A winning hand: Kona Bridge Club keeping popular card game alive

  • Members concentrate on the game at the Kona Bridge Club Wednesday at the Makua Lani Christian Academy Bridge Building. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Bette Hirsch plays with the Kona Bridge Club Wednesday at the Makua Lani Christian Academy Bridge Building. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A member plays his hand at the Kona Bridge Club Wednesday at the Makua Lani Christian Academy Bridge Building. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Dorothy Case contemplates her hand at the Kona Bridge Club Wednesday at the Makua Lani Christian Academy Bridge Building. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Tor Thorsen, left, Jean Cole, Brian Macri and Bob Cole concentrate on the game at the the Kona Bridge Club Wednesday at the Makua Lani Christian Academy Bridge Building. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Members concentrate on the game at the Kona Bridge Club Wednesday at the Makua Lani Christian Academy Bridge Building. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Sharon Weber, left, Shelly Hershberger, Elizabeth Reid and Richard Gittelman play with the Kona Bridge Club Wednesday at the Makua Lani Christian Academy Bridge Building. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — It’s a complicated card game that requires quiet, intense concentration, a set of rules that could fill a novel and terminology that can be intimidating to someone who has never played.

But for the members of the Kona Bridge Club, it’s — almost — a piece of cake.

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“Bridge is a game that appeals to lifelong learners, because it’s a game that can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it,” Dee Fulton said. “It’s like peeling an onion. You think you have it, and then there’s another layer, if you want to go there. But you don’t have to.”

In Fulton’s class for bridge beginners, future members of the Kona Bridge Club are learning the basics, one layer at a time. The class runs alongside the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL)-certified club’s weekly Saturday game at Makua Lani Christian Academy, and the class aims to teach people interested in understanding the game and also those who are from a different generation than the club’s current members.

But maybe to appeal to younger players, an onion isn’t the only metaphor that can be used for bridge.

“Bridge is like sex,” student Pamela Small said. “You either need a really good partner or a really good hand.”

And at around 80-100 members strong — the club doesn’t keep a set list of members, just a mailing list— bridge players in the Kailua-Kona area have plenty of good partners to choose from.

“You get relationships and friendships going. It’s a common thing we all like to do,” president Kurt Weidner said. “It’s a fun group, and there’s a range of ages. We certainly don’t have a lot of younger people, yet, but we might try to do that in the future. For my wife and I when we moved here years ago, it was a way to get to know some people in the community.”

The current members of the Kona Bridge Club are, on average, senior citizens. The appeal of bridge for older men and women is to keep the mind mentally healthy, while providing an outlet to socialize. The club currently holds three open games of duplicate bridge a week, at 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays for $7 per person.

“As I’m retired, it provides activity for me since I’m not as physical as I might have been 20 or 30 years ago,” club manager Sara Ito said. “It’s a wonderful activity for all ages, but it’s really important for retirees. The average age in this club and the ACBL is about 70.”

“It’s healthy,” Fulton added. “When you’re exercising your mind, you’re bringing blood to your brain.”

Fulton has been playing bridge for almost eight years, and like many of her bridge club peers, she grew up around the game.

“I had friends that played bridge, my parents played bridge and my grandparents played bridge. I’ve always enjoyed playing card games, and I come from a card-playing game background,” Fulton said. “So when I got close to retirement age, I had some orthopedic injuries and had more time to take up the game.”

Playing in the big leagues

A new year for the Kona Bridge Club is just beginning.

With their trip to the North American Bridge Championships in Honolulu, one of three national tournaments held throughout the year, completed in December, the club is looking forward to hosting their own sectional tournament. The Kailua-Kona sectionals start Friday and run through Sunday, with the Kona Bridge Club hosting ACBL-certified clubs from all over Hawaii and the West Coast.

At sectionals this weekend, bridge players can compete for silver masterpoints. Colored masterpoints — black, silver, red, gold and platinum — are accumulated at each game a player competes in and corresponds with what level that bridge player is. A Life Master has 500 points, of various colors. Several levels ahead of Life Master is Platinum Life Master, which is a player with at least 10,000 points of various colors.

Playing with or against a Life Master-level player isn’t something beginners at the Kona Bridge Club should worry about, not because of the lack of Life Masters on the Big Island, but because of the nature of the game.

“If you get to know the basics, you can compete with anybody,” Weidner said. “You take up bowling or something, and after six months you are not going to be able to play with the masters and do well. With bridge, you can do that.”

The Kona Bridge Club’s open games and hosted sectionals act as a way to connect people of all different bridge levels, backgrounds and social standings.

“The bridge is between you and your partner, and that’s where the name bridge comes from,” assistant manager Dorothy Case said. “You’re talking to your partner over a bridge. And bridge is also a social leveler. We’ve had billionaires here that play. You’re judged by how you play, that’s your status.”

A fixture in the community

The Kona Bridge Club is one of three clubs that form the Big Island unit of the ACBL, the others being the Waikoloa Bridge Club and the Hilo Bridge Club. The Kona Bridge Club has been playing since the 1970s, when it first played at Hale Halawai on Alii Drive, and then moved onto bigger venues until the club found itself at Hualalai Academy.

In 2001, Hualalai Academy built a campus north of Kailua-Kona, the same location where Makua Lani Christian Academy is today. Joanne Clark, the Kona Bridge Club president at the time, struck an agreement with the school to build a multi-purpose facility that could be used by both students and bridge players.

“I wasn’t even a bridge player at the time, I was teaching here,” Kona Bridge Club member Dan Sabo said of his efforts to help Clark build the facility. “They decided to do it because the school was being built at this location, and we didn’t have a multi-purpose room like this, and Joan kind of came up with the idea to share a building.

“It was decided that the bridge people would raise the money necessary to build the building, and then the school would use it for whatever purposes they wanted.”

Sabo, a former elementary school teacher, used the building to teach his students the game, and their enthusiasm sparked his own interest to learn more about bridge and join the club, of which he is a former president.

“My kids were learning bridge at 7 or 8 years old, and I could see how excited they were about it,” Sabo said. “And I could see how excited anyone could be about it, if you love games.”

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The facility is labeled in simple, black letters, “The Bridge Building.”

“When Hualalai Academy and Kona Bridge Club, came to the agreement, Hualalai Academy suggested calling it the Bridge Building,” Ito said. “Meaning, the bridge between the community and the school.”

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