Interviewed by Eric Emin Wood — 2016-05-23
If you’re familiar at all with the Atlanta bridge scene, you’re more likely to recognize Patty Tucker as a bridge teacher than a writer: as president of the Atlanta Junior Bridge Program, she’s helped hundreds of kids learn both the basics and intricacies of the game, in between (very occasional) professional appearances with husband and bridge partner Kevin Collins, whom she married in 2006.
Patty has also been president of the American Bridge Teachers’ Association since 2015.
Her signature series, Winning Bridge Conventions, breaks down a number of bidding techniques for both beginning and novice players.
I reached Patty at her Georgia home on Monday, May 23.
I don’t blame you if you don’t remember, because I didn’t, but you were actually one of the first bridge people I interviewed back in 2009.
I do remember that.
Then you have a better memory than me. I don’t want to rehash that interview, but are you still running the Atlanta Junior Bridge Program?
I am. We’re still pluggin’ along.
How many students have gone through it?
Oh gosh – probably close to 1600 or so? We probably teach about 300 individual students a year – some repeat, some are brand new – all over Atlanta.
Are they cumulative, or are a lot of these students one and done?
At schools, some of them are one-and-done, simply because we can’t cover everything, but the ones we teach at the bridge clubs and libraries and rec centers are continuing classes. We always accommodate new kids coming in – we try and catch them up to speed – but some of them have been playing long enough to learn more advanced concepts such as two-over-one.
Do you have a recommended time they come to your classes, or is it whenever they want?
Some teachers require that they come every week. My goal is if someone wants to play bridge and they can only come once a month, I still want them to come. Even though some of them have done very well, my goal is not to create kids who compete in the junior team trials. My goal is to get a whole bunch of kids playing bridge. (chuckles)
I might be biased, but I think that’s a much more noble goal.
Well, you’re always going to have kids or young adults who really take to it and have the inclination and ability to go far, and that’s fine, but I don’t think it should preclude any other kid from just playing bridge if they want to just come and see their friends and have a good time.
What have you been up to lately besides the Junior Bridge Program?
Well, I’m still teaching full-time. I teach about sixteen classes a week. I formed Whirlwind Bridge, which does a seminar called “Learn Bridge in a Day?”, so I’ve been going around all over the country teaching that.
How does “Learn Bridge in a Day?” work?
It was built for raw beginners – somebody who’s never played bridge in their life. We go from knowing nothing about bridge to the mechanics of play – opening the bidding, responding to the opening bid, opening notrump, overcalls. We teach them with bidding boxes and deal the cards duplicate style. I’ve been wanting to do that, because I think a lot of teachers don’t use duplicate supplies in their teaching, and if your goal is to eventually get them to play duplicate bridge, there’s something daunting about walking into a duplicate room, seeing everybody with these things, and you don’t know what they are or how they work. It makes you so very self-conscious. So the idea was, we’re going to teach ’em all of the things that duplicate players use, so that if they decide they want to pursue it further, they don’t get scared when they walk in the room.
They also learn a bit about scoring. They have to memorize the rules for opening bids. They have to memorize the rules for responding. From there we go towards how you should be thinking – that we’d rather play in a major because of the scoring. If not, then we can play notrump. If not, then minors. We don’t say, ‘jump when you have 16 to 18.’ We say, “How do you like your hand? If you think this is a pretty good hand, then you need a way to tell partner you think that’s a good hand. Don’t just bid the minimum, bid extra.” That kind of thing.
Is there any type of age limit to the program?
Nope. I’ve actually taught as young as five, and as much as eighty years old.
This interview is supposed to be about books. Can you tell us about your, Winning Bridge Conventions series?
Well, when [Master Point Press founders] Ray and Linda [Lee] talked to me about creating a series for them, I basically took all the material that I use in my classes.
Was it a challenge adapting them from lesson to book form?
Probably the hardest thing was the hands. When I do hands in my class, I actually just have my students [in groups of two] practice bidding, so I never paid much attention to the other two hands. So the hardest thing was probably having to go back through all of my hands and trying to figure out if I could just keep the other two people from bidding and interfering with the auction. (laughs) But the series is basically what I teach and it’s basically what I play. It goes through everything from the beginning concept of bridge to very advanced concepts.
What sort of “advanced concepts”?
