Interviewed by Eric Emin Wood — October 2016
With the exception of Eddie Kantar, few bridge writers are as well-known as Toronto’s Barbara Seagram, particularly if you’ve picked up the game in the seventeen years since the publication of her landmark 25 Bridge Conventions You Should Know, co-written with Marc Smith.
The co-owner of Toronto’s storied Kate Buckman Bridge Studio between 1990 and 2006, when she founded the bridge school that still bears her name, Seagram is allegedly retired, but so far has spent her golden years travelling the world, often while teaching bridge on cruises, providing humanitarian aid to children in Cambodia and Laos – and yes, writing many books, including an upcoming release that she’s currently writing with her frequent collaborator, David Bird.
I spoke to Barbara on June 9, a week before she was set to leave on her next trip: a three-week visit to Poland, where her husband, Alex Kornel, is from.
Before our interview, Barbara sent me a few biographical details about herself – including the fact that she was born in Barbados before moving to Canada.
Why on earth did you leave Barbados for Canada?
(laughs) Well, I went to university and my mother’s a Canadian. So I came here to study nursing, met a Canadian, and married. And I’ve never looked back.
Do you still have family in Barbados?
I do! I go back every year and visit. It’s all wonderful.
How did you meet Alex?
I met Alex at a bridge table, of course, and he needed some fixing, but I fixed him. I’ve told him I’ll never be able to have an affair because I can’t train another one. The first husband didn’t play bridge, so he had to go – he married our Parisienne au-pair and I married a bridge player.
So the husband you met in Canada wasn’t Alex?
That’s right. That wasn’t Alex. I met my first husband at university.
When did you meet Alex?
We met in 1981, and were married in 1984.
Who’s the better player – you or Alex?
Oh, Alex. He’s a better bridge player than I ever will be, and that’s the truth.
The student exceeded the master?
He was never a student. He’s been playing bridge since he was seven years old in Poland. I’m his student.
Oh – you meant he needed fixing as a husband, not a bridge player.
(laughs) That’s right. I needed fixing as a bridge player. I was a novice. I’ve become a much better player because of him. Without a doubt. And he’s my favorite partner.
Now we usually ask our authors what their careers were before they began writing about bridge, but you trained as a nurse, you worked as a nurse –
Yes, and I used to teach nursing at Women’s College Hospital here in Toronto.
The biography you sent me says you started working as an administrator at the Kate Buckman Bridge Studio in 1975 – so did you consciously leave the nursing profession before then, or…?
I was pregnant, and I was going to stay home and have babies and never work again in my life. (laughs) Then in 1975 my mother-in-law at the time sent me for bridge lessons, and right after that I started working for Kate.
And eventually you took over.
Yes, Alex and I bought the studio in 1990, and Kate kept visiting until she died at the age of ninety-four in 1992.
Why did you sell it?
It was the largest bridge club in Canada, and the fourth-largest on the continent. We had a duplicate area, and a classroom, and 13,000 tables a year. It grew and grew – it had been large before but it became just enormous when we owned it – and eventually it was so big that we just couldn’t deal with it anymore.
So I sold it in 2006, hoping that things would go well, and they didn’t. I sold it to someone who was… most inept, and it was most unfortunate. The club was forty-nine years old, and he closed the doors fourteen months later. It was a shame.
Isn’t 2006 when you opened your own school?
Yes, in September of 2006 I opened a school of bridge of my own after we left Kate Buckman, because I was supposed to stay and continue teaching, and Alex was supposed to stay and continue directing, and that didn’t work, so we opened a school of bridge that I still have. And in January 2007 we opened a bridge club, because we needed a place for students to go and practice in a nice, congenial atmosphere. It was a much smaller club, operating just four games a week, and Alex ran those, but that’s grown and grown – so much so that three years ago we gave it away, because we were trying to retire.
You don’t sound retired.
No, I keep failing Retirement 101. But the school still continues on, and the bridge club is booming. We gave it away to someone whose name is Lee Daugharty, and he’s just doing a wonderful job.
What attracted you to bridge in the first place?
When my mother-in-law from my first husband sent me for bridge lessons,I had never played cards. I had absolutely no natural aptitude for the game. But I felt it was something I could play and not have to compete with my husband, who was very, very athletic, and I was not. So this was something I could do; he was not interested.
But why did I love this game? I don’t know – I just love everything about it. I could play morning, noon, and night, every day, all year long, and not get tired of it. I find it challenging, fascinating, intriguing, and I love the people. My husband and I enjoy playing bridge together immensely. I work eighteen hours a day, so I don’t have enough time to play these days, but I play as often as I can when I’m in the city.
