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Youth Trumps the Experts

Twenty-somethings Jenny Ryman and Gavin Wolpert won one of the most prestigious events in the game of bridge -- the Blue Ribbon Pairs -- at this month's Fall North American Bridge Championships in Denver. As the result was announced, hundreds of fellow competitors cheered the youngsters. They are the youngest ever -- Ryman is 20 and Wolpert is 23 -- to win the event. They also are engaged to be married.

The Blue Ribbon Pairs began in 1963 and has been won by many world champions. Last year's winners were two experts from Egypt. Bob Hamman of Dallas, Texas, the world's reigning top player, was delighted.

"This is dynamite," Hamman said. "It shows that the face of bridge is changing."

Wolpert said the response around the world has been overwhelming. "I'll log on to play bridge online and have 25 messages in five minutes from people I've never heard of -- even someone in Macedonia."

One of the hands they played was featured in Phillip Alder's bridge column in the New York Times Nov. 28.

The Blue Ribbon Pairs is exclusive to players who previously have won regional championships. The three-day event began with 280 pairs, with 78 competing in the final on Thanksgiving Day.

Ryman and Wolpert both are experienced in high levels of competitive bridge. Ryman, a resident of Sweden, represented her country at the recent World Championships held in Portugal. Wolpert, of Ontario, Canada, won a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships last summer in Australia.

"This is number one for sure," Wolpert said, when asked how the win compared to other victories. "Not just because of the event but because I won with Jenny."

Two days after the bridge tournament ended, Ryman and Wolpert were back at work at the Wolpert family's bridge club in Ontario. His parents are Hazel and Myer Wolpert. His 30-year-old brother, Darren, who works at a stock brokerage, also plays.

"My mom has been a bridge teacher for as long as I can remember, and I was the one who said I would never, ever, ever learn the game," Wolpert said. "My parents tried to teach me when I was 7 and I hated it" -- he was too active in sports to want to sit still at the table.

Several years later, he caddied at a tournament (bridge tournaments have caddies who help with the games). "When I sat down and played in the caddy game, I felt like I knew I could be good. I was seeing things others couldn't see. Suddenly, I loved it."

Ryman also grew up in a bridge family. Her father, Svante, won the European Junior Championship in 1974 and often captains the Swedish team in world competition. Her mother, Mari, has won the European Women's Team Championship. Her 22-year-old sister, Sofia, also has represented Sweden in youth events.

"Bridge is the best way for a young person to travel the world," Ryman said. "I have so many friends all over the world thanks to bridge, and I've seen so many places that most people will never experience."

Petite and blonde, Ryman said reactions to her have changed substantially.

"In North America, people have gone from thinking I'm a complete novice, greeting me with 'Oh, hello honey, how long have you been playing bridge' to 'Oh, my god, it's that girl who won the Blue Ribbon -- can I have your autograph!'"

Ryman and Wolpert both plan professional careers in bridge through the club, teaching and international competition.

The Denver tournament was one of three North American championships sponsored annually by the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL). About 5,000 players from every state and as many as 30 countries participated in the 11-day tournament, which ended Sunday, Nov. 27. The tournament featured up to 30 games a day for players at all levels.

Founded in 1937, the ACBL is the world's largest bridge organization, with 160,000 members who play in the league's 3,200 bridge clubs and 1,100 regional tournaments throughout North America.