Interview by Ray Lee
Henry, congratulations on being named the ABTA Master Point Press Teacher of the Year for 2018. Tell us about your background — we know you haven’t always been a bridge teacher.
No, I did my graduate work in Houston, in microbiology. I guess I’d intended to stay in the academic world, but the field was pretty hot at the time with cloning and everything else, so there were a lot of high-tech companies everywhere, and the money was good. I joined one of them and started doing corporate training and that was fun. I’m a teacher at heart and that’s what I regretted about going into industry because I would have loved to teach biochemistry in college somewhere. But the research part of it, in order to survive in academia in science, you really had to do a lot of research and not just teaching.
So, how did you get into bridge teaching?
Back in Houston, I was a professional squash player. I put myself through grad school coaching squash and I’d learned to play bridge in the early 70s. There were a lot of young professionals at the racquet club and a couple of them were interested in bridge, so I suggested to management they should let me do a class on bridge. I was just doing it because I wanted to, it was not for the money. It was fun. I never thought I would be teaching bridge professionally — at that time in my life anyway.
So, when did you get into it seriously?
I would say about twenty years ago. I used to play Precision and many of the people at the club wanted to learn how to defend against Precision, and they asked me if I would consider doing a workshop or a class on it. I did that and of course I used some of the techniques that I used for corporate training. I used automated slides and audience response systems and that kind of thing, because that’s what I felt was needed to communicate with people – what’s on the slide as well as cards on the table and everything else. I believe technology should enhance the students’ experience without being overwhelming. The Precision class went really well, and a lot of people asked me if I would consider teaching some other courses, and I said sure.
However, I stopped playing bridge from 95 or 96 to about 2001 or 2002 because my children were into soccer and sports and I traveled with them and I loved that more than bridge. I got back into it after the kids went to college. Soon I was asked to teach again and I did that and I loved it. I did another class, and another class, and before I knew it I was the only teacher in the club who was really successful teaching bridge.
At that time I had a small company that was doing corporate training. But the economy had really kind of gone south and I wasn’t getting a lot of contracts. So, bridge presented itself and I said, oh, maybe I could do more of that. My wife had a good job so that was good. I start teaching bridge full time and loved it. Then the club that I was working at, there were some politics and other stuff, so I decided to teach at the Jewish community center instead.
One thing led to another. I started a game that ran once a week, then twice a week, then I got so popular that I had to find a permanent place. So I looked for a place to start a new club, which I called the Bridge Academy, which implied focus on the educational value of bridge but also on having fun because many of the people who came to my club to play really, they liked the game but they did not like the intensity. And so my motto is to have fun — play better, learn and play. I started the Bridge Academy and in 2015 I moved into a really nice 6,000 square foot facility. And then it went from there.
So that’s how it started, completely fortuitously. Absolutely no idea that I would ever be doing this and I’m having so much fun with it.
That’s a big change from the science you were doing before.
I guess I reinvented myself a little bit. My training in science actually helped my teaching because I like the analytical aspect of bridge and understanding inferences and what’s going on at the table. Not just what you should do, but what is happening around the table. And I was very much influenced by Bob Hamman’s quote which I have in my closet — I put it in all my presentations, “Bridge players should not ask what they should do, they should ask what’s going on.”
And that’s basically the essence of the way I teach bridge — not just what you should do, but also knowing why and when to do X, Y or Z. The thinking aspect of the game is what’s really attractive to me.
You mentioned to me that you like to develop your own curriculum. Were you not happy with the sort of standard stuff that was out there — did you feel that you could do it better?
Henry: Various reasons. Not that I wasn’t happy with it, that’s not true because I have used a lot of published material. The scientist in me I think kicked in a little bit. I like to do research. So I would want to talk about a particular topic and I would read everything that’s out there on that topic because there are a lot of things that are said and presented in different ways in different places that would actually make the whole concept a little clearer. So I decided the only way I could do that was to develop my own slides in the order that I want to make a presentation. I thought that what I really should do is have my own stamp on how I want to present a concept in a sequential way, in a logical way. So it kind of evolved into doing that, which meant that it took a lot more time for me rather than buying a book from somebody and just teaching it.
I always think that things can be changed, tweaked, presented better. And I’ve learned, through my mistakes teaching bridge, how to try to package the information in such a way that visually it will be appealing and logical as well as complemented with practice hands, quizzes and stuff like that. So, it was a combination of a variety of different techniques that I used but I just felt that I needed to have my own thing. Not because I didn’t like something, but because I wanted to enjoy the process of creating something. That’s really what it is more than anything else. It’s given me more time to think things through and prepare — which I enjoy, I enjoy creating things.
