Bridging the Generations

At mid-morning a few dozen older adults are sitting around tables at the Hasharon Bridge Club in Kfar Sava, at a course for beginners being led by Eldad Ginossar. They carefully write down every word uttered by Ginossar, a European Bridge champion, in their notebooks.

"So far we've learned only about playing without a trump suit. Now we will learn to use trump cards, which change the whole nature of the game," he explains, and the crowd responds with excited murmuring.

Bridge is a complicated game that takes several months to learn and many years to reach a high level of proficiency. Ginossar says that is why the game is associated with retirees - they are usually the only ones with the time to make such a commitment.

Even so, Ginossar and Ron Pachtman, his partner in the European championship title, are both 26, and are proof that the automatic association between bridge and seniors is unjustified.

"Bridge isn't a hobby," Ginossar says. "It is your life."

Ginossar is a prime example of the a small but vibrant scene of young Israelis who devote most of their free time to the game. The Israel Bridge Federation currently has some 500 registered players under the age of 25, out of a total membership of about 6,000.

Most of the members of the "juniors" group took up bridge in school, or as part of family tradition. A few dozen bridge schools in the center of the country began offering classes over a decade ago. Most of the thousands of people who have learned this game abandoned it later on, but a few dozen have turned into a solid group of professional players who compete in competitions in Israel and abroad. International Internet sites have also helped make the game more accessible and enable locals to compete against players overseas.

Ginossar admits that it is not easy to convince teenagers to devote themselves to the game. "My parents urged me to play," he relates. "My father had played bridge for years and he told me, 'go learn to play.' At first it was boring, and I wanted to quit. As a child, it was very difficult for me to play a game with adults, until I found a partner my age, and then we began to enjoy ourselves. Now I am happy I stuck with it. At 16 I was invited to join the Israeli youth team, and in recent years I have chalked up considerable achievements as an adult player.

"The achievements in bridge in Israel, especially by youth," says Ilan Shezifi, chief tournament director for the Israel Bridge Federation (IBF), "are better than in any other sport, perhaps with the exception of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team. Unlike Maccabi, however, bridge has no imported players."

Shezifi, 64, and his wife Hanna, the federation's administrative director, are former athletes. Both were Israeli champions in middle-distance running and also won international titles.

"In 1971, when we stopped running competitively, we looked for somewhere to unload our athletic tensions, and came bridge," Shezifi says.

"The Israelis manage to squeeze their way into nearly every international bridge championship. The young people learn quickly and are achieve success more quickly. Schoolchildren are the way to disseminate the game and guarantee that the game will continue into the next generation," Shezifi added.

In 2003 Israel won first place in the World Junior Pairs Championship. In 2004 it was second place in the European Youth Teams Championship, and last year it aced the under-21 world championship. These are in addition to the achievement of Ginossar and Pachtman.

Moshiko Meyuhas, 17, of Rishon Letzion, began playing bridge when he was nine. "For me, the 'gang' is a very important part of bridge," Meyuhas says, "and now there are lots of cool guys playing. There are games almost every night, and we can call up our partners and arrange to play."

Ginossar also believes the social aspect is essential for winning at bridge. "There is a tremendous amount of interaction," he explains, "mainly with your regular partner. You get to know your partner and you can anticipate his moves. For some people, finding a bridge partner is almost like finding a life partner. It's teamwwork, which requires trust, cooperation and understanding."

At the bridge club on Carlebach Street in Tel Aviv, Gizi, 87, is playing against Yarden, 11. Yarden has been playing bridge for four years, and last year she began competing in tournaments. A few of the women at her table and the next one are in their 80s.

"You go to Graetz School?" one asks. "My great-grandson goes there."

It is difficult to think of many other activities that would attract such a wide range of ages, but the generations seem to be in harmony here.

Teach, and shock

Still, something is weighing down the atmosphere in the Israeli bridge world: a series of ethical violations by young players in recent months, in response to which the IBF barred the youth team from the international championships this year. Among the infractions was the false recording of the results of tournaments.

"These were unethical acts, some of which border on fraud. So we decided to teach them a lesson and shake them up," IBF chief tournament director Ilan Shezifi explains.

The decision sparked a sort of revolt among the young bridge players, who even created their own "Juniors" Web site, www.bridg54.com. In their mission statement on the site its founders claim the IBF violated their rights. "Our voice has been silenced," they wrote.

One of the revolt's leaders is Yuval Yaner of Pardes Hannah, world youth champion, along with his partner, Adi Azizi. Today he is 26, no longer a "junior," but he still identifies with them.

"[The federation] claims that the juniors are being deceitful, based on the fact that some did things that are forbidden," says Yaner. "But adults also do things that are not allowed. I feel we are being discriminated against. Some people are jealous of the young people's success. People are jealous of us and try to restrict our movement."

Shezifi is familiar with these claims, but refuses to get excited. "The youth team was outraged by the decision, but the fact is that many of them were involved in unethical activity. We decided to purge bridge and make it cleaner. Shenanigans are acceptable in games here, but not at international tournaments."