Larry Cohen on Attracting and Dealing with A New Crop of Bridge Players

By Larry Cohen

Lots has been written and discussed about the future of our great game. Sadly, tournament attendance and league membership have been dropping every year. The aging adherents are dying, and not enough new players are taking their place.

Photography by: ©Michael B. Lloyd

Yes, there are some efforts to get youngsters involved (and anything that is "electronic” is surely the way to go for that demographic). Regardless, it will take lots of volunteer time and effort. Getting bridge to be taught in schools would be wonderful, but it is a tough sell.

IMHO, the main way to keep our game going and growing is by getting retirees to take it up.

They have time and money – both key ingredients. Taking up tennis/golf is not as attractive for retirees – because the body can’t handle it. Bridge is something that can be played pretty much until death (barring an unfortunate mental illness such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia).

So, ACBL and other organizations surely should be focusing in this area. I’d love to get AARP (a huge organization for U.S. retirees) involved, but so far, they’ve been impenetrable.

Regardless, I do believe that with the right marketing effort, we can get “seniors” to take up our game. I’d love it if marketers can get bridge in the spotlight as “the cool thing to do” (maybe we can learn from the successful Pickleball and Chess marketers)?

Teaching retirees will require a good syllabus and the right teachers. It takes patience to teach beginners. While getting them in the door is a marketing problem, retaining them once they walk through is something that falls upon we “bridge people.” We need to get it right.

I feel strongly that teaching bidding is the way to turn them off. The concept of a “one-club opening” is much too abstract. Learning bidding requires memorization—no fun, no appeal. Best is to hook them with card play. Start simply with an ace beats a king (the same way we’d teach a five-year-old a card game like “WAR”). Then show some tricks. One suit at a time. Build up to all four suits and then introduce the concept of trump.  Only after many weeks/lessons on cards/tricks should we even mention the “b” word (bidding).

As a teacher/writer, I (and all teachers/writers) need to radically adjust our thinking and expectations. Nearly all my students are indeed retirees (it is rare that I get a student younger than 65). Most of my current students played cards when they were young. They went to college in the 1960’s or 1970’s. Back then, people actually played cards. When they were kids, there were no computers and families played cards at home. Many of these people had some exposure to bridge, or at least some trick-taking games early in their lives.

That makes it much easier to teach them. They have some card sense and some ideas about trick-taking. But, for the new crop, it will be different. The retirees of the coming decades will have missed the card-playing days of youth. They will have grown up watching TV. In college, they’ll have been more interested in TV and video games than playing cards. Card games in 1980’s or 1990’s dorms weren’t in vogue.

This will be a challenge. We teachers and writers will have to be more patient. Tolerant. Understanding. Dare I say, “dumb things down?”  It is difficult to learn new things, especially bridge, when you are in your 60’s or 70’s. I don’t mean to be insulting at all. Just realistic. Lower the expectations.

Does that sound sad? I don’t want it to be. New players will still be able to get addicted to and enjoy our wonderful game. No, they won’t become world champions, but they can spend many years of socialization (a key marketing aspect) and brain stimulation (another marketing hook). Our job will be to make sure not to lose them. Teachers and writers of the world: Be ready.

About the Author

Larry is widely regarded as one of the world's best bridge teachers and is as close to a household name as you can probably get in the world of bridge. He has been named ACBL Player of the Year, ACBL Honorary Member of the Year,  2020 Hall of Famer, and has won a total of 25 National Bridge Tournaments. He’s also a regular contributor to bridge magazines and has written and produced many best-selling, award winning bridge books, cd’s/computer software, videos and webinars.  

