A group of four sit around a square table, one of many in a large convention center. Silence washes over them as they concentrate only on the array of spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs before them. They play not poker or rummy but bridge, a game that will have taken William Zhu ’15 from San Francisco, California to Istanbul, Turkey by the end of this summer.
Zhu didn’t plan on one day competing in the World Youth Teams Championships for bridge when he first started playing the card game his sophomore year at Lowell High School, in San Francisco. His AP European history teacher, who held a bridge club once a week and offered extra credit to students who attended, introduced him to the game.
“A bunch of my friends and I were in the class and wanted extra credit so we decided to go. It was a little confusing for the first two weeks, but we kept going as a group. We kept going even after we finished the class,” Zhu explained, adding, “Actually, I wasn’t in their section, so I didn’t get extra credit. I was just going because they were going, but I ended up staying the longest and taking it the most seriously.”
After graduating high school, the Center for Bridge Education—a nonprofit organization devoted to introducing duplicate bridge, the competitive format played in competitions and tournaments, to middle and high schoolers—contacted Zhu and a fellow classmate about attending summer nationals in Toronto. “They paid for our trip and our expenses and our hotel, and all we had to do was just practice and train. So that’s what I did during the summer before coming to Vassar. I played competitive bridge for the first time,” he said.
According to Zhu, one does not need to qualify or win a preliminary tournament to enter nationals. He explained, “There are a few big events that the pros are in, and then a lot of little events. And you don’t have to be good to go nationals; you just have to walk in. So, it says nothing about your skill level to go to nationals—it’s just the biggest convention of tournaments happening at once.”
Zhu noted that he and his classmate did not do horribly in the tournament. He said, “We didn’t do great, but we were required to play in the youth NABC—that’s the youth event. So we got to meet like other juniors from across the nation. We qualified for the second round and [performed] average. We were solidly average.”
Last semester, in October, Zhu competed in a qualifying round to compete in Atlanta. He and his teammates played bridge online, earning a spot in the Atlanta trials held over winter break. The trials would determine which teams would represent the United States in the World Youth Teams Championships. A total of eight teams participated in the open event for competitors under 26 years old, Zhu’s category. (New York Times, “U.S. Teams for the World Youth Teams Chosen at Atlanta trials,” 1.12.14). After three days of the tournament, Zhu and his teammates earned their spot on the Under 26 Division USA2 team.
The next level will take place in Istanbul for two weeks, from Aug. 13 to 23. In preparation for the tournament, Zhu and his teammates play a team match online every week. A professional bridge player acts a coach and mentor for the US junior teams. “We’ll play hands and talk about the hands—what we could have done, what we should have done, what are the implications of this card here, or what you could have done here to guard against this situation or this situation, what inferences can you make from this situation—all these little things, very small details,” he explained. Additionally, Zhu tries to play a total of six hours of online bridge a week. During his summer breaks he tries to read books about the card game to brush up on technical skills and plays to enhance his abilities.
While Zhu expressed excitement for attending the championship in Turkey, he does not feel too much pressure to win. He said, “I don’t have any expectations on us, because a lot of people play more than I do and are a lot better than me. So they’re probably the ones we expect to win. I’m just happy to go there.”
There is no monetary prize involved with winning the championship, and according to Zhu these prizes do not exist in the world of bridge. “When people find out I play bridge, it’s like, ‘Oh, do you play for money’? No. So, this is what you do in bridge: you pay an entry fee to play. It’s like going to the movies, you do it for fun. If you do well you don’t win money, you win master points,” he said.
Although one wins master points, Zhu noted that more master points does not necessarily equate to having a higher skill level. “Generally how long you’ve been playing is correlated to how good you are. But, recently, especially with junior bridge, it’s such a terrible estimator of skill level, because juniors tend to play at a much higher level than at what master points they have. Older people can be really, really terrible, but they play for so long that they’re able to get to a much higher ranking,” he explained.
Currently, Zhu revealed he lacks any interest in pursuing bridge playing as a profession. He explained, “For some reason I happen to be good enough to make this team, and I’ll keep playing, but it’s just a hobby. I’m obligated to get better, because this is a commitment I’ve made and I have to compete as best as I can. So I’ll practice and put in the work, but I just know that it’s so difficult to make a living doing this.”