They eye each other warily as they pick up their cards, sorting them by suit and wondering what sits in the other hands. One player purses her lips, another sighs, a third gets a crinkle of a grin and the fourth raises an eyebrow, but it is hard to tell if their expressions are genuine or mere posturing.
Tom opens with a “1 Club” bid.
“1 Spade,” Susan responds.
Tom’s partner, John, ups their bid, “2 Clubs.”
“2 Hearts,” offers Katarina, Susan’s partner this round.
Katarina wins the bid as the others pass.
“You’ll like these,” Susan says, laying down the Ace, Jack, 8 and 6 of Hearts, but Katarina is dubious, having only the King and Queen of Hearts in her hand.
“This is going to be very difficult,” she predicts.
She is right. She is set, failing to win at least eight tricks, and her team loses the game. The men smile, but not too broadly. They know well that it is just a matter of time before they will get their comeuppance, whether this evening or next month.
And besides, they have gathered not to win money or to show off their card-playing skills but to enjoy each other’s company, have a fine meal, gossip a bit and solve the world’s problems. They will do all of this around a card table, and in a manner both collegial and competitive.
The game is bridge, and the players are Sister Katarina Schuth, endowed chair for the social scientific study of religion at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity; Father John Malone, pastor of Assumption Church in St. Paul and former vice president for mission and business law professor at St. Thomas; Dr. Thomas Dillon Redshaw, professor emeritus of English; and Dr. Susan Alexander, executive adviser to the president and professor of economics.
They arrive at Alexander’s home for their Sunday night pastime, and they cordially greet each other as they share hors d’oeuvres and a beverage, followed by a light dinner. They finally settle in around her dining room table for three games of five hands each, with each person having another as a partner during the evening.
“Bridge is like all good games,” Malone says. “It brings out the humanity in people.”
This is a wise group from a card shark’s point of view, having played bridge for a combined two centuries. It is an intelligent group, holding terminal degrees in their respective disciplines and serving St. Thomas for a collective 150 years. And it is an engaging group, full of banter, good-natured ribbing and, perhaps most importantly, an appreciation for the friendship that a deck of cards can engender.
Malone and Redshaw win the opening game 4-1 after setting the women on Schuth’s ill-fated 2 Hearts bid. In between hands, they assess each other’s bridge skills, and it’s hard to tell when they are serious and when their tongues are planted firmly in cheek.
For instance, Redshaw calls Alexander a canny observer able to determine “exactly what every person at the table is holding, maybe not on the first trick but on the second trick for sure.” Malone says she “is an extremely good player who knows all the aphorisms – the rules of this and that – and plays by them” without taking unnecessary risks. “She is crafty, in the German sense,” Schuth says. “Not tricky, but she knows how to play a hand well, especially defensively.”
Malone’s reputation as an accomplished card player – well-honed at numerous kitchen tables in St. Paul (and even a few establishments west of here) – illicits an immediate response. “He is a shark,” Alexander jokes, “And he will cheat.” Redshaw marvels at Malone’s “intuitive” style and how “he goes for a bid that I cannot see and pulls it off seven times out of 10. I can get confused in the middle of his hand.” Schuth interjects that seven out of 10 “is a little high” in terms of Malone’s success ratio, and while she views him as “extra talented,” he can be both “outrageous and a bit impatient when I don’t bid high enough.”
Like many good card players, Redshaw has a streak of unpredictability. Alexander chides him for occasionally “erratic” bidding, “unlike his usual behavior. He will do something wild, even psycho.” Schuth finds him a “very diligent” player who “is exciting to play with because you never know what mode he is in.” Malone calls Redshaw “a true optimist who believes in the strength of fate” (to which Redshaw replies: “I call it providence”).
Even Schuth’s approach is not spared the crosscut of praise and scrutiny from her peers. Redshaw appreciates her “always straightforward” play. Alexander agrees by saying she is “solid, reliable and dependable – not like you,” she pauses, nodding at Malone. He finds Schuth can be impatient, especially with partners (he wouldn’t name anybody …) “who try to push their bids when they aren’t there.”
The needle and the barbs always seem present. In the second game, with Malone and Alexander playing Redshaw and Schuth, Malone fails to follow suit but catches himself and insists they replay the trick. “Cheater!” an observer teases. “Is this how he cheats?” “Oh, no,” Schuth responds. “He’s just a little forgetful at times.” As it turns out, Malone wins his bid.
On a subsequent hand, Alexander bids 3 No Trump and Malone’s cards fit beautifully with hers, but she hesitates at one point. “She’s pensive,” Redshaw warns.
“More pensive than she ever was in the classroom,” Malone adds. She makes her bid but loses her opportunity for a small slam.
The Malone-Alexander team prevails in the second game, and there is a break for dessert and extended conversation, mostly about church politics (who would be the new archbishop and when would he be named?) and St. Thomas politics. Opinions are plentiful and off the record, of course. What’s said at the card table stays at the card table.
The group also ponders whether bridge, as a game, is dying. Commentators have speculated that younger generations are too consumed by video games and the internet to take time for a game that features complicated bidding and sequencing strategy.
Alexander understands that Generation Z’ers like interaction with other people, “so maybe when we’re in the rest home they’ll come and play with us.” Redshaw has a ready comparison when asked if bridge is dying. “Like the Irish language!” says the founding director of the St. Thomas Center for Irish Studies. Schuth is grateful there “are no modern gadgets and no cellphones at the table.”
The final game features Malone and Schuth against Redshaw and Alexander, with the second team dead set on denying Malone a third win. “They always try to gang up on me,” he says. He tries to encourage Schuth, winless thus far, but after one hand in which she has a 2 through 7 of Clubs and only one face card, she calls her cards “pathetic.” Malone has a different conclusion. “You are bad luck,” he says.
They both are right, and they lose. Malone tallies the points from all 15 hands and announces that he and Redshaw tied at 3,340. “First time ever,” Malone says. “Proves male domination.” Redshaw kindly disagrees: “Proves we got good cards and played them intelligently.”
And with that, the visitors gather their coats, say their goodbyes and disappear into the night. They know they soon will play again, at which time they will solve the world’s problems, gossip a bit, have a fine meal and – most importantly – enjoy each other’s company.
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