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"The Game Itself"
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Following yet another long post about the selling of masterpoints, with less and less connection to actual achievement, I had a conversation with a world class friend.  We were lamenting this practice; how the bastardization of MP’s continues to proliferate rather than diminish over the years.  I shared with him a private message I’d received from a member of the ACBL board:  “After two decades of the league’s MP give-aways, this simply is not going to change. We’ve been giving away MP heroin.”

I said this to my friend:  “It should not be "masterpoint opium" that the ACBL should be selling.  It should be the game itself.” 

His response?  “"The game itself" is it.  There is no game that comes close. But how to tell the world this?”

I wish I had all the answers. Alas, I do not. Yet, I do have a number of suggestions that I think would have a significant impact. I think implementing some of these concepts would help more players to appreciate both “the game itself” and all that is associated with it. They would also help to focus players on what really matters about bridge:  the fascination, the challenge, the successes, the friendships, the fun – and all the rest of it.

The first step is to recognize that we do have at least two distinct groups of players. Generally speaking, one group is the players who do, for the most part, realize that it IS “the game itself” and not the masterpoints that matter. These are the players who never stop learning and working on their game, who aim higher throughout their career, who do enjoy winning masterpoints and having high totals – yet who realize that this is not the true goal. These players usually have anywhere from a moderately decent amount of ability to world class players.

The other group constitutes the majority who play. They, too, do appreciate “the game itself”. After years of indoctrination, many do often focus more on masterpoints won and titles of achievement gained. Irrespective of ability, many of these players prefer a more “social” game. They have little interest in having to recall hundreds of intricate rules, worrying about their tempo, UI, etc. Unfortunately, many have been trained to think that playing against expert players is something to be avoided and a curse when it occurs. Nevertheless, they do want to play, enjoying both the game and their friends.

Even though there are not clear cut lines for these two groups of players, and even though they can surely “morph” from one group to the other, I have come to the conclusion that not recognizing that these two distinct groups exist, and then creating an environment for each that makes members of each group happier, is an error. I think that if we were to do this, then we’d find much more satisfaction for many of our members. And this would translate, so I believe, into more people playing in their respective preferred settings and playing more frequently.

Then there is the topic of new players. Yet again, all the potential new players can be quite a disparate group. We have people who are at or near retirement and want “something to do” who get introduced to bridge as a pastime. We have people in this same category who perhaps did learn bridge 30 or 40 years ago, yet for a variety of reasons, played little. Now they have the leisure time to return. We have younger people: K-12, college students, young adults starting out in careers. Again, subsets of these groups can vary widely in ability, desire to compete, focus on sociability, etc.

As I’m sure many of you know, people like Patty Tucker, Michael and Debbie Rosenberg and all the other volunteers who have enlisted with them, plus others, have been working hard to attract and train younger players. In my state, Minnesota, we have honors college courses at the University of MN, ably organized by Honors Dean Matthew Bribitzer-Stull and other professor/players at the U. And I myself feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work with wonderful and motivated students at Carleton College, south of the Twin Cities, who are also most eager to learn and compete.  While “all students are not created equal” when it comes to ability, desire, time available and so forth, one principle is certain:  they enjoy playing and do seem intrigued and excited by “the game itself” and not masterpoint heroin.

As all of you know, eons ago, when I and others began to play, stratification did not exist. There were no “flights”, no handicaps, no “Gold Rush” etc., etc.  If you wanted to play, you sat down and played everybody who came to your table, be they world class or novice. The system worked. If you were newer or not an expert, you were thrilled to take your victories as they came: getting into the overalls now and then. Earning a top result against a top pair. Even then the masterpoints were exciting – but again; it was more “the game itself.”

I agree with the board members who state the history of “masterpoint opiates” and how it would be very difficult (impossible, really?) to start over or – God forbid – remove any masterpoints from anyone. Still, change can be achieved if we work toward it.

We can acknowledge the disparity in membership and make the environment for our different players comfortable and challenging. We can still award masterpoints, but at least have some semblance of reality to the payouts. We can organize games and tournaments so that players who will never achieve “expert” status can still compete and have their successes, without tossing them into an unfamiliar environment where ever winning again becomes a remote possibility.

With our new players, be they teens or middle aged – or older – we can do more to promote the greatest mind game ever. No one teaching, no one marketing, no one administering bridge should forget how special our game is.

Somewhere along the road, we morphed from promoting “the game itself” to fooling people into thinking masterpoint totals were what really mattered. Changing this overnight is impossible; we need to recognize that. Still, I feel confident that with different policies and attitudes in place, we could make real progress into growing our game again.

I remember the thrill, the fun, the challenge and all the rest that I experienced many moons ago when I first started duplicate, and then attending tournaments.  I see that same excitement today, when I work with my collegiate players. The fascination, the desire to learn, the fun in competing – it is all there for them.

It is incumbent upon all of us: players, administrators, board members, directors, volunteers …. All of us can work toward a new bridge environment where we always focus on “the game itself” – and over time, it will make a positive difference.

I challenge myself and everyone else to think positively. Do what you can, each of us in our own way, to promote our game and what really matters. And thank you for listening.

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