The idea was planted in the mid-1980s, when Hilton Head Island was still a best-kept-secret kind of place.
A group of Hilton Head bridge players were driving home from a tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., when the conversation turned to competitive bridge on the island. There were a few weekly games back then, one at the high school on Friday nights, and two others at the recreation center on the south end of the island. But the serious bridge players knew that in order to thrive, they needed to form a club with a place to play the game that meant so much to them.
That was about 26 years ago, recalled Marvin Shatz, the island resident who is responsible for proposing the formation of the Hilton Head Island Bridge Club.
Today, the club is celebrating its 25th anniversary as its popularity has trumped all expectations. What started out as about 10 members has grown to 449 Hilton Head Island Bridge Club members.
The members play at the Bridge Club at Port Royal Shopping Plaza. There are 12 organized games of duplicate bridge every week, featuring different games of various levels. Classes for adult beginners, intermediate players and those interested in brushing up are taught once a week from January through mid-April. Classes for young people began in 2010.
"I've never known any town to have as vital a bridge community as this, especially in the Northeast," said Ginny Worden of Rochester, N.Y.
Worden and her husband, Lyn, live here during the winter and take a workshop taught by Kathie Walsh. The popular instructor was named 2011 teacher of the year by the American Bridge Teachers' Association.
"We'd look into (the Bridge Club) for several years and be intimidated by the number of people," Worden said. "Last winter, we saw an ad in the paper and came to a beginner's class. We've met more interesting people here, from 'sharks' to people like us at the same level."
The Bridge Club's popularity also can be measured in the average number of tables each week. There were 40 tables in 1991, 90 in 2002, and today there are 124 going strong from Monday morning through Saturday afternoon. The room has 24 card tables, but it's not always enough to accommodate club members and nonmembers.
"On some days we have to turn people away," Doris Caudy said one Friday afternoon while serving as the director at an open pairs game. "A lot of these people have been playing with the same partner for years. They don't have to call each other, they just come."
Caudy is one of about 16 people who have been part of the club since the beginning. Roughly 13 of the members are still active players.
During the early years, the group played at different places before permanently moving to Northridge Plaza, where Shatz owned a for-profit bridge club. He sold the business eight years ago. With a new Bridge Club board in place, the club was reorganized and made into a not-for-profit business that is mostly run by volunteers.
Players pay $7 for each game and $10 for each lesson, and some of the money goes toward local charities.
As for Shatz, a Diamond Life Master player and frequent player at the Bridge Club, seeing his idea come to fruition brings satisfaction after all these years.
"I'm delighted to play in bigger games," he said. "And the quality of bridge has improved tremendously."