I DON’T TEND to find myself with time on my hands. There is always plenty to do – I could, after all be tidying my two studies and spare bedroom, but I’d rather do anything else. Still, in these Coronavirus days, there is no structure to one’s day, let alone one’s week. Remembering which day of the week it is can be a challenge. I hadn’t thought of my retired life as normally having much structure, but weekly evening bridge, meals out, meeting friends, hairdresser, podiatrist, dentist… the usual round of social and personal maintenance commitments do now seem to have amounted to a structure of a kind. All that is gone. Only the garden remains. And a weekly appointment with my groceries’ supplier, thank goodness. One activity has, however, emerged to provide a new structure: virtual bridge.
Early in the lockdown, a friend got me involved in it, and, whereas I have been accustomed to playing bridge once, or occasionally twice, a week, I am now playing four times, even five times, a week. And it is all free.
We use an easily downloadable app called Bridge Base Online. Some play on a computer, some use a phone but its screen is very small for the purpose. I find an iPad ideal. You have to register with a username and password, and you can add the names of friends with whom you hope or intend to play. All of our group claim to be of Intermediate (rather than Beginner) standard. On the app, we sign up for ‘casual’ rather than ‘competitive’ bridge. The first duty is to choose the scoring system. I have found this out the hard way. The default, it seems, is ‘IMPs’, which I have never heard of and which remains inscrutable. If you don’t choose something else (we use ‘Total Score’) before your table is set up, you are lumbered with ‘IMPs’. There is no going back. One of us is host, pressing the ‘Start a table’ button, choosing the scoring method and naming the three others to whom invitations are to be issued, and choosing who will play with whom. Happily, the app remembers the usernames of the people you tend to play with, so you need type in only a few letters of ‘Sunnybank’, or whatever. Immediately after all of you have logged in and accepted the invitation, play begins, with your cards appearing across the bottom of the screen. You see only the table, and the only sound, apart from the riffle of the cards being dealt, is a single note – like a lead pipe being dropped – that indicates that it is your turn to bid or play.
Each time it is your turn to bid or to play, the panel showing your username lights up in yellow. If you are slow, a message appears in the bottom right hand corner with your username and ‘It is your turn to bid/play’. Once you have your cards, a bidding screen appears. You can see what the other players are bidding, and, when it is your turn, you receive a panel showing you the choices available. For example, if the bidding has reached 1 Spade by the time it is your turn, your first choice is 1 No Trump. Bidding proceeds in the normal way. If you make an error, there is no going back – or that is what I thought.
When I once mistakenly bid 3 Spades, when I had intended to bid 3 Clubs, and when the opposition had been bidding Spades, I was left in 3 Spades. We had five trumps between us, and I was relieved to go only one down. At least, I thought there was no going back until one of our number asked to revoke her bid since it was ‘a mistake’. We two in the opposition were asked if we would allow this (we did), and she was able to change her bid. I have yet to find out how to do this since she doesn’t know how she managed it!
It is possible to play without arranging your own four, by joining a table where there is a vacant space. If one of your chosen four leaves for any reason, his/her place will quickly be filled by someone you have never heard of but who is looking for a game. One of our group has joined other fours whose members have been unknown to her, and has had a good experience. Occasionally, one of our four has dropped out unintentionally half way through a game and has been unable to return. There has been nothing for it but for the other three of us to log out and then log in again – to accept a new invitation from our designated host. The scoring then reverts to zero, and any hand that was in progress is lost. This can be a relief if you have been dealt a poor had but, of course, infuriating if your hand was good. Tant pis. There is no going back.
Across the bottom of the screen is a panel with ‘Friends’, ‘Account’, ‘History’ and so on, so it is possible to see which of your friends are logged in, what your details on the BBO account look like and the detail of recent hands. One useful facility is the ‘Claim’ box, which appears on the table when you are towards the end of a game and it is clear that you are going to win – if you have, say, four trump cards left and they are the only trumps left in the game. Press the ‘Claim’ button, and it generates another box which says ‘I claim 3, 4, 5… tricks’. The opposition have (both) to accept your claim, and that ends the game.
It is slightly surreal not seeing or hearing the other players at one’s table. It is possible to ‘chat’ in a pop-up box, but there is no time to say much more than ‘Well done, S!’ or ‘Sorry, C.’, or, at the end ‘Thanks, all’. Some people I know use WhatsApp as a means of communication during the game. I am not keen on trying to use two electronic devices at the same time, especially when the BBO app drives us relentlessly on at speed. Sometimes I have a post-mortem by phone with that day’s partner, which is a pleasant ending to the game. This app has proved to be a godsend during the lockdown. There has been the odd very occasional glitch, but for the most part it works well. Whether we will use it at all after things return to something near normal, I don’t know. But that is not in prospect, so we will continue to book our fours ahead. I have five games booked for this week and four for next week. Onwards into the virtual future.
Jill Stephenson is Professor Emeritus of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh.