Interview by James Howick
What prompted you to become a bridge teacher?
As a child, I was raised in a very conservative religious atmosphere. Playing cards was not allowed! An older sister and I would hide our card playing under a blanket tent with a flashlight. I never lost that feeling that I was living life in the fast lane with a deck of cards in my hand. When my husband, Charlie Williams, and I married in 1990, I soon learned about his passion for bridge. I took my first bridge lesson at a local bridge club in the Fall of 1991, and started playing in the novice game with other classmates. I had three jobs (full time legal secretary and two part-time jobs dealing poker and blackjack) and eventually quit all of them so I would have more time to play bridge at the club.
By the end of 1992, the ACBL declared me the winner of the Rookie of the Year race. I was obsessed. However, I was running out of money but still needed to get my daily bridge fix, so I decided I would teach it. Having no teaching background, I soon learned that my passion for bridge did not qualify me to teach it effectively. I learned about the American Bridge Teachers’ Association through a friend, joined immediately and attended every convention for years, learning from other teachers from all over the country about bridge teaching methodology. I was blessed to have been mentored by fellow teachers Pat Harrington, Barbara Seagram, Roberta Salob, Jerry Helms, Audrey Grant, Marti Ronemus and so many others.
You haven’t raised class fees for over ten years. Why is that?
Bridge has a bit of an image as being a game for the rich or elite. I think it should be affordable for everyone, and I work hard at keeping my costs down. My client list has grown to well over 1,000 students and that growth now earns us a respectable living wage. I started a newsletter for bridge students eight years ago, which also has prospered. I have found other bridge income alternatives so that I don’t have to raise my class fees. I have reduced my classroom expenses by having my students download most of their handouts from my website and print them out at home.
In your years of teaching, what moment(s) was/were the most rewarding for you?
A few years ago I realized I wasn’t a bridge teacher, I was a social worker. I was bringing communities together, saw my students expanding their social networks, and giving them a tool to become more emotionally connected with others. In the last generation, with the advent of television, video games, computers, etc., I saw that our society lost the face-to-face interaction needed to have a cohesive community. We can bridge that gap (pun intended) and leave this world knowing that we made a difference.
How do you balance your working life with your personal life being that you work with your husband?
As bridge partners, we worked very hard over the years to have the best demeanor possible at the bridge table; never criticizing, always courteous. This attitude has leaked into our personal lives, strengthening our marriage. Some couples may have difficulty in spending so much time together, but we’re actually having fun with it. We both have between four or five classes we do on a solo basis; there are three more which we do together. We have learned how to “team teach” which sometimes resembles a “George & Gracie” show. I give Charlie all the credit for our success. He keeps the material organized, does all the copying and makes sure the right suitcases are in my car for the next day’s classes. Running 13 classes a week takes a lot of organization which is not my strong point. He is the technical advisor to my bridge writing, as well as the grammar police. I have great ideas but he makes me look brilliant. Together, we’re unbeatable.
I often thought my entire life revolved around a deck of cards. I teach bridge, write bridge and play bridge. However, I do have other hobbies. I’m an avid reader (King, Koontz, Patterson, Roberts, etc.). I bought my first digital reader a few months ago and download my books now, usually reading 2-3 books a week. I’m also a poker player, political news junkie and love apple martinis.
You say your best teaching method is humor. How do you think humor helps people learn bridge?
A successful bridge teacher needs two things: good teaching material and retention of students. Classes should get bigger, not smaller. If your students are not having fun, they won’t come back. It’s our job to make this difficult to learn game seem like fun. Telling relevant jokes not only helps the students to relax, it helps them to remember the concept. I have a 32 page file of bridge jokes and review it several times a year to help me remember them. It also makes it fun for me as well. I’m blessed to have a job that I love to do.
You’ve been very active in the bridge community: teaching, former president of the ABTA, a columnist for the Bulletin. What further, if any, plans do you have for contributing to the bridge community?
I foresee expanding our bridge writing activities. Charlie recently was appointed to be the new Editor of the ABTA Quarterly magazine and I will be assisting him with that. We’re also planning on converting our extensive bridge writing into books. What we are NOT going to do is run a bridge club. We already bought that tee-shirt and burned it. My hat goes off to those running a bridge club, it’s hard work. We won’t be doing bridge cruises either – I get seasick.
For people just coming to the bridge community as novice players, what advice do you have?
Bridge should be fun! Edith McMullin (another wonderful mentor of mine) always said “If you not having fun, you won’t play well either.” Learning the game is a humbling experience because of all the mistakes you’ll make. However, we should embrace the mistakes, not fear them. I actually play for free with my students whenever possible, sharing the abundance of joy and laughter that can be found in bridge. Get out there and play, play, play. I once heard another teacher tell her students: “What’s the worst that will happen if you don’t make this contract? Why, you get to play another hand, of course!”
For more information about Leslie Shafer, or to see a sample issue of her newsletter, visit Leslie’s website at www.bridgeteacher.com or email Leslie at firstname.lastname@example.org.