Interview by Claire Sheldon
How did you first get into playing and teaching bridge?
My brother learned bridge in college and introduced the game to our family when I was a senior in high school. Sometime during my freshman year of college, I was asked if I knew how to play bridge, to which I answered, “Certainly.” At that time, little did I know how little I knew. During college, I dabbled at duplicate but never took the game seriously. After college, I began playing more and achieved some level of success as a player. To earn money, I began to teach bridge and play occasionally as a ‘micro-pro’. 1987 was the turning point in my bridge career. I had the opportunity to play professionally on several teams with Paul Soloway and Bobby Goldman. That same year, the ACBL launched its Teacher Accreditation Program (TAP) and I was selected as one the original four or five teacher trainers. Both of these events helped my national visibility.
Very few professional players also teach. Why do you think this is the case? As a top-level expert, how do you relate to the problems that many beginner players have? What is your teaching philosophy? Do you have any advice for other teachers, especially new ones?
I am answering these questions collectively since they are all interrelated to me.
I like to think that I am one of the few professionals who can play at a high level and teach groups successfully. The fact that you can play does not necessarily mean you can transfer your knowledge to others in a manner that is productive and entertaining. The fact that you are a good bridge teacher does not necessarily translate into being a high level player. You must work hard at both playing and teaching and always remember that they are separate and distinct skills.
It is very important to not take yourself too seriously. Never forget that a large part of teaching, especially when teaching groups, is the entertainment function. When teaching, I focus on card play and defense since these are somewhat individual skills that everyone needs. I tend to avoid ‘presenting’ conventions, which I think is often a cop-out as a substitute for actually teaching. For most people, I suggest that whatever volume of material you intend to cover, cut it at least in half. Whatever pace you intend to present the material, slow that down by at least 50%. If you do this, you are still likely teaching too much too fast.
I have often said, “My philosophy of teaching is to input new information at least three times.” I tell people what they are about to do, follow that by letting them do it, and finish up by telling them what they just did. I think you should teach in sets rather than jumping around. When I am teaching play of the hand, I may have four consecutive lesson hands involving trumping a loser. This may be followed by four consecutive hands of setting up a long suit. You want the student to ‘get it’.
What proportion of your time is spent teaching as opposed to playing, and how does each activity enrich the other?
During 2009, I will conduct eighteen to twenty group seminars, which typically last two to twenty days. The attendance at these programs ranges from a low of fifty to a high of around 140. Most of my programs are annually repeating events held in resort areas. As a player, I go to all three Nationals, play in five or six regionals per year (primarily as a professional) and on rare occasions, may play a day or two in a local sectional. I participate in the Grand National Pairs and Teams as a player, not a professional. Playing high level bridge is sometimes the sanity break I need to balance a very hectic teaching load.
Teaching sometimes helps me remember to focus and think, since I emphasize this so much when on my feet. Playing helps me see scenarios where perhaps I have erred when I shouldn’t have and I can create a lesson hand from my experience.
What are some of the differences in your teaching strategies in the classroom as opposed to in seminars?
I often tell people that for a man without a real job, I am incredibly busy. I almost never do local classroom teaching, and instead I focus on group seminars.
Do you have any funny or rewarding teaching stories to tell?
I used to avoid teaching defense since it so often depressed students, and when they were depressed, I got depressed. Years ago, one group badgered me into submission and I agreed to teach defense. After a while I noticed one of my favorite students sort of looking like she was in a daze and I really had been working hard to not overwhelm the class with too much information. When I asked her if something was wrong, she said, “Damn, Jerry. This sure turns bridge into a full time game!” No truer words have ever been spoken.
On occasion, I have had people give compliments about me and my style of teaching. During one of my seminars at a very ritzy resort, there was a lady in attendance whose husband raised goats. Lots of goats. Lots and lots of goats. On lots and lots of property. At the end of my seminar, she approached me and said, “Jerry, you sure know how to put the hay where the goats can get it.” I am pretty sure I knew what she meant.
Somewhere I read that if you steal the ideas of one person it is plagiarism, but if you steal the ideas of many people it is research. I work very hard at creating fresh sets of lessons. Several years ago a group requested something I had taught in the previous year at another facility. My assistant initially rejoiced thinking this would be easy. Unfortunately, after several days of work, she looked at me in disgust and said, “You can’t even plagiarize yourself!”
What are the particular challenges of training and certifying teachers?
I have not trained teachers in over ten years. I enjoyed it when I was involved. A big problem originally was that at the end of three days I was supposed to sign something which certified all in attendance as teachers. In reality, you can’t necessarily make someone a teacher in three decades, let alone three days.
What changes have you seen in bridge teaching in recent years and how do you stay up to date?
The American Bridge Teachers Association (ABTA) provides teachers with a network for exchanging ideas and staying current. I think we are seeing more competent teachers than in the past as more talented people enter the field.
What are your favorite bridge books? Which ones do you teach from?
Books that I often recommend for intermediate or higher students:
Card Play Technique, Mollo & Gardner
Reese on Play, Terrence Reese
How to Read Your Opponent’s Cards, Mike Lawrence
Almost anything written by Eddie Kantar
I don’t teach from anyone’s book. I spend an enormous amount of time with my assistant creating my own material for seminars.
What are the most common themes and problems in questions that get sent to your column?
The questions I receive run the entire gamut from directing issues, which I know nothing about, to play, bidding, partnership issues etc. I receive so many email questions that I have an auto-response message to assure people that I will respond, but it could take a while!