After a few half-hearted attempts to step down in the past few years, I will finally be relinquishing my role as Chairman. I took this decision simply because since originally standing as Chairman I have had two children meaning that I just cannot dedicate the time to the role that I would like.
In recent days I have been reflecting on my time as Chairman, and indeed my time on the committee and at the club as a whole. I thought it may be of interest to some to hear my thoughts on bridge in Nottingham and the bridge club itself. I would stressthat these are my personal views and not those of the committee. In addition, whilst I do think I have a fairly unique insight due to my time as chairman (and treasurer before that), there are people who have been playing a lot longer than me that may have a different view.
The first thing to say is that bridge is not in the terminal decline some would suggest. However, it is declining/has declined and with the many demands of the modern world I doubt the game will ever reach the level of popularity it has in the past.
What is also noticeable is the changing make-up of the players. The key demographic for Nottingham(and pretty much every bridge club) is people who have retired or approaching retirement. This is understandable as bridge provides a way to keep your brain stimulated (with all the health benefits that come with it) and also provides a social outlet. Also, as I can attest, finding time for bridge when you have a career and young children can be somewhat challenging. It is this demographic which makes up the majority of the beginners and improvers classes and it is this demographic which we need to continue to appeal to in order to maintain numbers at the club.
It is now far more common for people to come to the game at this age, as opposed to returning to it after a break for kids etc. The members of this demographic have a range of priorities, but the most overwhelming is to have an enjoyable evening of bridge. Whilst I believe that all players want to improve, improvement does not appear to be a key priority. As such, what has declined is the more competitive element of bridge. It is noticeable that the number of people playing in club, county and EBU competitions is declining. More than that it is noticeable that attendances on Mondays and indeed most days has fallen.
This is, in my opinion, a pity. For me, one of the attractions of bridge is the competitive element and also trying to improve my game. I want people to play in competitions – both club ones and further afield. As a shameless plug I would mention that the club ones are always very friendly with an excellent tea (if on a Sunday) and only cost £2.50 (for members).Whilst I think that the committee has achieved a lot in my time as Chairman, the one area which we have yet to crack (and if I had time would have stayed on to try and crack) was the participation in competitions and on Mondays – the more the merrier!
For those of you that do want to improve, can I encourage you to be brave. By that I mean, be brave in your bidding, be brave in who you play against and be brave with who you play with – generally most people are happy to play one off games with people (I did not have a regular partner for several years when I started in Nottingham and was happy to play with anyone and everyone). In addition, read some books, however choose your level of books carefully as there no point over complicating things. Also don’t get too hung up on things like NGS, you learn more from mistakes than you do from successes.
[As an aside, did you know that we actually have a very successful playing population. In fact, last year a team representing this club came second in the inter-county club teams of 8 competition (so you could argue we are the second best club in the country!). We have amongst our members a former European champion, multiple England caps at various levels, and players who frequently win county competitions and challenge in national ones. All in all some very strong players – the thing is that strength is actually concentrated in a very small number of players, ideally it would be great to expand that base.]
One other thing I always hear is about junior bridge and how we should be encouraging more juniors to play. Whilst I completely agree with that, it is easier said than done and with smaller returns than focussing on the core population I mentioned above. The big advantage of encouraging juniors to play, is that it is likely that the next wave of strong players will come out of them (whilst people who start late in life can become very strong players, it is generally easier if you start earlier). However, as someone who learnt bridge at school and played at a thriving university club, I look around and relatively few of my peers are still playing – life got in the way. The ones that still play are generally ones who reached international level (and even then many do not) or have a lifestyle which means they can continue. Not one of my old school friends still play and they stopped pretty much as soon as they left school. There are more university players still going, but even that is shrinking. I would comment that if any efforts are to be directed at junior bridge, they would best be directed at the universities (as our county association is doing) as opposed to schools.
