do something about declining membership. There is news of an open day coming up soon, background on the game and its (inexpensive) cost, and clear direction on who to contact for more information.

Another up and coming site is from Norfolk. Play bridge in Norfolk sets out the options for playing bridge in the area, has background on the game, and explains what to do next in order to get involved.

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Tips? Here are a few:

1. Try to include some pictures. We can provide images to EBU affiliated clubs or county associations for which permission is clear, or better still, use your own (or a combination), to give a local feel.

2. If possible, support SSL connection which encrypts the traffic. Google will downgrade sites that do not work over https.

3. Make sure your site works well on tablets and mobile phones as well as PCs. The easiest way is to use a template that provides such support automatically.

4. Keep it simple. A clear message and immediate call to action is much more effective than long explanations.

Why we should get more people playing Bridge

Bridge is a wonderful game. It is enjoyable, challenging, social and endlessly fascinating. The appeal of bridge is proven by the enthusiasm of club members, many of whom play once or twice a week throughout the year. Better still, it is inexpensive, with many clubs charging just a pound or two for a full evening session.

At the same time, most bridge players will be aware that of the aging demographic in our game. This is a global phenomenon and there are many reasons, ranging from the distractions of the Internet to the fact that bridge takes a bit of effort to organize, requiring not only tables and equipment but also the right number of people to play. Further, while bridge is not a difficult game to play (though challenging to play well), it needs teaching and cannot be picked up an hour or two.

There are two reasons why there is an urgent need to bring more people into the game.

First and most positively, bridge is beneficial in all sorts of ways. Research suggests that it is good for our health, but perhaps even more important is that it is good for our quality of life. Learn bridge and you need never be bored again. Whether you are a young person with time on your hands, or an older person looking forward to retirement, learning bridge is a fantastic investment that is repaid many times over. Bringing more players into our clubs is good for the community.

Second, if we do not introduce more members to our clubs, their very survival is under threat. Bridge players may live longer than most, but the truth is that every healthy organisation must have new members joining to match those who move on for whatever reason.

There is data elsewhere on this site that explores this in depth, showing that we must take action now to keep the game of bridge vibrant and enjoyable for the future.

If you would like to know more about how to increase the membership of your club, please do contact us now.