IntoBridge is launching a new thread in our blog section called “Bridge Angels”. The name itself conveys the essence – these are selfless individuals who contribute to the advancement and expansion of the game, often without any form of payment. They consistently go above and beyond in their endeavors to discover new bridge players or bring joy to existing ones.
Sue Johnson lives in London, England. She is the founder of New Tricks Bridge. New Tricks have created a number of popular video series on YouTube for bridge players and they also run a ‘Bridge for Schools’ programme which aims to develop the next generation of young players by teaching the game and running clubs in schools.
New Tricks has been producing videos for a few years now – what was it that got the whole thing started in the first place?
It was actually the appearance on YouTube of the old Masterbridge TV series from the early 1980s. The series featured some of the all-time greats, including Zia, Irving Rose, and Omar Sharif among others, playing through a giant cloud of cigarette smoke, with commentary by Nicola Gardiner (now Nicola Smith) and Sammy Kehela. My friend Steve Root and I were discussing how cool it would be to have an up-to-date version of the tournament available online, with great graphics and individual ‘thoughtover’ commentary by the players explaining their thinking about the hands as they were played. This was back in 2019, when the online content available to entertain and inform bridge players compared woefully with what was out there for chess players, so we decided to have a go at bringing the vision of the ‘new Masterbridge’ to life as a step towards redressing that balance. We gathered together a group of eight top class players – Zia, David Gold, Andrew Robson, Dennis Bilde, Marion Michielsen, Andrew Black, Cecilia Rimstedt, and Jerry Stamatov – for a weekend in a country house and ran an individual tournament over 28 boards. The resulting fourteen episodes of the New Tricks Tournament Series, gave viewers fantastic insight into the thought processes of these great players as they tackled the bidding and play of each hand. I kind of missed the fug of cigarette smoke but I guess you have to move with the times on all fronts.
I know the tournament series developed a big following, so how did things develop from there?
When lockdown happened in 2020 of course we were all driven to seek more bridge online, both as players and viewers of bridge-related content. When we came to the end of producing the Tournament Series I wanted to make some content that would add a bit of levity to the bridge commentary – an element of fun for the Covid era. The idea of pitting regular partners against each other, where they could use their intimate knowledge of each other’s style to try to outwit each other, seemed like it could generate that, especially when combined with the introduction of our old friends, the robots, who can always be counted on to wreak a little havoc from time to time. So the ‘Battle of the Partners’ series was born, with expert partners going head-to-head in eight-board robot challenges. The series did, indeed, produce some classic moments, too numerous to mention, with the robots’ sustained assault on Andrew Robson in his challenge against Zia being amongst the most entertaining.
Although the robots made for some great entertainment it felt as though there was a need for an online format that returned to the kind of in-depth analysis that the Tournament Series had provided so I set up the International Teams Challenge, first a match between USA and UK teams and subsequently Canada vs Europe. IntoBridge was just approaching its full launch at that time so we played the latter match on the new platform, which looked great. I hope to make more of these in the future as it’s another great way to peek inside the minds of world class experts as they play in real life competition.
Other new series followed, including the most recent, ‘One Great Hand’ – shorter videos where the experts pick out a favourite hand to talk about in detail along with a more general chat. We recreate the hands on IntoBridge for viewers to follow along during the discussion. This format also works really well for the top players to pick out and describe several ‘highlights’ hands from
major competitions. Zach Grossack’s recent highlights from the 2023 Spring Nationals, which contains some extraordinary moments, are well worth watching as an example.
Tell us a bit about how you started playing bridge.
I always played cards, backgammon and lots of board games with my brothers when I was a kid. My father was a good bridge player and played rubber bridge in the London clubs back in the ‘70s. We regularly had his bridge-playing pals like Bob Brinig, the Pridays and Irving Rose around
the house, but they were far more likely to be competing at games like gin rummy, backgammon or even on one occasion I remember, flicking cards into my baby brother’s playpen from across the room, than playing bridge – it wasn’t really a leisure activity for them. My dad never taught us to play but we kind of picked a bit up by osmosis and played some terrible kitchen bridge when we were students. I did play a couple of rubbers with my dad just once around that time and his only comment was “Oh well, at least you have your health’. Then about six years ago I foolishly accepted an invitation to play in a duplicate at the Acol Club with a friend who I had grossly misinformed by telling her I could play bridge. We came stone last but I realised two important things over the course of those 24 boards: One, that I knew nothing whatsoever about how to play bridge and two, that I was completely in love with this version of the game and very much wanted to learn how to play. Listening to the experts as I have made the various video series has been a huge component of my bridge education since then and even though I am still some way short of my ambition to become a decent player I am deeply grateful to all of them for the words of wisdom that they have left in my head.
