By Susan Gaissert
You can learn a lot about life from watching television sitcoms. The classic show I Love Lucy, for example, is full of practical knowledge. By sharing in the daily lives of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, I learned, at a very young age, the meanings of the words “lease,” ”contract,” and “passport.” I also learned that, back in the 1950s, after the children had been put to bed, grown-ups wearing shirts and ties and dresses and heels gathered around a small square table and played a card game called bridge.
Bridge is a derivative of the Russian version of the card game Whist, or “Biritch.” George Washington enjoyed playing bridge. So did President Dwight D. Eisenhower. When he was a general, “Ike” was considered the best bridge player in the U.S. Army.
Using I Love Lucy as an example of American life in the 1950s, bridge can be seen to be a major form of adult socialization. Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz play bridge regularly with their women friends. In the episode “Lucy Tells the Truth,” they show up at Carolyn Applebee’s apartment wearing suits, hats, gloves, and earrings, eager to gossip across the bridge table.
Carolyn is eager, too. Having the game at her home means she can show off her new furniture. When another friend arrives to complete the foursome, she is wearing an exotic new hat, hoping to get compliments from the others. Bridge gives these women a reason to get together, an opportunity to dress in their best clothes, and a chance to spend a pleasant afternoon away from housework. In the episode “Lucy is Matchmaker,” the women are having so much fun talking and laughing around the card table, Ethel has to call out, “Are we going to play bridge or aren’t we?”
Bridge was not just an afternoon game. In the 1950s, “bridge night” was a commonplace occurrence in both real-life and sitcom homes. Lucy and Ethel had a regular bridge night with their husbands, Ricky and Fred, throughout the run of the I Love Lucy series. In the episode, “The Inferiority Complex,” the minute Ethel says, “Let’s all play bridge, huh?” everybody knows what to do. Ricky gets the card table out of the closet, Fred moves the coffee table out of the way, Ethel brings a kitchen chair into the living room, and Lucy gets out the deck of cards. It is obvious that this is a cherished routine in these people’s lives.
The type of bridge Lucy and company played is called contract, or party, bridge. According to the American Contract Bridge League’s website, it is “the ultimate partnership game,” a “game of skill, communication, and infinite possibilities.” I Love Lucy often used the partnership aspect of the game to poke fun at the relationships between the people playing it. For example, in “Lucy Tells the Truth,” Lucy describes how her friends play the game. One talks too much and therefore doesn’t keep track of what has been bid, while another one cheats when she adds up the score. Like all games, bridge reveals the true nature of its players. That’s one of the reasons people enjoy playing games: they give us a chance to get to know one another better.
I cannot think of any contemporary sitcom in which a game plays as large a role as bridge does in I Love Lucy. The episode “Lucy Hires a Maid” makes the strongest point about the importance of bridge in the heroine’s life. Lucy is experiencing postpartum fatigue, and she dozes off while setting up the card table for bridge night with the Mertzes. Ricky, Fred, and Ethel find her fast asleep, slumped over the table. When Ricky says, “No use trying to play tonight,” Lucy cries and begs to play bridge, explaining, “That’s all the fun I have!” Home-bound and exhausted from caring for a new baby, her fondest desire is to sit at a small table with her closest friends and play a game of cards.
That’s quite an advertisement for bridge, and it made me wonder if anybody still plays the game. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett do, according to www.Youth4Bridge.org. There are bridge clubs and tournaments, and you can also play bridge online with partners from all over the world via web sites like www.bridgebase.com. You can play contract bridge or duplicate bridge, a version in which all players have the same hand and compete to see who plays it best.
Either way, bridge is an incredible form of mental exercise. A lot of the people playing today are senior citizens, and organizations like the American Contract Bridge League are trying to encourage young people to learn the game. Let’s hope they do. Suits and ties or hats, gloves, and earrings are no longer a requirement, just logic, patience, and concentration. As Ethel Mertz loved to say, “Let’s all play bridge, huh?”
Susan Gaissert lives and writes in New Jersey, USA. Her work has appeared in Green Mountain Review, Life Learning Magazine, and The First Day, and she won the nonfiction prize at the 2014 Burlington Book Festival Short Works Contest. This article was first published in Child’s Play Magazine. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up in the 1960s with her disabled father and caregiver mother. When the mood strikes, she blogs at https://susanflies.wordpress.com.