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For bridge players, game can be serious business

A player looks at her cards during a bridge tournament at the Baker Community Center in St. Charles.
A player looks at her cards during a bridge tournament at the Baker Community Center in St. Charles.

For its aficionados, there is nothing like bridge. 

Marilyn Croft of St. Charles is a director – a designation earned by collecting points and passing a test. And because of her director status, she “owns” three weekly games played on Tuesday and Friday at the Hotel Baker in St. Charles and a Thursday game in Elgin.

She is also considered a silver life master, having amassed more than 1,000 points.

“I’ve been playing for about 10 years,” said Croft, 61, and that is a contrast from many players who learned as children from their parents.

The weekly or club games are part of the American Contract Bridge League. The league is subdivided into 27 districts. 

Croft belongs to District 8 – with 3,800 members – which is further divided into five units. Croft’s unit is hosting the Northern Illinois Duplicate Bridge Regional Tournament from Sunday through Tuesday at the Crystal Lake Holiday Inn. 

“I started taking lessons, and I just fell in love with bridge,” Croft said. “It’s not just a card game … it’s very challenging. It really keeps your mind working. You have to figure out bidding – which is a language all itself. You have to figure out the best offense, the play of the hand, how to defeat the opponent’s contract.”

The game sparks a lot of passion, drawing players from all age groups and walks of life, Croft said. At the weekly bridge games she runs, the oldest member is 89, and a month ago, the oldest player was 98.

“We get a lot of professionals, teachers. It’s just all over the place,” Croft said. “In tournaments, we get retired people and math majors from the University of Chicago. ... Sometimes we talk about it as the chess game of the card world.”

Though tournaments draw a lot of competitive players, Karl Dencker, 81, of Lake in the Hills said the weekly games are where players keep their skills sharp. 

“The club game is where you learn and perfect your game,” Dencker said. “There is no place else that the bridge player can go to experiment with new conventions to work with a partner on. This is where you have to do it.”

Dencker said he has played bridge for 25 years. He is a director, a certified bridge instructor and a bronze life master with more than 500 points. As president of the unit hosting the upcoming tournament, you’d think he’d be a knock-down-drag-out competitor.

And you’d be wrong.

“I take it as a game,” Dencker said. “When you’re all done with it, it’s still a game. It’s a good game. It’s probably the best card game going.”

Dencker praised bridge as a game that keeps the mind sharp and, especially for seniors, gets them out and socializing.

“I’ll never be a great bridge player – it does not interest me,” Dencker said. “But I love the game. I play well.”

Estelle von Zellen, 89, of DeKalb, is a silver lifetime master, having amassed more than 1,000 bridge points. She said she never likes to miss a game.

Von Zellen came from a card-playing family.

“We played cards when we were not allowed to go out out on school nights,” von Zellen said. “I was playing blackjack when I was 5. I learned to play bridge from an uncle when I was in junior high school. It’s a lot of fun.”

Bob Duhme of Wheaton said he began playing bridge in the 1980s, learning from a friend who needed a partner. Later, Duhme sat with bridge players coming home from work every day on the train, turning their seats so four players would face each other.

The conductors rented them a board for 10 cents so they could use it as a table.

“That whetted my appetite, and I started to play duplicate bridge,” Duhme said. “When you play duplicate bridge, it’s very competitive. But it’s also a friendly thing, and you meet a lot of nice people.”

Sometimes, passions in the game get the better of players and they will stomp out of a game in a bad mood over a few bad hands, Duhme said. 

“I have heard [players] say, ‘I hate this game. I am never going to play this game again,’ ” Duhme said. “They always blame themselves. ... But everybody always comes back.”

A player’s passion for bridge can show up in interesting ways, Duhme said.

“I had some good friends who got married. Then the bride spent the evening at a bridge tournament with me. It was at the Palmer House in Chicago,” Duhme said. “I like to say, ‘His wife spent her wedding night at the Palmer House ... with me.’ It always draws big laughs.”

Know more

District 8 of the American Contract Bridge Association, which includes all Illinois counties outside of Chicago, provides information about bridge games, tournaments, membership and how to find a teacher and learn to play. More information is online at

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