Find out more about Larry on his website, https://www.larryco.com/

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53 comments on “Larry Cohen on Attracting and Dealing with A New Crop of Bridge Players”

  1. The BridgeWhiz 2021 Pilot Program registered over 1100 students with a focus on kids in Middle School. Our teaching style is interactive. Kids learn by playing cards. Get involved. We need teachers and ambassadors for the 2022 session

  2. I absolutely agree "get grandma out of her rocking chair and put cards in her hand "
    as an 89 yr oldie I can say that the hardest part of our age handicap is lack of partners . Most players think we must me ga-ga ,too slow and not with it all around and we finish playing with elderly partners exhibiting all the above .
    I have been looking for somebody to play 2/1 and the "Rest pf the Story " by Paul Thurston which I find very succ.essful but can only find one partner .Anybody out there ?May be some Canadian ? to play on line .Get in touch wit me on the EMail and we can arrange a game itsalice

  3. Larry,

    Thanks for your thought provoking article. That’s the first time I have heard anyone propose starting with the “oldies”. Let me share some personal experience that might help or at least add to the conversation.

    Firstly, I have just turned 79, have played bridge for 50 years and love the game. Much of my retirement revolves around my golf club where I still play golf 3 times a week, tennis weekly and lots of bridge. Yes, bridge at the golf club! And this is where your article piqued my interest.

    Bridge has been played at our club forever but it was generally a ladies game from which men were banned! I was encouraged to expand bridge at the club and started a supervised session on another day and was overwhelmed by the response. I started teaching as well, the best way to improve ones own bridge, and we now have a regular session of 12 tables every week. Most of the players, men and women, are over 70 and ages range up to 90+. And they love their bridge so much so that we always have a waiting list and when on line bookings open the game is full in 10 minutes.

    We have moved on from supervised sessions, added further sessions through the week, run dinner and bridge events every month and more frequently through Summer and have over 300 players (all golf club members) on our list. Their bridge is not very good but everyone loves it. We have dealt boards, Bridgemates and run to a 7 minute per board timetable. During our long Covid lockdowns I set up a weekly private BBO game and we regularly attracted 50+ players. So much for oldies and technology! A bit of hand holding, some one to one help and most of our cohort made the transaction to online. The side benefit of this has been to see them overcome their technology fear in everyday life. And the best thing of all, our club is about to do a major renovation and included is a much expanded bridge room!

    But, here’s the rub. None of them want to go to the local bridge clubs! Why? They all find them “unfriendly”, too many rude players, and an over competitive atmosphere. Sadly this is very common in my state (in Australia) and our experience is repeated in many golf and private clubs. I know of one club in Sydney which runs up to 5 rooms 5 days a week.There is also a lot of inter club bridge played between clubs. (And some golf and bridge events combined)

    So, my experience matches your idea. Target the oldies. But, they don’t have to have given up their physical activities. Catch them while they can still play and integrate bridge into the social fabric of their clubs.

  4. Re AARP: Nothing gets a publications attention more than a well-placed advertisement. Perhaps ACBL could place a few ads in the AARP publication aimed at getting retirees and other experienced people involved in bridge.

  5. Perhaps we can both teach kids and older people. I learned bridge from my parents when I was about 8 years old, and I think learning at a young age vastly improved most areas of my life. I learned about strategy and statistics, and being a good loser, and playing the odds, and reason and inference, and social skills...and a growth mindset. Surely we want that for today's kids.

  6. I like the suggestion that retirees are a clear group to recruit. U3A has been excellent in that regard.

    But I also think that there is a massive opportunity to recruit people in their 50s/early 60s. Typically they will have more free time to learn, join Bridge clubs and will be keen to socialise. Most, not all, will have this time because their families may have grown up/become more independent. Suddenly they have free evenings and weekends. They will be looking to broaden their horizons, for something that is sociable and keeps the brain working. And, especially for women, it is good not to do something that is 100% male orientated - nothing more intimidating than being a newby and the only female in the room...

  7. I played cards a lot when very young but never ever played bridge. I am 86 Yrs old and find Bridge very enjoyable, but also hard to remember what I learn, maybe it will happen better as time goes on. Is there a learning session online that would help me

  8. I am 89 years old and I like to play bridge. I cannot go to a bridgeculb because of my husband. So I am glad that bridge base on line is a possibility. . Thank you that for this,
    Greetings.