I play at the national level – I’m a national champion and almost a Grand Life Master, so the system that I play is a little complex. It has a lot of special bids, and what I would call “gadgets,” or advanced concepts and conventions. So the books reflect everything from what I teach my very beginning students all the way through to what a more advanced player trying to work their way into tournament bridge would need. And they also reflect, I think, my personal view of teaching which, as we were talking about with “Learn Bridge in a Day?”, is that memorizing facts is ultimately not a good teaching tool for people who want to continue in bridge. I strongly believe that from the very beginning you should be teaching people how to think. And that you should talk about why you should treat hands a certain way, and why certain ones are good and certain ones are bad, rather than just have your students blindly memorize some concept that you have. I’m sure most teachers feel the same way.
How did you approach writing the lessons for beginners versus the ones for experts?
What I actually did is have two people help me edit – one for grammar and structure, and the other for content. And I purposely used someone who wasn’t very far along in their bridge life for the books’ beginning concepts, because I wanted to reflect things they were having problems with. There were things in the books that I would think I had explained well, but then I would have my inexperienced player come to me and say, “No, I didn’t quite understand that. You need to explain more.” So I think that really improved the quality of the books.
Is there a book of yours that you’d recommend for beginners in particular, and a book for experts?
I think the series of books on competitive bidding, which talk about cuebidding in competition, preempts, Michaels cuebids and Unusual Notrump bids, are really good for beginners. For more advanced players, I think the best would be the slam-bidding book – if I remember correctly, Serious 3NT. And I’ll tell you why – I think that’s the best convention invented for upper-level players in a long time. I think it’s a great, great, great convention. It’s gotten me out of a lot of trouble, knowing that bid. (laughs)
When did you write your last book? Do you currently have plans to write another?
Actually, I have been writing a little bit more, I think. I finished my last one in 2013, and I do have some more that I’m planning. I want to do more – I’m actually teaching some seminars right now about common-sense decisions at the three-level and five-level in competitive auctions, which is not going to be about any one type of convention, so much as it’s about all the factors you need to take into account when thinking about them in general. I’m having a lot of fun with it. I think it’s going to be a really good seminar, and will end up a really good book.
Going back to when I talked to you years ago, you said you didn’t play professionally very much, but now you said you’re close to being a Grand Life Master? Does that mean you’ve been playing professionally more often?
No – as a matter of fact in the last five years I’ve basically just played at the local tournaments and at the Nationals. Otherwise I haven’t gotten to play at all – I’ve been too busy teaching and running junior bridge and Whirlwind Bridge! (chuckles) Somebody asked my husband – he made Grand Life Master three years ago, I think? – “Kevin, when is Patty going to make Grand Life Master?” And he said, “whenever she decides to do it.” (chuckles) “She just has to decide that ‘yes, I’m going to cut down on teaching.’” But I love to teach, so I dunno.
I’m sure I’ll make it eventually.
For lack of a better phrase, why have you chosen teaching over playing?
I think – and I know this is not true of all professionals, so I’m not trying to lump everybody into the same category, and I’m not saying that anybody’s wrong and I’m right – but I think that there’s an expectation on some of their clients’ parts that if you hire somebody to play they should win, and I very much feel like every person who plays bridge, when they win, should feel like they’ve given an equal input to that win. When I play professionally, if the person I’m playing with does not play well then we probably won’t win. Because if they make a bid that’s supposed to mean something, and deep in my heart I know that they don’t really have that hand, I’m still going to bid the way that they told me. Some players have the same exact theory I do, some of them don’t. But for me, I think I enjoy helping somebody improve enough to experience the joy of winning for themselves, and I don’t think that’s always an option when you’re playing professionally.
I remember when I asked about your family’s playing habits in our last interview you said your son was too busy but he that does play online occasionally, and that your grandchildren played. Any other family stories?
I have my Aunt Betty, who never played duplicate bridge until she was… into her second retirement, let’s say. She had played party bridge forever, but one day she decided to play duplicate bridge. So she moved to a place that had a nice duplicate group, started playing with them, and now just plays all the time. She goes to the tournaments, has gotten involved in her district, and made a bunch of new friends. She’s even been to the Nationals. So for everybody out there, it’s never too late to start duplicate. (laughs)
We have a few signature questions I’m supposed to ask. One is, how long has bridge been your profession and did you ever want to do something else?