You have worked with many of the world’s top players in the making of the video series. Do you have favourites?
I can never express enough appreciation for the generosity of all of the players that we have featured in giving their time to support the New Tricks Project – the charity would not have survived without them. Some of them do stand out as being amazing exemplars in particular areas for me: Andrew Robson has a fantastic ability to explain things in a way that is completely clear to players of all levels – never talking down to lesser players whilst still holding the attention of experts. Zia, is of course, always to be relied upon for wonderful creativity in both bidding and play – well worth the time I have to spend beeping out the occasional ‘f***s’ from his commentary – and probably my favourite interview subject, Zach Grossack, who is like the love child of Robson and Zia – combining Andrew’s amazing powers of analysis with Zia-like moments of genius. With his wit and enthusiasm, he’s a superb role model for younger players taking up the game, and his videos are a joy to watch.
Talking of younger players, tell us a bit about the Bridge for Schools project and how that is going.
I set up New Tricks as a registered charity, with the ultimate aim of creating an organisation that would offer free teaching of bridge in schools. I wanted to ensure that no school would be deterred by cost from introducing this great game to its students. We are strictly non-profit and have no commercial income so the plan was to ask viewers who enjoyed the video series to make voluntary donations to support our work in schools.
As the UK began to emerge from lockdown in September 2021, we started teaching and running after school clubs in a couple of state-run primary schools. Since that time, we have introduced bridge to hundreds of children in a group of schools in North London and Hertfordshire – children who would never have encountered the game if it weren’t for this initiative. In September 2022 we started a Saturday afternoon club for children, generously supported by the Acol Bridge Club, who allow us to use their premises, so that kids from different schools can come together to play and compete. We took a group of twenty-six 9 to 11-year-olds to the EBU’s national schools competition in Loughborough in March of this year and we now have a cohort of kids who truly love the game and want to play at every opportunity. We also have some serious talent – kids who will, I’m certain, go on to play for England junior squads before long.
The other great thing about this initiative is that the parents of many of these children have now started to learn and we are adding a teenage cohort to our Saturday afternoon sessions, with older siblings of our primary school learners also developing an interest, so there is a rapidly expanding group of new bridge-playing families emerging, which brings joy to my heart!
Bridge isn’t particularly well-known amongst the younger generation, and lacks the profile of chess, which has always been widely played in schools. Does this cause difficulties for the project?
It’s true that most of the children we teach have never heard of bridge but the wonderful thing is that as soon as they get their hands on a pack of cards and start playing minibridge a great many of them absolutely love it. They learn incredibly quickly and readily retain everything you teach them, and above all they relish competition. The limiting factors around the expansion of the project are definitely not to do with enthusiasm amongst our young learners, they are lack of funds and a shortage of volunteers. As the number of schools where we teach continues to grow, and the number of suitable volunteers remains tiny, the charity needs to pay bridge teachers in order to be able to meet the needs of those schools, and donations from viewers of the videos simply can’t keep up with increasing costs. We have several secondary schools wanting to start bridge clubs from September 2023 and we may well have to turn some of them away because we simply can’t resource those clubs. I know there must be more players out there who love the game and would like to help in ensuring that it doesn’t just survive, but thrives amongst the younger generation and I’d love them to get in touch.
If people who read this would like to help what can they do?
Anyone interested in volunteering their skills to support the project in any way – that could be classroom teaching or teaching support in our existing schools, starting clubs in their own areas with our support, devising teaching materials such as hands to teach various topics, quizzes, and so on, tech support with websites or even just general admin – can reach me via email at email@example.com. Anyone who would like to support us financially can do so on a one-off basis via the websites: www.newtricksschools.org and www.newtricksbridge.club or make small, regular contributions via Patreon www.patreon.com/ntbridge.
You can find hundreds of videos on the YouTube channel of New Tricks Bridge, check it out: