In spite of multiplexes, PlayStations, chat rooms, Walkmans, video arcades and laser tag, an old-fashioned game - perhaps the most addictive card game in the world - is making a comeback.
Not that bridge ever completely went away. Some 20 million Americans still play social, or party, bridge. But serious interest in the game has been on the decline since the '60s.
At its peak, the American Contract Bridge League, the governing body of organized bridge, had 200,000 members. Then membership started dropping off by 1 or 2 percent a year.
Now that's changing.
The most important reason may be the Internet. In the recent past, the World Wide Web lured youngsters away from bridge. They were spending their time in chat rooms rather than learning how to bid and make a slam. Now the Web - what Brent Manley of the ACBL calls "a fertile ground for recruitment" - may be the game's savior.
There are more than 600 bridge-related Web sites. Playing on them means you don't need to get your own partner and two opponents. You can wear your pajamas or smoke while you play. (Clubs and tournaments have strict no-smoking rules.) Novices can get into virtual games with world experts. These aren't, by the way, computer games but a network of real people playing against one another, kibitzing and talking about the game.
Thirty-three-year-old Mark Switlick of Woodstock never had any interest in bridge, but a friend kept after him to learn how to play.
"I just poked around on the Internet until I found a game," he says.
The game Switlick found was at games.yahoo.com, and even a beginner could jump right in. (He had read a few basic books to get started.) After a couple of months, Switlick felt confident enough to move out of virtual play and join a bridge club - in his case, the Columbia Bridge Club.
"I'm getting to the point where I'm no longer just trying not to mess up but I'm being competitive," he says.
Sooner or later, Internet players end up at www.okbridge.com, where often as many as 1,300 people are logged on at once. The site, supposedly the original and largest competitive bridge site on the Web, has 14,000 members from some 90 countries. (Your partner, in other words, could be playing in Argentina.) It costs around $100 a year to join OKbridge, but you can try it out first with a free guest membership.
The major online services like AOL also have their own networked bridge.
"We're getting a lot of new and younger players through the Internet," says Cathy Feiock, who runs the Bridge Club of Baltimore. "People love it."
Feiock welcomes anything that draws people into the game because they often end up want-ing to move from their computers to the social atmosphere of a club, where you can get into a game for as little as $3 to $5. Her business, she says, has grown 20 percent a year since she opened seven years ago. She's had to move from her original location in Cross Keys to larger quarters in Pikesville.
While her bridge club has a separate novice section, experts also play there. Feiock offers classes for beginners, as many clubs do, and has started an "Easy Bridge" group Tuesday mornings. "It's low key, and players can learn the conventions as they play," she says.
Feiock has found that many of her new members aren't Internet players but aging baby boomers looking for something fun and challenging to do as they contemplate retirement.
Fifty-one-year-old Ellen Men-delsohn, who plays at the Bridge Club of Baltimore, started up again two years ago. She hadn't played much for 20 years; but, she says: "More of my friends are playing. Our children aren't home any longer, and we aren't working or we're working part time. We have more time for bridge."
Bridge organizations, however, aren't passively standing by and hoping people will get interested in the game again. They're actively recruiting inexperienced players and making it more pleasant to play competitively.
A few years ago, the ACBL realized it needed to introduce tournament bridge to a whole new generation of potential players and, at the same time, improve the game's negative reputation.
The organization recently started an active junior program, including an effort to bring classes and games into high schools. (The ACBL convinces schools with the argument that bridge improves concentration, logical thinking, math ability and social skills.)
It's a thinking person's card game that involves team play, strategy, trumps and tricks. The purpose is to score points based on bidding and the hand you've been dealt. But unlike, say, a game such as gin rummy, it's complex - what chess is to board games, bridge is to cards.
Today's tournaments have rates just for junior players - those 26 or under. Most tournaments are now set up so you can play against your peers, which wasn't true 20 years ago. The major ones all have novice sections.
"Now we're trying to figure out how to keep people once they join" ACBL, says Brent Manley, who is editor of the magazine Bulletin. Last year the ACBL instituted a "zero tolerance" for rude behavior.
"It's really served to lighten up the atmosphere," he says.
Some people had been turned off of tournament play because hard-core fanatics can be contemptuous of other players - and aren't above expressing their feelings.
"It's not unheard of for a player to berate his partner for less than stellar play," admits Barbara Israel, who runs the Columbia Bridge Club.
Nowadays a tournament director gives a score penalty to a player the first time he's rude; the second time the offender is asked to leave.
This is true at the local club level as well. "We advertise ourselves as the friendly bridge club," says Israel. "In the past, the desire to win has overshadowed manners [in the bridge world]. Newcomers have been put off by sarcastic remarks."
The ACBL has also instituted Bridge America, where people can play competitive bridge just for fun. It's not so strict, and there are few conventions. (To find a Bridge America group in your area, call the ACBL.)
All this makes competitive bridge less intimidating for novice players. The result is that some local clubs are getting very busy.
Patricia Wilson, who runs the Valley Bridge Club in Towson, says she's had to give up teaching beginners lessons. "In the last six months there's been such an influx of people, I can't handle it."
Which is good news for the grand old game of bridge, and good news for those who love to play competitively. "It will give them a lifetime of pleasure," says two-time world champion Eddie Kantar, author of "Bridge for Dummies" and more than 20 other books on the subject. "They can look forward to something that's challenging and will never get boring. They'll be hooked for life."
Make your bid
Here's how to get in touch with the organizations mentioned in the story and some of the local bridge clubs. There are many official clubs in the area - more than a dozen in Baltimore City and County alone. To find one near you, call the Maryland Bridge Association at 410-838-1086.
Lessons are also available at community colleges.
American Contract Bridge League. Call 800-467-1623 or visit its Web site (www.acbl.org).
Annapolis Bridge Club. 410-849-2918
Bridge Club of Baltimore. 410-415-6885
Columbia Bridge Club. 410-381-9445
Friday's Duplicate Bridge in Bel Air. 410-838-1086
OKbridge. To join, call 619-490-6770 or visit the Web site (www.okbridge.com).
Valley Bridge Club. 410-825-7579