Well, I’ve actually taught on and off forever. Before I started teaching full-time, I owned a used collectible bookstore, and before that I was an expert at an engineering company. Then when my son went to college I opened the used bookstore, and when he graduated from college I started teaching full-time.
How many years has that been now?
Golly, he’s… (long pause) I’m multiplying… Seventeen, eighteen years? Twenty? About twenty years, I guess.
How old were you when you started teaching?
I was in my early twenties. I taught some people at the local club.
How has your approach to teaching changed over the years?
I think, like anything, the more you do it the more you improve. I think one of the biggest improvements that I can say I’ve made in my teaching is learning to recognize what the students want. Putting the things before them that are best. Like, I used to think that after students got through the beginning courses of bridge, they would be ready to learn different conventions, and what I’ve come to realize is, they’re not. After beginners really learn the first basics of bridge, they need to play. It’s not that they don’t play in class. But they need two or three months to just play and kind of let everything settle. So I’ve restructured what I teach and how I teach it. I think my beginner course, before I wanted to teach anything else, used to be six or eight months, and now it’s almost a full year. I have two eight-week courses where I teach the basics of bidding, covering Stayman and Jacoby transfers in week two. And then I do an eight-week course on the play of the hand: taking tricks, establishing a long suit, and trumping. It’s not easy to pass that. And then I have eight weeks of basic defense. And then play and defense – I make sure that the hands incorporate the bidding they learned at the beginning. And then I do a review of beginning bridge, where I go back and I review everything, because I realized that maybe they heard me the first time, but they didn’t have the context to really own it the first time. After that, the ones that want to are finally ready to learn something else. And that seems to work really well.
Are there any individuals who have inspired you as a bridge player, teacher, or writer?
I think [Eddie] Kantar is brilliant… And Bridge World magazine – that compilation of thoughts and ideas and concepts – I think is something every bridge player who wants to get a little better and improve their game should make sure they have. I hope they never go away. Writers – I think Curtis Cheek has such a humorous way of looking at things. He handles everything so well – he never gets upset, he seems to love playing and it kind of shows through. And I think Jeff Meckstroth and Eric Rodwell’s partnership – people could learn a lot from the way they interact with each other. You never hear a cross word, or see them taking one another to task, in front of anyone else. Such a respectful relationship as a partnership. And – I’ll tell you this funny story. Are you ready?
When I was first learning to play bridge – like I said, I was eleven, so I was a young kid, playing at the local club, and I had read about Lavinthal discards. And when you first start playing, you want to play everything, right? So my aunt – not the one I just told you about, but my other aunt, who played duplicate bridge – said she was going to play with me, and I said, “Can we play Lavinthal discards?” and she said sure. So we’re playing, we’re defending, and all of a sudden the right card came up and I made a Lavinthal discard against this lady. I was so excited – I said, “Aunt Jane, did you see that?!”
I was excited because it came up and it had worked. But I found out later that the lady who was playing the hand out wasn’t so appreciative of how well it had worked, and she said something to my father about me gloating, so my father said to me, “Listen, this is a respectful game, and if you are going to be disrespectful at the table to anyone, you will not play. So you need to learn how to behave at the table.” And I’m still playing respectfully, after fifty however many years.
That’s a valuable lesson.
I tell my students when they talk about wanting to play duplicate but they’re scared of doing something bad: “You know, you will have bad people no matter where you go – book club, golf, tennis – who will say mean or cruel things or bad things to you. That’s not a bridge player being a bridge player. That’s somebody who wasn’t raised right.”
So there you go. I like people in the bridge world who were raised right – who know how to treat their partners, who know how to treat their opponents, who make people feel welcomed. Those are the kind of people I admire.
How do you try to incorporate that approach into your own writing?
Well, in the defense book, I actually have two or three pages about how you need to behave as a partner. You need to remember that you’re on the same side, that your partner is trying to make good decisions, and that no one is going to get everything right. One thing I tell my students is, if you say to your partner, “How in the world could you have done that?! You knew that they had blah blah,” they can answer, “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have done it. Obviously I didn’t know.” (laughs in disbelief) So you have to remember that you’re all working together towards a common goal. You’re always playing with someone who wants to win just as bad as you. And if they make a mistake, that’s just life.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.