BY TOM LAVIS
If being a senior citizen isn’t challenging enough, there is a local group of older folks who are involved in a game of mental gymnastics.
Their passion is the game of bridge.
Playing games at any age is healthy for the mind and body, but bridge is particularly beneficial in maintaining or improving mental acuity.
But the bottom line is that it’s also fun, said Dave Livingston of Westmont, who is a longtime member of Johnstown Bridge Association.
“Bridge keeps the brain active, involves social interaction and is a great form of entertainment,” Livingston said.
Finding a good game of bridge is easier than one may think.
Enthusiasts gather several times a week at the Johnstown Senior Activity Center, 550 Main St., and several other locations to do battle.
These are friendly games, but make no mistake, they also are highly competitive.
Livingston and his wife, Jean, are regulars at the senior center bridge games.
“We learned together, but I started playing a little earlier than she did,” he said.
“Growing up, my parents played pinochle and I learned to play cards at age 7 or 8.”
But duplicate bridge has become his game of choice.
Masters of the game
Many local players are earning points to become masters of the game under the auspices of the American Contract Bridge League.
“You strive to be a life master, which is a big honor,” Livingston said.
The club has several masters in its ranks.
A bridge club plays at 6:30 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays on the second floor of the Johnstown senior center. A group also plays at noon Wednesdays at Westmont Presbyterian Church, 601 Luzerne St.
“Prior to the Wednesday game, I offer some refresher courses to help people develop their game,” Livingston said.
“We offer a different bridge topic each week.”
There are certain rules in bridge that must be followed. Bridge is a fair game.
‘No secret signals’
“There are no secret signals allowed, but we do have bidding techniques called conventions that most opponents understand.”
With only 15 words allowed during an auction and just 13 cards in each suit, bridge players have invented dozens of special bids, called conventions, to describe their strength and hand patterns.
Livingston encourages people of any and all ages to join the fun because a person “is never too old to play.”
The longest-standing member of the association is Marge Ajay of Westmont, who has been involved since 1958.
“She is a regular and is a very good player,” Livingston said.
Jeanne Draisey of Westmont, a retired registered nurse, didn’t start playing bridge until she was almost 70 years old.
She attends the Wednesday session and finds it to her liking.
“A good friend, Rhoda Zdravecky of Westmont, suggested we learn to play bridge and she offered to teach eight of us,” Draisey said.
“Out of the eight, mostly retired schoolteachers, only me and my friend Lois Verhovsek of Davidsville have stuck with it.”
To keep her body toned, she enjoys aquatic exercise at the YWCA of Greater Johnstown. But for her mental fitness, duplicate bridge fills the bill.
‘Advocate of game’
“I’m such an advocate of the game that I believe it should be taught in school beginning with elementary students,” Draisey said.
“It teaches people math skills, how to think and learn to strategize.”
Draisey describes her skill as average.
“I don’t win too often, but when I do, it gives me a great feeling of accomplishment,” she said.
She pointed to further evidence of the advantages of bridge by saying she often plays bridge with residents at the Lutheran Home at Johnstown in Upper Yoder Township.
“We have people well into their late 80s or early 90s who enjoy bridge,” she said.
“I play for the pure pleasure of it.”
It’s also a good outlet to socialize, chitchat and enjoy refreshments.
Duplicate bridge is the most widely used variation of contract bridge in club and tournament play. It is called duplicate because the same bridge deal, the specific arrangement of the 52 cards into the four hands, is played at each table and scoring is based on relative performance.
In this way, every hand, whether strong or weak, is played in competition with others playing the identical cards, and the element of skill is heightened while that of chance is reduced.
George “Bud” Kury, a club member from Stonycreek Township, has been teaching and directing for 20 years.
A bridge master who has risen to the rank of silver, Kury said duplicate bridge is quite competitive.
The American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) recommends that older people get involved with the game.
“Studies show that by playing bridge, an older person’s mind becomes sharper,” Kury said.
“I see a certain brightness come over people because it gets them thinking.”
He said the average age of a member in the Cambria, Somerset, Blair and Bedford counties ACBL unit is 67 years old.
Bridge is a universal game that can be played between people who don’t speak the same language.
“You could go all over the world and play bridge with people from different cultures,” he said.
Kury said studies conducted at Standford University have shown that playing bridge may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, so playing the game could actually allow people to live longer.
“A day without bridge is like a day without sunshine,” he said.
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