  9. Great Article, I began bridge at 75 , just love it , but many will not take it on as it is demanding and difficult with all its variations

  10. A very interesting article. I started learning bridge in 2019 with a year long course at my local club. I did it because I am older and disabled and on my own so I wanted something sociable that I could do. I finished the beginner's course just as we went into lockdown in the UK. My club has been great during pandemic and moved all of its activities online. I was never into IT but managed to cope with playing and taking more courses online. In many ways, I find playing online easier than actually handling the cards. When learning, I have found the bidding incredibly difficult. There are so many different conventions to learn and also there are many bids (such as 1NT) that have multiple meanings depending on when and how they are bid. It's hard work trying to remember all the core ones, let alone some of the fancier conventions. The other problem I've had is finding a partner. I've observed that it's easier to play and progress if you have a regular partner to play with. This seems to work best with couples or good friends. If you have come to the game on your own, you are always not certain that you will get on with your assigned bridge partner or even be able to find one. So I'd agree that a way to streamline bidding might be helpful for beginners and easier ways to find a regular bridge partner would be useful too. It's a shame that more young people aren't into bridge but I think Larry makes a good point when he suggests targeting the recently retired. After all, that's how I got interested.

  11. I talk to people who want to play party bridge again. Their past partners/opponents have faded away. I usually mention our duplicate club. Fifteen years ago it offered party bridge. Since these folks are wary of duplicate one solution would be for duplicate clubs to offer party bridge. I, for one, moved onto duplicate after playing party bridge at the duplicate club for 2-3 years. I was 67+ at the time and had rarely played bridge since college.
    I like the idea of offering lessons at the local senior center

  12. BBO and the ACBL will be the death of bridge, who is going to introduce it to seniors? Who is going to introduce it to todays kids when they get older? Without the local clubs, pushing membership, teaching in person, making a fun atmosphere to be social and play competitively, there will be no duplicate bridge, the ACBL is doing a disservice to the club owners, who are the heart and soul (not the members Suzi) of the ACBL, without the local club, you have nothing, todays seniors are not computer savvy (some are, most are not) and tomorrows seniors will have a plethora of other online things they have done for decades, the ACBL needs to stop running multiple games every hour every day, if they truly want bridge to go beyond my generation(58) the quick money grab is sickening in my opinion

  13. I don't agree with starting Seniors off on "do - re - mi," but I do advocate starting them off on the game of Spades. Here, they can learn fundamentals of hand evaluation, the trick taking potential from having long trumps, and the devaluation of hands that are short in trumps. You can also teach leads (low from honor, top of sequence, ...), tactics (2nd hand low, 3rd hand higi), carding, and all sorts of intracacies of the play, all without the complexities of teaching a bidding system. Then you progress to 4-suited spades (I have ideas about this), where the bidding identifies the trump suit, the declarer, the dummy, and the defenders. After all that, you proceed to teaching a bidding system.

  14. Thanks for all the feedback.

    I never realized I was making any points that could be controversial. 🙂

    I absolutely am 100% for getting younger people into our game. Bring it on! Maybe I should have been clearer. I just think the majority of new players will come from retirees and we as teachers/writers need to be ready.

    As to the comments about ageism and older people -- Hey -- I'm seeing it firsthand as all my friends give up tennis first, then golf as their bodies can't handle it. Will some people be healthy enough to keep playing sports? Absolutely -- I hope I'm one of them.

    I am also a big KISS advocate (keep the bidding simple) -- especially for new players of any age.

  15. I'm a 26-year-old who has been playing for years and this is my take: your strategy is extremely short-sighted. Older players have different options than they had 30 years ago. Moreover, young people don't play because there are structural and cultural barriers to entry. I've seen it firsthand all my life. Please, let's connect. You're entirely missing the mark here.

  16. John,
    Golf and Bridge are similar.
    18 Holes and 18 Boards.
    Golf helps your physical ability.
    Bridge helps your mental capacity.
    Both need a silent partner
    Once the game is over, go home, take your grand kids and go to the park and have a good time.

