The Hy-Life: The game of bridge connects neighbors in Mount Rainier
BY JESSICA ARENDS
Many people drive past the humble dome-shaped building on Eastern Avenue in Mount Rainier with the “Washington Bridge Unit” sign outside — but few know the card-playing club inside has been a cultural, social and political hub since 1938.
Inside “The Hut” on a Monday afternoon, bridge players gather around square tables and quietly focus on their hands. There’s the soft th-th-thwippp of cards shuffling; occasional laughter punctuates the room. Like a church social hall, there is the faint smell of coffee and a community atmosphere well-seasoned by friendly gatherings over the course of many years.
Temple Hills resident Louis Garner has been playing bridge for 62 years and is a regular player and teacher at The Hut. In 1960, a friend introduced him to a bridge club in D.C. “I became enamored with the game,” Garner said. “There were cab drivers, dentists, doctors and education folks. In those days they had on suits and ties — it was an exhilarating experience.” Garner has been active in the Washington Bridge Unit (WBU) — which is composed of six bridge clubs throughout the DMV area — ever since.
Officially formed in 1938, the WBU is affiliated with the American Bridge Association (ABA), a national league formed in 1932 for African Americans, who were at that time prohibited from playing the game with whites. Members gathered for games where they could in churches, libraries and the YMCA, and participated in national tournaments.
Bridge leagues started to integrate in 1967, and in 1998 the WBU bought The Hut, where it continues to offer games and classes two to three times a week.
The WBU has also hosted the annual ABA Summer Nationals — a 10-day tournament with three to four hours of bridge-playing each day.
“It’s a thinking game,” Garner said. “It makes you do analysis. You are introduced to a variety of folk and the challenge of being competitive.”
Bridge is played with four players divided into two teams of two. Players start the game by bidding, or saying the minimum number of tricks they think they can take to win. Whoever has the highest card will win the trick. The purpose of bidding is to convey the strengths and weaknesses of your hand to your partner. If a team meets their bid, they can score a certain number of points; if they don’t, the other team will score points.
According to Garner, bridge competition can be fierce, so the club also offers beginners classes, where teachers help the less experienced develop their game.
After taking classes at The Hut, D.C. resident Sharon Smith has grown to appreciate the in-person teaching. She enjoyed playing and observing games online, but wanted to develop her skills further. Getting step-by-step instruction from a seasoned teacher opened her eyes to new ways of playing.
“I was just doing it my way,” Smith said. “You know how many mistakes you make when you actually start playing! So it’s good that I am coming to the class.”
Wilma Bonner, WBU president, learned how to play bridge on a post-retirement cruise in 2007. What keeps Bonner coming back to the game is the competition, the problem-solving skills and the comradery.
“I love the idea of African Americans having a place to go to socialize,” said Bonner. “There are not a lot of places that we have. This is a place that is ours, and we can pass it on to our children. It’s like a little granular piece of sand on a tremendous beach, but it is ours.”
Bonner also enjoys knowing the club helps to enhance and unify the local community. She feels the club brings people together and adds value to the neighborhood.
“One of the real points of joy is that we have become a good neighbor in the City of Mount Rainier,” Bonner said. “And we are becoming more diverse. It’s so important to open up in a world that, as we know, is filled with hate and heinous kinds of behaviors. To understand we are one — one people.”
During a Monday afternoon beginner class, a teacher and three other players casually sit at a table, each with a colorful bidding box that displays their cards in a tidy cascade so suits and numbers are visible. A curious spectator group huddles around the periphery to watch. After a bit of silence, a player breaks her focus to place a card. A finger lifts, there’s a pause for a question, and the teacher gives a tip. Some discussion billows up, a few eyebrows raise, then laughter ripples around the table. The player takes her card back to try again.
Bridge games at The Hut are open to anyone interested in learning how to play. Classes are offered on Monday and Saturday afternoons and on Wednesday evenings. The first class is free. Email Wilma Bonner at email@example.com for a complete schedule, or stop by The Hut at 3801 Eastern Avenue NE in Mount Rainier.
Jessica Arends is the arts, culture and lifestyle columnist for the Life & Times.