ABTA: Home of the American Bridge Teachers' Association

“To help those who teach bridge to do it better, more effectively, more knowledgeably, more professionally.”


Claire Sheldon

How did you first get into playing bridge, and then teaching bridge?

I played one game of bridge when I was at McGill University in Montreal, though I played mostly other card games there. When I came home to Brockville, Ontario, my banker asked me if I played bridge. I said I knew almost nothing about it but I’d be glad to play. After a couple of years of saying we had to have a game of bridge sometime, we decided to have a home game. I then started going to a four table game about twelve miles away from home. Since most people there were from Brockville, another fellow and I decided to start a club there. Three weeks later he was transferred to Montreal, and I was left to run a duplicate bridge club even though I knew nothing about directing or playing bridge! It grew from there. I came to Kingston, presented lessons, and eventually opened my own bridge club in a mall here.

What is your teaching philosophy?

I try not to show students what I know, but to look at what they may need to know, what they don’t know and what could help them to enjoy the game. I think a lot of teachers spend a lot of time telling new players information that turns them away from the game. I think students enjoy it more if they can absorb little bits at a time. I start every course with the admonition that bridge is an easy game to learn but challenging to master. All levels of play are available, and some people may want to just push cards around and enjoy others’ company, but we encourage people to play duplicate bridge because they can improve there and there’s more challenge to improve and people they can learn from.I learned a lot about how to teach from Audrey Grant. She can take a hand and talk to a hundred people, from beginners to life masters, and talk about it for forty five minutes and still maintain everybody’s interest.

Do you have any advice for other teachers, especially new ones?

Think of what the student needs to know! That’s usually not everything that the teacher knows. I presented bridge to people for years and very few of them went on to be bridge players. But when I learned how to teach or present better, over half of the people went on to play duplicate bridge. They wanted to play something more challenging than the eight or nine hand afternoon game at home. Also, don’t present information too quickly. Don’t assume students are getting it like your peers do. You have to discuss the hand more slowly and thoroughly than with people who have played for a long time.

What are your favorite bridge books? Which ones do you use to teach?

There are so many great books and ever since Master Point Press came on the scene, there’s no end of good bridge reading! But I’ve hardly read a bridge book I didn’t enjoy. There was even one that a fellow bridge supplier gave me a case of one time and paid me fifty cents US a book to take them off his hands because he’d run out of warehouse space!

The early books that I enjoyed were S. J. Simon’s Why You Lose at Bridge, Alfred Sheinwold’s Five Weeks to Winning Bridge, and anything by Charles Goren. Another book that really influenced me a lot was Edgar Kaplan’s Competitive Bidding in Modern Bridge. After reading that, we seemed to cease calling an overcall just an overcall, and we ceased having to double with any opening bid. I remember, the supposed “good” players of our day used to laugh that we actually had an opening bid and more than an opening bid when we overcalled sometimes, and our doubles were shape-showing. Some of the old fogies used to say “Why don’t you fellas just play bridge?” But it’s pretty much the modern style except people have loosened up their overcalls a bit. It’s hard to choose favorites though, since I have a library of over 1000 bridge books!

What made you decide to get bridge into middle and high schools in your area, and how did you manage it?

A teacher called me one day from about 30 miles west of here and asked me if I could give him a good deal on bridge books. He had a lady in the community who was willing to come into his elementary school and present bridge. I said the ACBL schools program had just come into being and I could do better than give him a good deal on books. I could give him free books and a real bridge teacher, who was also a retired university professor so he was used to teaching. Because I wrote a number of articles about school bridge in the Kingston Whig-Standard’s weekly local bridge column and because the kids’ names appeared there, along with their teachers, we had some requests from other schools. I didn’t have time to teach in the schools at the beginning but I found a number of retired teachers. We had already run a number of Teacher Accreditation Programs (TAPs) in Kingston, so we had a lot of people around the community who were interested and willing to present lessons. I went in to teach myself one day when someone was ill and I enjoyed working with the kids. It was a challenge! Eventually I was told that I was presenting bridge in schools 20-24 hours a week!

How did teachers and administrators at the schools react to the idea of the bridge program?

I had waiting lists of teachers wanting bridge in their classrooms. Most teachers loved the course. They were patient with me as I learned to cope with the kids. In my teaching, for the first few classes I would focus on the history of playing cards. I found over the years you don’t do the bridge class for the kids, you do it for the teacher! If the teacher likes the game and likes the way you present it, they take an interest and see that the kids follow up and play some bridge. Some, who didn’t even have any bridge experience before, would develop quizzes that the kids could fill out if there were a few extra minutes. The Roman Catholic board, embraced the bridge program 100%. The public school board’s administration had reservations about cards being played during school hours – but many of their experienced principals supported and allowed class time bridge lessons too.

Why do you think bridge doesn’t work as an after school program and how can it be integrated into the curriculum?

