liv: A woman with a long plait drinks a cup of tea (teapot)
[personal profile] liv
My mother had a theory that the best route to a good social life was to know how to swim, play tennis, dance formally, and play bridge. This turned out to reflect a society that isn't quite the one I grew up in, but still, I did learn some of these skills.

Jewish law also commanded our parents to teach us to swim, which has the very practical benefit of reducing one's risk of drowning; possibly giving access to social groups based around swimming is a side-benefit. When we were kids swimming helped, since people would have birthday parties at the local pool, or invite friends to join them for a swimming session. As we got older this became much less prominent and I don't really know the sort of people who invite me to swim in their private pools and who would find it weird if I didn't know how to swim.

Tennis I did try to learn but I was way too unfit and uncoordinated to be any use even in an entirely informal friendly game. And anyway tennis parties are a thing I read about in books written way before my lifetime; I've never really moved in the kind of circles where people have their own tennis courts!

My attempts to learn ballroom or similar dancing have never gone very well. Not only do I not really know people who host balls, I rarely found myself in situations where learning that sort of dancing was even an option. At school, for example, we mostly did modern dance which I largely hated, there were no formal steps and it was all about making up sequences to express particular ideas or match the chosen music. I wouldn't have minded doing some choreography if I had the basic building blocks of moves to be able to choreograph, but as it was it all just seemed pointless.

I also attended ballet classes like many young girls from a certain social class, and ballet was a complete disaster. Even in classes aimed at tinies, my physical skills were so bad for my age that I was utterly hopeless, and I was held back repeatedly until I was in a class with much younger children. And then I got in a fight with a teacher, I mean literally a fight, not a disagreement, I screamed and yelled at her over a perceived slight to a younger girl I felt protective of, and of course yelling at a teacher was unacceptable so she sent me to the back of the room and told the other kids to ignore me. I was not going to be ignored, so I marched through the class doing their exercises, crying and shouting, and hit the teacher in the face. Which resulted in me getting permanently thrown out of the class. Although I'd never been in such bad trouble in my life, I was sort of proud of this in a way, because I had succeeded in getting a reaction from an adult, and also relieved at not having the humiliation of being nearly 7 and unable to manage exercises expected of 4-year-olds. But I did also end up missing out on what might have been a foundation for being aware of my body and learning sequences of formal steps to music.

Dancing never really clicked for me until I moved to Scotland and discovered the ceilidh scene; in Scotland people don't really tend to "call" dances very much because everybody learns to dance in school, but with a friendly crowd it's possible to pick up the steps. The other thing that's good about ceilidh style dancing is that it doesn't really matter if you're bad at it; some people do it for show, of course, but dancing in a big group and not being quite on the beat or forgetting some of the steps doesn't matter nearly as much as with pair dancing. Some places in England have a ceilidh or similar English folk dancing scene, Cambridge certainly does. So in that sense having some clue how to dance has been good for my social life, though I still can't really waltz properly.

Then there's bridge. There was an old guy at shul, someone from the Yiddish East End culture, who was a competitive bridge player and agreed to teach us kids. I remember really enjoying the lessons; he was a good teacher, and pretty good at adapting his style to young children. He used a lot of aphorisms which helped us to remember trick-taking techniques. I became a better player at things like hearts and whist than you might have imagined, but honestly a lot of the point of bridge went over my head. I think the game is probably too complex for children, even children like me and the sibs who were a bit intellectually precocious and generally liked strategic card games. In particular I really didn't understand the point of bidding; the metaphor of an auction led me to believe that the aim was to "win" with the lowest possible contract, so I tended to underbid strong hands and think I'd got away with something if I made it to be declarer with only a one or two-level contract, and overbid weak hands because I wanted to beat my opponents in a contested auction.

In terms of opening social doors, the bridge lessons were not a resounding success. Kind of the opposite way round from tennis or swimming: as a child I really didn't know anyone under 80 who played bridge at all, and most adults were not as patient as our teacher at adapting their game to young children who didn't fully understand the underlying concepts. I played a lot at home with Mum and the sibs, and that was fun, but it didn't help me to make friends. Even the portable skills of trick-taking games weren't very useful socially; most kids our age regarded things like whist as purely a matter of luck and weren't impressed that we could win more than our fair share of the time.