  17. Hi ,I am 84 and still competitive,golf but not as I know it. I wonder about 'game theory,' and whether that is at the core of the decline in younger people. I find complex systems too much, and have gone back to basic bidding.

  18. How could one stipulate system followed (specific book by specific author ) to get anybody playing the system anywhere in the world as a partner ? I use 1/2 by Paul Therston and the 1/2 rest of the story follow up as well as Bergen Raises and multi 2S .?
    Finding partners is a a tricky business ,specially as one gets older and your friends and partners drop or become demented . I am in Australia and time zones have to be negotiated . Alice Sternhell

  19. I started playing 5 years ago at age 76 when my golf game went south. I am very competitive and go for the master points. It would help me and others if ACBL had a different set of criteria for folks over 75 who reach 500 MP. Almost impossible to get the needed gold points.

  20. I disagree. I played tennis and handball from my high school days until I reached 75. My knees and hips were severely arthritic, and I couldn't swing a tennis racket properly or hit the handball with force. I returned to bridge, and played 3 times/week at my local club, until the pandemic hit. I am now 82 and play on BBO almost every day.

  21. The solution is for governments to have bridge as a subject in secondary education and organize youth tournaments. For that, the WBF has to intervene, convincing the rulers of the benefits of the game.

  22. We according to the article are the youngsters, hurray! My husband and I are in our 50's, however we recently retired, a bit earlier then planned due to the "C" word. We always talked about learning to play Bridge so have invested in a 12 week beginners course. So far it is very fun, exciting, challenging and lot to memorize!😳 One of the best helps we have is a friend introduces us to Base Bridge APP, it's no pressure solitaire Bridge option where we play against the computer is wonderful and free. Thank you!

  23. With all due respect Larry, trying to build up the game on the backs of seniors is like trying to grow a garden in October. It just doesn't work. As well, the intrinsic nature of duplicate with its unnatural quiet and underlying competitiveness makes the game an unlikely pastime for the younger crowd. Far better to encourage a more social game with simpler bidding and scoring. The game has to be played in the family room before it will ever take off with a wider audience.

  24. One suggestion. Promote Bridge Base On Line. These folks are great marketers. A lot of the games always give me the best hand. From a fun perspective, I love to declare, am OK with defending, and hate being the dummy. (all in all, while it may not be real, it is fun)

  25. I agree with Larry. I teach monthly at a local Continuing Care Community (in the Independent Living section) and I can tell you that the 8-10 regulars are pretty excited about the lessons. I use the ACBL teaching materials, supplementing them as needed. I also teach seniors online, e.g., a group of four playing pre-dealt hands at a BBO teaching table while simultaneously conversing over Zoom. Many eventually graduate to playing competitively on BBO and other platforms. The point that there are more folks in retirement years looking to play the game is well-taken. That said, marketing efforts should not ignore the youth who are the future of duplicate bridge in the long term.

  26. I started teaching bridge in October 2021 at our local senior center every Monday afternoon for three hours. I now have three groups of 4-6 players (mostly ladies): the original October group, another group that started playing in November, and a third group that stated in January. Because we only play one day each week, a lot of players forget what we learned the previous week (except for those who took my advice and tried Bridge Base online or started tables of four at their homes on weekends). The most helpful lessons involve bidding and playing the hands--and then putting all four hands face up on the table and talking about what happened--what worked and what did not work in both bidding and playing those four hands. Handouts with charts for point count and bidding also help. And setting up certain hands ahead of time works well for teaching particular concepts like no trump openers and 2 bid openers.

  27. I TOTALLY agree with you. Get them learning one small thing at a time. I do wish the free resources on BBO catered to the very new player. The Bridge Master series gets difficult VERY quickly to the newer player. Many more hands with just simple finesses are needed. Or even just knocking out Aces to develop winners rather than cashing all your tricks when you get in. Plus it would be nice to have some BBO sessions like these on SIMPLE bidding. Give then a hand and ask them what they would open. Or ask then what they would respond or rebid. Tell them what that bid shows. Repeat, repeat, repeat with very simple hands -- ones that all 10 experts would agree on. It will come eventually.

