Judy SkellengerJudy Skellenger

Interview by Eric Emin Wood

Tell us about yourself. How did you become a bridge teacher?

I have three sons and was lucky enough to retire early from an HMO in Oregon. I was alone for many years, then about six years ago I was playing bridge on the internet with a nice man who was a very competent bridge partner from Michigan. I mentioned I was going on an Alaskan bridge cruise with eight of my students and he said he’d love to join us. My students and I all fell in love with him and the rest is history. I’m now very happily married and teaching bridge in Rochester Hills, Michigan at our beautiful senior center.

The story of how I became a bridge teacher is a fun one. As soon as I retired I began taking bridge lessons. I had learned bridge on my mother’s knee, but with extra time I wanted to try tournament bridge, so I knew I needed to upgrade my skills. After about six months of lessons, I told my teacher that I really admired what she was doing and that I’d love to try it sometime – little did I know that she intended to retire in two months! She thought I was competent and asked if I would replace her. I immediately said yes, but after about two weeks I got cold feet. I went to the office of my future boss and said I’d changed my mind. My future boss said she wanted to call the outgoing bridge teacher and put her on a speaker phone. She did that and told my bridge teacher I wasn’t going to replace her. My teacher said in a really loud voice “Oh Yes You Are!” So I quietly said “OK” and have never looked back. I more than doubled the amount of students while I was there. I’ve taught now for about 10 years.

Tell us about some of the ways you’ve encouraged your students to pick up bridge?

My students come to my classes by signing up at our senior center, so I don’t know them until the first day of class. I’ve been told many sign up because of comments from their friends. I believe they stay and advance to my more difficult classes because I’m so enthusiastic about this great game. I tell them about wonderful friendships that can be made and that this is a game that evolves, so one could never get tired of it. They all laugh when I say yuck to 5C and 5D, but they tend to now remember how much better 3NT is going to play.

What was your reaction to being nominated for the ABTA award?

I was thrilled and deeply humbled to be considered for this great honor. I have only my students to thank for thinking of me.

What is your teaching philosophy?

A simple one that I truly believe: I have no dumb students. I just have some that need a bit more of my time. I teach beginning and intermediate students, but I can honestly say that teaching beginners is my very favorite. When they understand a concept, it’s like a light bulb goes on and I love to see it.

Your students speak highly of your ability to plan lessons. How do you go about planning them, and how much of your lessons are improvised?

I tend to be very organized and spend at least an hour at home prior to each lesson. I also arrive one full hour before class begins to made sure that all will run smoothly. My improvising comes during lessons when I can interject humor to help my students remember some things better. I tell my students there are no dumb questions and so far I’ve been able to answer 90 percent of these questions. The ones I need to research have their answers by the following week.

How do you advertise your classes?

My classes are advertised in the OPC newsletter that comes out once a month. Last month my classes were supervised play, where my students play duplicate bridge with bidding boxes but are allowed to ask questions about bidding or opening leads. Planning to Win, by Pat Harrington, and Beginning Bridge, also by Pat Harrington, were taught on other days.

I also do private lessons and these are strictly by word of mouth.

What do you feel seniors have to gain from learning the game?

I believe seniors have everything to gain and nothing to lose by learning bridge. I’ve cut out articles to show to my students. I’m not sure where I read this, but at one time the AMA said that bridge and chess are the only games that help our minds as we age.

What advice do you have for other teachers?

Love what you’re doing. If you love it, your students will see it and love it also..

What are your favourite bridge books?

I absolutely adore all the bridge books by the late Harry Lampert. They are fun and so helpful. Another wonderful book is How the Experts Win at Bridge. My husband and myself took a bridge cruise with Larry Cohen, and what a wonderful, patient, informative teacher he is. I enjoy all of his books.

I almost exclusively use material from Pat Harrington in my classes. She has been more than helpful to me. My students love her material because they get to play so many hands.

Why is 3NT a better bid than 5 or 5?

When I teach my beginning students about 3NT or 5 and 5, they get the idea quickly. I say games in bridge are 3NT, 4, 4 or yucky 5 and yucky 5 . They laugh, but they get the idea that seldom do we want to be in five of a minor. How much easior it is to take nine tricks, rather than 11. I once had a partner who told me if I bid five of a minor, I might as well bid six.

What is your favourite convention and why?

Hands down my favorite convention is Jacoby Transfers. I tell my students that I hope to meet Mr. Jacoby in heaven someday to thank him for this great convention. I’ve been concerned about not being allowed to teach it to my brand new students, because as they progress they have to unlearn the way they were taught and learn Jacoby instead.

Recently I took a chance and taught them Jacoby immediately. Yes there were some blank faces for awhile, but they very quickly learned to love the convention. I will teach this great convention to my new students from now on.

What do you like best about the game?

That it’s forever changing. It’s a lifetime learning experience and my students love it when I say that whenever I can, I still take lessons and will do that forever.