How did you start teaching?
Someone was going away on vacation at a community centre in North Toronto, and I was asked if I would fill in during the winter, so I said sure. I brushed up on a few things, and off I went. Then Kate Buckman asked me to teach at her studio two years later. I started teaching bridge in about 1978, and haven’t stopped.
So you started teaching after just three years of playing? How did you pick it up so quickly?
I studied it. I studied and studied and studied.
How did you learn to teach others so quickly?
I had a very good teacher. I made notes of everything that he said, and I sat down and went over my notes before teaching. His name was Michael Davey, and he was a very good teacher. I just followed his guidelines, because there were no printed materials back then. I also made up cheat sheets for everyone, and now I have four cheat sheets that I sell all over the world, and they’re very popular.
What were some of the guidelines Michael taught you?
Michael taught the basics. He gave his students very clear guidelines. Those who studied his guidelines became disciplined bidders. He had a superb sense of humor and it caused many to become addicted to this wonderful game.
Has your approach to teaching changed over the years?
Oh yes, all of my material is constantly changing. Every handout I give students is written and rewritten and written again, and I’m always rethinking and reworking the hands that I use. I don’t create hands, but I do create write-ups and explanations. And the game is constantly evolving, modernizing all the time, and so you have keep up with that, making sure you teach people the most modern methods. When I first started, for instance, we were learning and teaching four-card majors and strong twos, and now those things don’t exist in North America. Now it’s five-card majors and weak twos.
Where do you get your hands from?
I use a lot of Eddie Kantar hands when I teach, because why re-invent the wheel? His hands are superb – there is always something for the bidder, something for the defender, and something for the declarer. He is a magician, and he’s been my role model and mentor and friend for many, many years.
How did you get started writing?
Oh, that’s all [Master Point Press cofounder] Ray [Lee]’s fault. Ray came to me and said he wanted a book for his mother-in-law, because [other Master Point Press cofounder] Linda [Lee]’s mother played bridge, but didn’t want the fancy, complicated stuff – just a nice, simple book where she could learn about the most important conventions. So he asked me if I’d be interested in co-authoring that book, and I said, “Sure!”
It was all Ray’s idea – most of my books have been Ray’s idea – and then after the first couple of books, co-authored with Marc Smith, he hooked me up with David Bird, whom I’ve never met – we do everything by e-mail – and he’s been a delight to work with. I’m very privileged.
Not counting 25 Bridge Conventions You Should Know, do any of your books stick out as a favorite?
(without hesitation) 25 Ways to be a Better Defender.
Why is that?
Because I think defense is the most exciting part of the game, and also the most challenging. Many bridge students have great difficulty visualizing what’s in their partner’s hand, and so teaching them that – their eyes just light up like Christmas trees, and it’s really wonderful. And the magic that develops at the bridge table when you’re defending – the chemistry. I tell them this is the stuff relationships are made over, and also what they’re destroyed over, so I teach whole courses on defense. I taught another class today on it. I just love it.
Why do you think 25 Bridge Conventions You Should Know has such enduring appeal?
At the time there was nothing out there on conventions, and in the years since, people just seem to clutch onto it and call it their bible – lucky me. I think one reason people like it is because it has a little summary at the back of each chapter, and a quiz, and they find that very useful.
Why does it have such enduring appeal? Because there’s critical stuff in there. In order to move on students really need to know that stuff, especially the first segment. The first third of the book is “learn these first,” and then the next batch is more complicated, and the last part is more complicated than that. But the first part is mandatory.
What’s the single most important tip you’d give a beginner?
(pause) Play lots. Play duplicate bridge twice a week. Even if you feel stupid, even if you feel as though you’re not making progress, you are. One bridge teacher told me that his bridge teacher told him that if you’re a once-a-week player, you’re always a weak player. So I tell my beginner students they have to play duplicate bridge, and not just with the babies – they have to get out there and play with the big guns. They can’t learn tennis just by standing in the classroom, holding the racket – they’ve got to get out onto the court and hit the ball again and again until they get it right. Otherwise they’re just playing tennis with someone who can’t hit the ball back over the net.
How does your approach change when you’re writing for or teaching more advanced players?
I try and teach all my classes so that players of all levels will get something out of it, because most of my classes are anywhere from 100 to 150 people, so you can imagine that there are some that are very, very inexperienced players and others that are considerably more experienced. So I try to target the whole range and explain things in immense detail, but I also try not to be boring. I’ll say, “now this part’s just for the less experienced players,” but they all listen, and then I’ll say, “now, if this is a little over your head guys, that’s okay – the more experienced ones need to hear this,” so that the beginners know they can tune out a little bit.