  28. I agree with your comments, Bridge helped me to survive through the isolation- particularly in winter- with temperature -5 to -45 and snowing,.
    But several times somebody agreed to be a partner, (somebody waiting for a partner), and ditched at the last minute, because expected partner joined.
    Most of the games are repeat, and some with good memory always win.New comers and very seniors loose. Somebody should help to arrange a partner, a compatible one. It is still a fun game.

  29. I have played bridge for many years. While bbo offered a much needed/ wanted venue during the pandemic, the game played on that site is ruined by the disgusting language and harassing behavior of so many players. Until bbo gets some control over the playing environment and purges the player list it is not a place to enjoy the game or teach newcomers the endless hours of pleasure bridge can offer.

  30. With tons of respect to Larry, I just think he is off base here. If Larry was familiar with the card game MTG (Magic The Gathering) and it's huge following, he would know that playing cards among young kids is far from dead. It just happens that those games aren't played by a pack of 52/4 suited cards. But as soon as those kids turn 18 and age out of MTG, there are only video games as alternatives.

    I would suggest rethinking after-school and summer programs geared to school-aged kids. Bridge is not at all difficult in it's basic, social form as compared to MTG and some of those online options. (No Larry, it doesn't take patience and a good syllabus. Kids learn their games from online instruction, watching youtube videos of advanced players and from their friends.) Training the camp volunteer to teach basic classes shouldn't require umpteen hours of certification in the 100 laws of duplicate.

    Meanwhile, in my hometown, ridiculously expensive bridge lessons are offered through adult ed organizations with the implication that bridge is such a complicated and confusing activity that these ridiculously expensive lessons are necessary to just get started. So people skip over learning bridge because learning just about anything seems a lot simpler and definitely less expensive.

    And what about a partner? Can we not modify a dating app to help with this? Swipe left/swipe right. All the lessons out there aren't going to help someone play if they don't have a partner.

    And I'm ending with the comment that cheating needs to be addressed. I know players at my local club believed that certain regulars were cheating, but that the club owners turned the other way because of the large sums that were brought in. It doesn't even matter if it is true, it matters that people thought it was true. No surprise that months of in-person play has been a failed effort. I don't even need to discuss the online bridge cheating and dismal officiating in ACBL games.

  31. Struggling to avoid thinking about some of my more demented (but young and healthy) partners through the years.

    But seriously, not enough attention is given to social bridge players. The Bulletin ignores them when it doesn’t denigrate them.

    In every new town we moved to, we found a bridge game through a “Newcomers” or Welcome Wagon or similar club. Many joiners could barely play, but learned while meeting lifelong new friends. Until retirement, duplicate was not nearly as important as what snacks or desserts to serve.

  32. Thanks for a great article. I do agree with Larry’s suggestions of progressing in stages. We have managed to introduce many new players to our great game, young and old. We start with a basic trumps game, then partner wist, then a fun game called “niggly”. This game introduces a basic bid to predict how many tricks each person can win. The scoring rewards a correct prediction. It is sociable and lots of fun. From there we move on to bridge, for those who are keen.
    BBO has allowed us to continue playing and improve our games. Thank you To the BBO team. It has allowed us to continue playing with our grandchildren based in England whilst we are in Northern Cyprus. Here we hope to introduce Bridge to one of our local schools very soon. Thanks again, Derek

  33. I accept most of what Larry had to say. But I do feel that insufficient emphasis is placed on the importance of social bridge. I'm 76 and have been playing bridge for over 40 years. I would classify my play as decidedly average. On the other hand, through the game I have made scores of friends everywhere I've lived - many of whom have become lifelong close friends - and it has been a great help settling in to an area after moving. As an RAF wife I had to move frequently and bridge was an easy way of meeting and getting to know people. I don't play duplicate any more - I worry too much and am far less competitive than I used to be, but I had two regular afternoons every week where we meet meet for a good game followed by a very nice afternoon tea! These were replaced by BBO (thank you BBO hugely!!) during the last two horrible years, but we intending to start again after Easter.
    I shall do my best to spread the word and do some recruiting.