As an adult, it turns out that geeks, as well as people who are socially well-connected, often like bridge and socialize over bridge games. I did try playing a little bit at college but found the scene too competitive. But when I started going out with [personal profile] jack I got him to re-teach me how to play bridge. This worked really well, partly because it has given me the opportunity to play social games with people like [personal profile] naath, [livejournal.com profile] emperor, [personal profile] ptc24, [personal profile] cjwatson and others.

Also because it happened that [personal profile] jack was really interested in the problem of how to teach bridge. The thing about bridge is that unlike many skills / games, it's hard to break it down into separate steps which can be practised individually until you're good enough at the subskills to be able to put different bits back together and actually play the game. It's hard to work out what is the first concept that a beginner needs to be taught. This means a lot of people do get frustrated learning bridge because they get overwhelmed with so much information, or they try to apply a concept they've learned and it turns out not to work because of a combination of circumstances, etc. So [personal profile] jack had put some thought into how best to break things down so that a beginner can actually learn and not get frustrated.

One thing we've been doing is practising bidding some hands. This is partly from necessity because we can practice bidding just the two of us in half an hour, whereas if we're actually going to play we need to get a four together! But it's also been really useful because my trick-taking skills, though rusty, are basically in place, but I never properly understood bidding, besides which I learned a very old-fashioned (mostly pure Acol) system, and I have forgotten a lot. It's very good to bid, and then post-mortem the auction immediately rather than after an intervening hand of play, by which time you've probably forgotten what you were thinking when you made the bids you did, especially if you're a beginner. [personal profile] jack has also taught me to count losers rather than just high-card points and length, which is what I learned as a child. I think both systems are equivalent in most hands, but when they're not loser count can often be more informative.

What's really helped me is [personal profile] jack explaining the difference between communicating information to your partner, and deciding on a final contract. Obviously the limited "vocabulary" of bridge bidding means this can't always be completely clear, but having the distinction in mind means you can usually work out which interpretation is more likely. Doing this has really helped me to learn some conventional / artificial bids, because it no longer feels like, as it did when I was a kid, that I'm learning by heart essentially a code-book of completely arbitrary bids which have been assigned a meaning other than "I think we can make a contract of this number of tricks in this suit". Like, it makes sense that 4NT means Blackwood "how many aces do you have?" because there are very few circumstances where you would actually want to be playing in 4NT and much more commonly you need to know whether you have enough aces to make slam. It's also been helpful in giving me confidence that I can bid straight to game or straight to slam if I have enough information (and enough good cards!) without worrying that I'm going to be accidentally telling my partner that my hand is really strong. In those circumstances, I have information and my partner potentially doesn't, which means that I get to decide which contract we're playing, and we're aware that deciding is different from communicating.

I know that [livejournal.com profile] fluffymark has been taking a different approach to teaching bridge, because his "students" are people who didn't play a lot of trick-taking games as kids. So he started out by games where he would inspect all four hands, work out how the auction would be likely to go, and tell them which pair would be declarer and in which contract. So the learners get the experience of playing a bunch of hands, with a realistic contract they're aiming for so it's more like baby-bridge than a completely different trick-taking game, but without having to stuff their brains with information about bidding. That in turn helps them to get a feel for what makes a contract likely or difficult, so when they do start bidding they're not completely in the dark about what level they should be at. Another approach I've seen is allowing beginners to ask a question of their partner instead of bidding, which must be a simple binary question regarding one fact about what they hold. That helps to teach how to use the auction to communicate, without having to spend a lot of energy on learning what specific conventional bids mean.

Playing with the Cambridge geeks is good fun, they're competitive in that they take the game seriously, they're not just vaguely waving cards around while they gossip, but they're still more interested in having a fun social time than winning as such. And I'm somewhere in the middle in terms of skill, which is always nice, I am getting to the point where I'm good enough that I can learn from better players rather than just flailing. I'm getting enough games that I'm actually improving, and getting to put into practice the stuff I'm learning.

And coming full circle, [personal profile] jack has made himself very popular by making a fourth at bridge when he's visiting my parents. So far we seem to be an exception to the maxim that couples shouldn't be bridge partners! I think this is partly because we've set out very determined that we are interested in improving our game not "beating" our friends, and also because we are using bridge learning as a sandbox to practise communication. So ways for [personal profile] jack to point out that I did something wrong without turning it into a fight, and ways to come to a compromise quickly when we have incomplete information or limited time for negotiation. And generally being partners, something which we strive for in our life in general, not just at the bridge table!
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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