This is not to say people should not try to encourage junior bridge (I am certainly grateful I learnt at school), but you do need to limit expectations that this will solve any underlying problems (unless it became part of the National Curriculum and even then I have doubts). If people have the time and wherewithal to make the effort to promote junior bridge it should be encouraged and as a club we would encourage it (indeed if any member wants to do something in that regard, speak up and we will help however we can). I do hear of some clubs (you will have read about Stamford in the EBU magazine) who make a huge effort with junior bridge – all credit to them, but you need people to volunteer to put in the hours to get these initiatives off the ground and to run with them. This is not something that the committee can mandate, but it is something that we would support.
One of the key jobs for this (and any club) is to get people playing. We have the best facilities in Nottingham, yet the number of people attending drives is less than it was say 10 years ago (in fact it is less than one year ago). This is in part due to demographics (ultimately less people are playing bridge full stop) and also due to other factors such as traffic (I have lived in the West of the city and now live near Keyworth – I don’t think the traffic in general is that bad – but there are occasions it can be horrific – unfortunately there is not much we can do about this, so I just hope people persevere through the occasional bad day) and also an out-of-date notion that other clubs are more friendly (this may have been true twenty years ago, it is categorically not now – our members are some of the nicest people I have ever met and the club one of the friendliest I have come across).
We could (and probably will) continue to invest in the club facilities, however that is all irrelevant if we don’t get more people playing. We get lots of beginners and improvers, the hard part is transitioning them to main drives. We are becoming more successful at this – initiatives such as No Fear and Friendly Fridays are helping, as are Andrew and Graham’s efforts at their respective classes. I do know that the No Fear Fridays can cause the parking to get tight, but if it means that we get a more people coming to the club, it is worth it. If you ever do see a beginner at the club, please do go out of your way to make them welcome. Also, if you know anyone thinking of coming along – give them that little nudge they need.
Beyond the teaching initiatives, we have tried to do as much as possible to help attract new players. This ranges from the simple initiative of making tea and coffee free and low membership fees, to hosts on a Friday. The latter is something I did just want to pick up – whilst there is a core of people who do volunteer to be a host, we do need more hosts. My personal desire would be to have the host system running every night – this is what was in place when I joined the club (though it was underpinned by the likes of myself and Tony Neale regularly turning up without a partner). As ambitious as that objective may sound, we have c180 members – if everyone volunteered once a year we would be about there. Whilst I appreciate it is a pain to be a host when nobody turns up, once a year is not much of an inconvenience and I honestly believe that if we had hosts every night, the number of people playing would naturally grow, so we would all benefit in the long run.
Where does all this rambling leave us? In summary, I think that there is still a vibrant bridge scene, but that it has moved away from the more competitive element to more social bridge. This is absolutely fine and we should encourage the social players – at the end of the day, the more people playing bridge the better. The club is doing a good job at teaching these players (particularly through the hard work of Andrew and Graham) and we are starting to get more beginners transitioning to the main drives – but more needs to be done around this (an expanded host system being one idea).
What has gone backwards is people playing in competitions and on Monday nights etc. this to my mind is a shame and in part is the inevitable consequence of the move towards social bridge, However, I would encourage as many people as possible to take the plunge and play in competitions.
A final thought is about the county association and the EBU. The move towards social bridge has meant that there has been less of an understanding of these organisations as there is a perception that they only cater for the top players. Whilst there is some truth in that the most visible parts of the county and EBU are the county teams, and the competitions put on by both organisations, this is far from the only thing they do. Indeed, recently the county association has made great strides to attempt to be more inclusive, putting on improvers classes, sending newsletters, club forums and masterclasses (amongst other things) – whilst undoubtedly, there is more for them to do, there has definitely been a move in the right direction and I hope you have all seen it and will support them (as the club committee does) as they try and grow bridge in Nottinghamshire. The EBU also does a lot which is less visible – first and foremost they are the keeper of the laws that we operate under, but more than that the EBU provides director training, teacher training (maybe not so relevant for us with Andrew and his 30+ years experience, but still positive) and several other initiatives (including helping us to become a charitable organisation and complying with the new data protection (GDPR) rules). The EBU is far from perfect, but it is an organisation which we do need to support.
As I set out above, this is just some of my personal views and I hope people found them interesting and maybe thought provoking. If anyone wants to discuss them, just collar me when you see me.