Now you’ve done quite a bit of travelling. One of the newsletters you sent me said you had been away for ten weeks…
That was last year. I flew to Laos first, and then Cambodia, where we have schools in each country, and then to Thailand, and then to Myanmar, and then three weeks in India. Then I flew to Burkina Faso, which is a land-locked country in East Africa where I have a foster child with Plan Canada who I had sponsored from when he was five years old. He’s now 18, and I wanted to visit him. I’ve now done 161 countries. By the end of this year it’ll be 165 at least. Some people collect stamps and coins, I collect countries.
That is amazing. I hope I have that luxury one day.
When you teach on cruise ships it makes it a lot easier.
How did you go from teaching in clubs to cruises?
Well, back in 1982 or thereabouts, I started escorting groups on bridge trips, to national bridge tournaments, to islands in the Caribbean. So I did a number of those, and then I started doing cruises, and became a licensed travel agent. So I’ve been teaching on four cruise lines, but most of the trips I’ve done have been as a travel agent, where I booked every single flight and every single cabin on the cruise ship, organized tours, and planned every detail myself. I’m a fanatic about detail, and so it came readily to me. We’ve done some amazing world trips: Australia/New Zealand, East Asia, a lot of Africa. In October I’m taking a big group from Lisbon down the west coast of Africa – to Gambia, to Senegal, to Togo, to Namibia – it’s just an awesome itinerary. We love the people that we meet along the way, and we take lots of things wherever we go in the world, especially for children – books, pens, supplies for school.
That’s incredible. What led you to do so much travelling and charitable work?
Well, I have been taking groups around the world for almost thirty-five years, and my girlfriend Patti Lee started working with me about twenty-two years ago, starting with a cruise to the Panama Canal. For many years we would give the people that were coming with our groups suitcases and help them fill it up with pencils or pens or notepads or whatever, and off we would go to these various countries and find places like schools that would receive these materials, and drop them off. And that just got bigger and better, until 2011 when we took a group to Cambodia. Here we found a volunteer from Gravenhurst, Ontario doing volunteer work, and she said there was a program where we could buy bicycles for the children of land mine victims. So we collected enough money to donate forty bicycles, and Patti and myself and several others from the group went to deliver them personally to a school called Banyan Learning Tree.
When we got the school it was a falling down shack, with a dirt floor, no desks, and a delightful teacher. So Patty and I looked at each other and said, “It’s nice that we’ve given them bicycles, but they really need a new school.” So we researched how much it would cost to build a new school, and found out it would cost $24,000. So in 2011 we raised $40,000, and with the money left over we built two libraries at other schools 100 km from Phenom Penh, in the province of Takéo in Cambodia. And so we now have four schools there, and we sustain them: we pay for electricity, we pay the teachers, we pay the librarians, we pay the teaching assistants, and all of the schools have computer programs. It’s all very exciting.
It sounds it.
It is. And the following year we went to Laos (pronounced like “cow” with an “l”) and met up with a wonderful volunteer from Port Hope named Steve, and he heads up an organization called Adopt a Village in Laos. And since then we have installed hundreds of water filters in villages around Laos, each village has about 100 people on average, and we have helped with building schools. So now Patti and I take turns going over to Cambodia and Laos each year. I go one year, she goes another. She was there this year, and I’m going in March next year. We teach English. We can’t teach bridge, because the card games are considered to be gambling games.
So you’ve really done a lot.
It’s not just Patty and I – it’s the whole bridge community of Toronto, and because I’ve written about some of these things, and have a large following – my newsletter goes out to about 4000 people once a month, including some people in the States – I get cheques from all over for these organizations. The bridge community has been very generous – they just embrace the whole thing. And all of our volunteers pay for their own airfare, their own accommodations, and their own meals, so all of the money goes to the cause, which they like.
Any upcoming projects you want to tell us about as you continue failing at retirement?
(laughs) Well, we’ve got another book coming – we had a book called Planning the Play of a Bridge Hand that was very successful a few years ago, and now David and I are working on a sequel to that which is going to be a little more advanced.
How do you and David divide the work?
We bounce chapters back and forth – I’ll write bits and he’ll write bits, and I’ll say I don’t like this, and he’ll say I don’t like that. There are some things I’m more passionate about, and some things he’s more passionate about, so it all works.
This review has been lightly condensed and edited.
And check out Barbara’s website for news, classes, and her newsletter.