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The Honors Bridge Club: For the Love of the Game

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When first approached to write this piece, the sum total of my knowledge of bridge consisted of recalling that one is needed to exit the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Clearly, I had a lot to learn. Fortunately, Honors Bridge Club is arguably the best place in the city to do so.

The Honors Bridge Club, originally established in 1991, is located at 133 East 58th Street, a 15-story office building on the outskirts of mid-town. Gail Greenberg, a lovely lady of a certain age who played in college, went on to write several books on the subject and then won 5 world championships, conceived the Club that now comprises one-half of the 14th Floor.

Owned by the members, Honors offers bridge lessons ranging from naïve to advanced strategy, a cavernous, well-lighted room to play in and a significant social component. There are even a library and TV room to relax between games. For the price of a modest “card fee” ranging from $19 to $27, depending upon the time of day, lunch and dinner are part of the deal. Players of every ilk abound.

Honors’ digs evolved over the years, from a tiny, somewhat shabby space on East 74th, then to The Galleria on East 57th Street, and now to its current home. The Club is organized as a not-for-profit under the rules governing 501(c) 7 entities. The current structure made sense a few years back when expenses began to mount.  Gail gathered a group of 22 long-standing members, each of whom contributed $10,000 apiece, to purchase Honors’ current space. They quickly formed a board and an executive committee, and membership thrived. Proud of its heritage, Honors states it is “owned by the people for the people”.

“People can, and do, make a living playing bridge”, explains Joan Finsilver, who serves as Managing Director of Marketing and Communications, and is one of the Board’s current members. Scott Levine, who serves as the President of Honors, is a former JP Morgan investment banker and Davis Polk & Wardwell lawyer who began playing just 11 years ago. “I quickly recognized that for me to get really good, I needed to be addicted, so each Monday through Friday, I fed my addiction and played”. As addictions go, this one appears to have paid off: he soon won the National Mixed Pairs Championship.

Honors offers social bridge, also known as rubber bridge, and most games played at the club are duplicate bridge, rather than the more competitive contract bridge. Bridge pros often are invited (and paid) to play opposite someone else to improve a player’s game and to help him or her earn master points. One of the more infamous examples of the use of pros is when Jimmy Cayne (formerly the Chief Executive Officer of now-defunct Bear Stearns) hired an entire team, at a purported cost of $100,000, and transported them to play in a tournament in Detroit. This when Bear was on the verge of collapse in March 2008. Nearly every article about the demise of Bear alluded to Cayne’s playing bridge while Bear collapsed, perhaps reminding some of Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned.

Other clubs and venues to play exist across the city: Manhattan Bridge Club West (and its east side rendition, Manhattan Bridge Club East) and Cavendish are a couple of spots, in addition to regular bridge groups that play at other private clubs. There even is a sister club to Honors, called Honors and Harts, located in Westchester County.

People choose to play bridge to “exercise the brain”, according to Connie Mazur, whose brain gets said exercise at least 3 times a week at Honors and at The Lotos Club, where she belongs, as well. “I began playing 3 years ago and find it incredibly mentally stimulating”, she notes. “As we age, keeping the mind active is a good thing. Some people do crossword puzzles. I prefer bridge”.

It is not an easy game, but for the uninitiated, here are a few things it makes sense to know. There are 12 tables of 4 players, and each table plays a previously made up set hand, known as a “board”. A team is either North/South or East/West. The North/South team generally is considered more competitive and experienced, and North/South players may have earned from zero to 300 master points, becoming known as “non-life masters”. After a board is played, the North/South team stays put, while the East/West team moves to another table. The players thus are competing against everyone in the room: North/South plays against every North/South team, as does the East/West team. That is why a game can last 3 hours.

While no talking is allowed during the game, there are ways to signal to one’s partner, through bidding, the hand that one holds. Also, a particular bid may mean different things, depending on when it happens during the game, but bear in mind that the opponents are getting the same information. And woe to the team who tries to use voice inflection or other not-so-subtle means of communicating between them. If an opponent believes an infraction has occurred, a Director, who oversees all players, is called. The Director determines whether the infraction has occurred, and then indicates the choices needed to correct the situation. For example, if a bid is deemed insufficient, the next bidder could either accept it or demand it be corrected. Other infractions include not following a suit, hesitating too long prior to bidding, and the like.

After the game is over, a post-mortem discussion may ensue about how the board was played, bids, strategy, and the like. A pro is particularly helpful in dissecting the game after the fact, and may earn $125 – $200 per game for the pleasure of his performance. House players often play to represent the club, thereby eliminating “sitouts”, a term used to describe an uneven number of tables.

Players progress in stages, and become better by playing with more advanced partners and by taking lessons. Players guard their partners like treasured property, since winning teams can go on to become experts in high demand.

At noon on a recent fall day, there was a line at the elevator to reach the 14th floor. Once there, it was easy to see why. The place was packed, the aroma of a hot lunch wafted throughout, future competitors eyed one another eagerly (and perhaps a little warily), and the place hummed like a beehive. It ran with the precision of an old-time railroad: as the clock struck, players scattered to their chosen table. The games were about to begin.

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