I learned quickly I didn’t want to do bridge at outside of class time. Many teachers are coaching sports, holding music practices, or supervising help sessions, and these activities would detract from interest in bridge. Bridge is applicable to the school curriculum because it includes problem solving and math and improves social skills. I also put a lot of emphasis on reading. Some kids read their bridge books who hadn’t read a book in six or seven years of schooling, but they wanted to win! I put emphasis on reading as the road to success in life, because if you didn’t read you’ll be taking orders from other people. Teachers like these things. Of course, there’s focus on planning the play of the hand. I’ve had letters from kids saying that the most helpful part of bridge was teaching them to plan everything in their life! Bridge does teach students to plan and to focus. Almost all of the good athletes in the schools were good bridge players! They were used to focusing.

Did the students tend to continue to play bridge after the school program was over?

We held a youth game every Friday night at the club which averaged between eleven and twelve tables. Some parents would come in and play with their kids, and a number told us how good it was to know where their kids were on a Friday night. We also had annual field days, just like sports meets. The last year we ran one, we had 172 kids, which was a record in North America at the time. Some of the kids that we presented bridge to have represented Canada in Shanghai and Beijing. Some have gone to bridge camps in Poland, Prague, New York City and other parts of the world, as well as the World Scholar Athlete Games in Newport, Rhode Island. We helped subsidize it. Bridge isn’t just going into the classes, getting the kids to listen to you and having games occasionally. There should be something for them to look forward to in order to keep their interest.

Every sport kids play is highlighted by tournaments. But a number of years ago, I started pushing the ACBL to screen their tournament directors. For every sport that the kids played, their managers, coaches, and officials were all screened. I couldn’t get parents to take kids to tournaments because they found out the officials weren’t screened! The ACBL just didn’t listen for years. I finally got a letter from the CEO saying that they would screen all new employees, but not anyone who had been with them for three years or more. I called and reminded him of various scandals outside the bridge world at the time. It’s a no-brainer to screen officials, because even if they do something wrong, you’ve at least shown due diligence. There are lots of grants available from foundations to assist in helping educate kids and keep them off the street. However, again, the organizations dealing with kids usually require officials to be screened. I just gave up on school bridge at that time.

People from out of town will come into my club and see about 100 people there and be surprised to see seven or eight people in their twenties. A couple of graduates of the school program are among the top 50 master point winners in Canada.

Why do you think bridge in schools is not as prevalent in North America as it is in Europe?

They worked at it over there and were willing to spend some money to get it done. A lot of the money we’ve spent in North America has just been misused, really. I was offered the chance to go to speak at Regionals with some subsidies, but I said it would be a waste. I talked to prospective teachers of school bridge from all over the continent, and hosted some in Kingston, but they found out it was a lot of work! It wasn’t just picking up your briefcase and heading into a school. I had someone in the US dismiss my success here by saying “Oh well, that’s Canada.” It makes no sense to take that attitude if you’ve found someone who has discovered a way to get bridge into schools full time. We had more people in Kingston playing bridge in schools than in the rest of North America combined!

Preliminary U.S. national media reports about a U.S. schools bridge drive, sponsored by wealthy and dedicated U.S. citizens like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, dwelt on school board members rejecting bridge in schools during class time. Our success came from concentrating on introducing bridge through classroom teachers who believed in the game to be beneficial for their students. Respected teachers can sell their ideas to principals, and the principals have to support their teachers or they won’t have a very happy staff! What the ACBL should do is find a sponsor who would put up enough money to hire few full-time employees to see that bridge got into schools, that it stayed there, and that there would be follow-up activities like tournaments. Their job would be to raise funds and keep the program going, otherwise they would not be remunerated or have a job. This would certainly be preferable to amateurs reinventing the wheel and learning again what my cohorts and I have learned does and doesn’t work.

Are there differences in the teaching strategies you use at your bridge club and at the schools?

For one thing, a principal told me once that you should never speak to kids for more than five minutes at a time! You get them pushing cards or discussing among themselves. Of course, you have to be a lot firmer with kids than with adults. I found that the best and most enjoyable classes for me and the kids were the ones with a firm teacher, not one who thought that if they were noisy they were having fun. The disciplinarians kept order in the class and my job was just to present bridge. Kids don't react to certain humour in the same way that adults do, so you have to use a different kind of humour, and some kids take some things a lot more seriously.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is how we funded scholarships and prizes and maintained a high level of appreciation from the schools for these programs. It was through the help and support of people like Ray Lee at Master Point Press, Great Games Products, creators of Bridge Baron, and local fundraising events. So far, this article has been about me, but I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the assistance of my wife Moira, who directed club bridge games while I was in school.

How do you balance your bridge/work life with your personal life?

In February I had my first non-working vacation in 19 years! I went to Naples in Florida. I did visit a couple of bridge clubs to find out how they do certain things better than we do, in order to learn a thing or two. I do spend a lot of time listening to music and reading, but most of it I spend organizing something or other!