While it may seem that bridge is little more than a hobby for pensioners, Israel is a youth bridge superpower. At almost every youth tournament the Blue and White wins medals.
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“In no sport are there so many Israeli successes,” says 22-year-old Moshiko Meyuhas, a cup-winner himself. “Between 2002 and 2013 there wasn’t one year when we didn’t win a medal. If we only come in second we’re depressed. Still, success creates problems. Just as teams won’t field a second-string roster against Barcelona [in soccer], the same applies for Israel in bridge. We have good genes.”
I arrive at the Neveh Avivim bridge tournament and, as expected, most players have gray or white hair. But there are also many younger players, including children.
“This is the only game where an 8-year-old can sit around the table with an 88-year-old,” senior bridge referee Ilan Shazifi says. He explains the absence of 20- to 60-year-olds with the fact that they simply don’t have time.
“They have the army, university and work. When you’re older you have more time to enjoy yourself. Bill Gates and other hot shots love the game,” says Shazifi, a former Israeli champion in middle-distance running.
He regrets that he only got addicted to the game at 36. “I told myself that even if I don’t become the best bridge player, I’ll become the best bridge referee,” he says.
From Russia to Ethiopia
Soviet-born Eduard Wittenberg, a bridge teacher in Petah Tikva, is an educator of the next generation. I ask him if the Russian immigrants have contributed anything to the bridge scene.
“This has nothing to do with country of origin or gender,” he says. “I’ve taught people from the Ethiopian community in Rishon Letzion, and they’re excellent players. I focus on gifted players, players who are ripe for the game. I tell the students that I come to teach culture. If there’s no culture, there can’t be bridge.”
Gilad Ofir, the 28-year-old captain who has led the Israeli youth team to a raft of world championships, has a method for attracting new players. “When I come to a class I ask them ‘do you want to be world champions?’ They’re very competitive,” he says. “We have motivation and Israeli determination.”
Still, the youngsters’ success causes bitterness among veterans.
“Despite the image of the game, there are many youngsters, and they’re the ones who bring in the medals, more than the older players. This causes envy. The grandmothers are afraid of the youngsters because they’re better players,” one young female player says.
“The grandmothers play in a very conventional manner, while the younger players take more risks and try things out. The grandmothers say, ‘oy, how could you play that card?’, but there are really good 16-year-olds who come back from tournaments in Europe and the grandmothers are afraid of them. Nobody likes to be beaten by kids.”
Labor of love
Tomer Tetenbaum, 15, is shy but no slouch. He started off by playing with his grandfather. “I play every day for about three hours,” he says. “I used to play soccer, but I quit. Kids in my class find it amusing.”
Going through the brochure of the Red Sea International Bridge Tournament, I notice that three sponsors are old-age homes. “Who do you expect will sponsor such an event? Shafizi asks. “An amusement park?” He then does the rounds among the tables.
“We also have the wealthiest people here; for example, [business leader] Nathan Hetz, even though only his wife is here today,” Shafizi says. “Former MKs Roni Bar-On and Michael Eitan are also regular players.” I ask if they’re any good, and Shazifi is diplomatic: “They have potential. But in bridge you have to practice a lot.”
Ofir, the youth team captain, makes clear that you don’t have to be rich. “To compete here for three hours costs only NIS 30, much cheaper than a movie and popcorn. And young players enjoy discounts at almost all the clubs,” he says, noting one more advantage.
“So many couples meet through bridge. There’s this 19-year-old who dated a woman five years older, because when you win you’re a superstar. I dated a woman six years older than me after I won a competition. And I’m not that good-looking.”