Bridge tricks are for kids

Like most days, the Hilton Head Island Bridge Club in Port Royal Plaza is abuzz with activity Saturday mornings. But the players were different on a recent Saturday morning -- a bit younger than usual.

About 20 children separated themselves into groups of four around card tables, their small hands clutching more than a dozen cards at times.

Occasionally a card or two slipped out, revealing itself on the floor. But no matter. It's just for fun. And, whether they know it or not, this game could make them smarter.

Hilton Head Junior Bridge started with the intention of introducing a younger generation to the game that's known largely as a pastime of retirees. Perhaps that's painting bridge enthusiasts with too broad a brush, but it's rooted in some truth. The average age of an American Contract Bridge League member is 66.

With an assortment of distractions for today's youth from handheld video games to easy Internet access, the notion of children wanting to spend a weekend morning playing a card game that might be a favorite of their grandparents would seem remote. But as the group's founders discovered, that assumption might be a bit off.

"We lost a generation to Pac-Man," said group co-founder Ron Perry. "But I think we can get this one."

Junior bridge started its spring semester two Saturdays ago. Volunteers teach short lessons at each session then let the kids play. Each table has four students and one adult, a knowledgeable bridge player who can guide the games, making sure the lessons sink in. They run tests of memory, asking the players to remember their hands from a game and write them on the dry erase board. One girl remembered five consecutive hands.

Many more mature player play the game for the mental gymnastics required. All of the quick math, logic and deduction skills keep their minds sharp. The same can be said for children.

Founders of junior bridge cite a study published about five years ago in Illinois, where a researcher studied a group of similarly skilled fifth-graders. A portion learned to play bridge. The researcher followed the students and their standardized test scores for three years. He found that the bridge-playing students ended up outpacing their peers in every subject area.

The founders point to bridge's foundation in math. It's not just simple addition and subtraction, but percentages and probabilities, the ability to draw inferences about the cards on the table and the cards in hand.

That's part of why Will White, 13, plays the game. The junior bridge student enjoys the complexities of the hands and how it takes strategy to figure out the next card to play.

"It's like a puzzle," he said.

Bridge is also beneficial in its social aspect, Perry said. To be successful, teammates must communicate. It's not a game where the winner works alone.

With the educational aspects of the game, the junior club's founders are planning on approaching local schools to start programs. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and billionaire investor Warren Buffett had a similar idea in mind three years ago when they donated $1 million to bring the game into schools.

"Junior bridge isn't just about having fun, although that is a big part of it," Perry said. "It's also about their education."

The beginnings of the group started with Perry and Fred Ferguson, a certified bridge instructor. The two knew each other through the Hilton Head Island Bridge Club and decided that once each of their grandsons turned 8, they'd teach them the game. When they did, the children took to it quickly. They ran into other players whose children and grandchildren also took a liking to the game. So, Perry and Ferguson decided to formalize their instruction into a program, with the Hilton Head Island Bridge Association allowing them time to gather in its club.

Shortly after, they joined forces with Terry O'Neill and his wife, Bobbie, who had been fostering youth bridge at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Bluffton.

A bridge player himself, O'Neill started a program at the church after he had taught Latin to fifth-graders. He was impressed with the speed at which his students learned the language. "I thought, 'These kids are bright. We should teach them bridge,' " he said.

Since starting about two years ago, the O'Neills have taken a group to the Youth Nationals in Washington, D.C., and routinely take a group to play at the bridge club on Saturdays.

Perry's grandson, Aden Dragulescu, says he picked up the game fairly quickly with his grandfather's help. He's aware of the math skills involved. But learning on a Saturday isn't really why he comes.

"It's really fun," the 9-year-old said. "And you get to see a lot of your friends."