  34. Larry's analysis is spot on. I see online bridge platforms, such as BBO, as the best introduction to Minibridge or any similar system. BBO has the advantage of ease of joining tables and making up foursomes, with or without robots. BBO's reward for modifying their software to include the simpler Minibridge will hopefully be burgeoning future membership for the more sophisticated game.

    With promotion from BBO, local bridge clubs and individual players around the world, online Minibridge might just attract sufficient aspiring new bridge players to grow the bridge community. I would expect most would quickly wish to progress, at their own pace, to full bridge lessons.

    Having taken bridge lessons in 2019 without having played cards at any time in my long life, I can still remember the absence of opportunity to practice Minibridge before diving into bidding. BBO has indeed made it easier for bridge beginners of similar levels to set up tables and practice between lessons. Similar access for Minibridge might provide a painless transition to bridge itself. I would be the first to encourage my son in his mid 40s to give it a try while cerebral atrophy is in it's infancy.

  35. Good points,

    BUT I take exception to "Taking up tennis/golf is not as attractive for retirees – because the body can’t handle it."

    Sorry, but this is uninformed ageism.

    Anyone who is into tennis/golf doesn't stop doing it when they retire "because the body can't handle it". They embrace the extra opportunity that retirement gives.

  36. Too Right! In the UK the EBU are obsessed about youth, investing virtually ALL of their funds and efforts to promote them.......but hey ho they are losing regular tournament players right down the line as evidenced by the poor turnout in their and Club events, and worst of all, many Clubs having to close down owing to players deciding not to play now.......Perhaps it would be a good idea to ask the player members who are now not playing as to why (and ask themselves and Clubs why face to face bridge is not being encouraged now that all covid restrictions have been lifted).........I could go on and on, and I speak with some experience of being a highly successful teacher to retirees, but I personally play so much less now and have lost the motivation through quality tournaments not being available FTF and I would much prefer to visit the Opera rather than suffer the vagaries of online tourneys with perhaps eating/background noise/cheating in the background, AND to have to put up with a heavily biased,skewed and weighted EBU grading scheme which demotivates rather than motivates, and also encourages players to cheat online in order to improve their rating grade........Thank you BBO and Larry Cohen for bringing the true picture to light for the future of our great game and hopefully the authorities in the game will recognise this, and who knows some may even incentivise the lost players to restart, and may encourage media awareness to impending retirees of the benefits of such a great game

  37. Agree with every word you say Larry. It's those middle agers who need something stimulating to do that we should harness. As the National Teaching Coordinator for the Australian Bridge Federation, I do monthly Zoom training with teachers and always advocate the "less is more" approach with bidding - but secretly I know that the teachers go out and still cram their lessons with bidding, thereby losing half their students. I try to work out why they do this...having watched many people playing online over the past two years, it is so clear that people's declarer play skills need help...so why don't we start this from the beginning?
    And why don't teachers allow their students to have fun by playing and feeling at ease? The students came to learn to PLAY bridge, not to try to master a new language in the first few lessons.
    Let's hope we can get the message across.

  38. A very good idea I think I took bridge up to late I’m aged 81 from the U.K. The memory is not as good and there is such a lot to learn. You learn something then it gets changed to something else that means the same. So off we go again. Love the game but wish I’d have played younger.

  39. I’m from the UK and recently learnt Bridge remotely in lockdown. Our syllabus started with Minibridge which did exactly what you suggested: start with card play. I wish we’d done more than 4 weeks of that before starting on the bidding as we were just getting the hang of some card play techniques before the bidding drove it out of our minds

  40. Very well and realistically said, Larry. I'm a steady live and BBO player and also do a good deal of writing, so perhaps I can be of help with some bridge- promoting writing on our great but youth-neglected and youth-neglecting game (and at 78, youth includes those youngsters in their 60s!). Thor Mills (Thorcee on BBO)

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