How many students do you teach in a class? Is there an optimum number?
My preference is between 6-12 tables. Anything in between this range is lots of fun. My largest workshop was 56 students.
This is such a hard game to learn, especially late in life. How far do you expect your students to get in their first set of lessons?
It is a hard and humbling game indeed. I try to set reasonable expectations for my students and constantly remind them that like golf, bridge is fun but takes time to play well. I emphasize the importance of enjoying the learning process and the social interaction gained from continuing to learn and play. In reality, many people who have enjoyed success in life simply give up because they don’t want to work at a card game. Last year, in a class of 24 newcomers, only 14 stayed the course.
What’s the average age of your students? Are you finding people are coming into your classes in their early 40s or are they older than that, or is it a mix?
Between 55 and 60. I would love to get more younger people into bridge and that’s why I am launching a campaign in 2019 called ‘Discover Bridge’. I very much like Jeff’s Bayone’s ‘A Taste of Bridge’, I’ve tested it at three classes and people love the book. I thought the approach was great. So I’m trying now to leverage that by doing something on weekends or evenings to attract more of the people who are about to retire or people who are younger, and who obviously can’t come during the day.
I think the problem the ACBL has all around the country is how to get younger folks to play bridge. So I started something called social duplicate, just to send a message that bridge could be socially fun and you could play bridge with your friends. It’s a wine and cheese game on Monday nights and it starts at six with ‘meet and greet’. People come in, I provide some wine and cheese and after the social stuff we play. We usually play about 16 to 18 boards and after we finish, they say, oh can you please talk about boards five, six and eight, whatever.
And I discuss the board, what they should have done and why. And sometimes I do a mini lesson, maybe 10-15 minutes before, while they’re having their wine and cheese before they play the game. So in other words, I try to create an environment where people can enjoy meeting new people, and play bridge in a duplicate format without the intensity of its being a serious duplicate game.
It hasn’t done as well as I’d like, but I’m working on it. Jeff and I have been talking recently because I’m using his book now, and he’s been it for a while and he has some ideas, I have some ideas. We kind of bounce things off each other a little bit. The challenge is to see how we can keep people after they finish the first phase, how we can get them to stick with it. How to get them so immersed in it, that they want to try more. Many of my students actually are golfers, especially when I go to country clubs. So I always try to bring that analogy: you can go out there and play a round of golf and you don’t do very well but you have fun. You’re out with your friends, you’re playing, you’re walking, you’re doing things that you like. But it’s a humbling game, and so is bridge.
I try to set the expectation that the process of learning the game, and being with people that you like to be with and play with, it is part of the mystique of the game, and you can put into it as much you’d like and as much as you want, and go from there. A lot of the people unfortunately get to, ‘Oh I don’t know if I have the time to read and continue to take lessons, so I’m just gonna play some cards with my friends or my wife or my husband.’
I don’t think I have the magic bullet, but I’m trying. I mean, obviously, being a club owner I would love to get them to play at the club if I can, but it’s just the way it is. They’re just going to have Monday nights or Tuesday nights at somebody’s house and then rotate every week or every two weeks and at least they’re having fun playing bridge.
So they get something out of it. But from a teaching perspective and business perspective, I’m thinking, did I do something wrong? Why couldn’t I keep them interested in coming here? And it’s just a tough thing.
When you have the social duplicate games, do you actually score them? Do you have a first, second and third and that kind of stuff?
I score them and actually I even have a 0-99 sanction. They’re not really interested in points but some of them as they play week after week after week start to say, oh I got zero points, one point or whatever. Some have even joined the ACBL although they have no intention of playing in big games. I mean they play at each other homes but on Monday night they come and they play and they get their master points. They do like being somewhat competitive yet socially relaxed. They just have fun with each other. I try to keep it that way.
One of the things that I hope I will do in 2019 is to have true social game. People will come in and play four hands – shuffle and deal Chicago style, play four boards then move on to the next table. Let them either score it Chicago style or not… but not make it a duplicate game. Just try to mimic what they would do at their homes if they were playing social bridge.
I’d still do wine and cheese. I think somebody in New Jersey, husband and wife… the name just escapes me right now … but they do that I think. Something along those lines. Where they do a newcomer course and then they graduate them into a social sort of game where they play this way. The people who take lessons and have some familiarity with the game may not want to go to the next step, but they want to play. They really want to play.
I think I’m gonna do this, and try it out and see how that would work out.
Sounds great, Henry, good luck with it!