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Bridge in Black and White

Bridge originated at a time when racial segregation was widespread in the United States. The early bridge organizations
that would later merge to form the ACBL excluded African Americans from their tournaments, and at least five Southern states banned interracial cardplay.

In 1932, a group of 20 Black bridge players founded their own organization, the American Bridge Association. When the ACBL began in 1937, it maintained the racist policies of its predecessors. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 that NABCs were opened to all players, and three years later, the ACBL finally adopted a nondiscrimination policy.

By that time, though, the two organizations had developed infrastructure over their 35-year history of separation that would continue propelling them along separate paths. Players remained loyal to their local club and the organization to which it belonged. In the mostly segregated bridge world, little has changed in 53 years.

Eunice Patton of Bloomington IL is the ABA’s liaison to the ACBL, chairing a committee that facilitates relations and promotes activities between the two organizations. Unlike most ABA members, Patton began her bridge career in the ACBL.

While working at State Farm’s headquarters, she met Fred Crockett, who introduced her to bridge. He lived in Danville, so they met at the club in Champaign, about halfway between their homes. Patton has been playing in Champaign and Bloomington since 1995, and in all that time, Crockett was the only fellow Black player she ever saw there.

Early in her bridge education, Patton befriended one of the top players in the area: Georgia Heth, who is currently the ACBL president. Heth also played in Champaign, driving over an hour from the Peoria area, and at tournaments around District 8.

“I would always see Georgia. We just really hit it off,” Patton said. “We would laugh and talk, and I asked her to be my mentor. She said she’d love to. I felt fortunate that she would invest time in me.”

Heth said they had much in common as professional women about the same age.

“I met her at the bridge game, and I liked her,” Heth said. “Eunice was a good beginner; she was very interested. One time while we were driving to the game, I taught her the difference between Texas transfers and Jacoby transfers and then jumping to game. Believe it or not, it came up in the second round, and she was very proud she remembered it. It got us to a slam that no one else was in.”

It was Heth who took Patton to an ABA tournament for the first time. After joining the ACBL Board in 2002, Heth came to admire Harriette Buckman, who served several years as the ACBL’s liaison to the ABA. Buckman invited Heth to the ABA’s 2004 summer national in Indianapolis, and Heth invited Patton to play in the women’s pairs.

“I had never heard of the ABA,” Patton said.

Though Heth found the atmosphere very friendly – “better on average than the ACBL” – Patton didn’t feel warmly welcomed. She continued playing exclusively in the ACBL for another 11 years.

At the 2015 Summer NABC in Chicago, Sam Graham convinced Patton to take another look at the ABA. She decided to go to their tournament that fall in Atlantic City with a friend from Pennsylvania. This time, she found the welcome so warm she was overwhelmed and joined immediately.

“In the ABA, I feel like part of a family and have developed special relationships that I treasure,” Patton said. “The tournaments tend to be more relaxed and less structured. We look forward to seeing each other and interacting socially and at the bridge table. Because we share many of the same experiences and backgrounds, I feel at home and comfortable.”

Russ Jones, Heth’s predecessor as ACBL president, is Patton’s counterpart as the ACBL’s liaison to the ABA. Jones, too, appreciates the ABA’s homey atmosphere. “To go to their tournaments and play, you’re the most welcome person. They’re so cordial. It just seemed a much more friendly environment than ours. I took some people from my club and they said, ‘Those are the friendliest people I ever met!’”

It’s a lot easier to maintain that personal closeness in an organization the ABA’s size, with fewer than 2500 members. The entire organization is smaller than District 8, the smallest district in the ACBL.

Patton identified four reasons the racial divide persists in bridge: the lack of incentive for the two organizations to come together; the disparity between the two systems of masterpoints; the lingering effects of racism; and the loyalty members feel to the organization they are familiar with.

Jones believes those issues aren’t insurmountable. Shrinking membership is changing the game and will continue to provide greater incentive to cooperate, he says. As for masterpoints, conversion is not a mystery. ABA games are scored using ACBLscore, which already applies the ACBL masterpoint formula. ABA directors then apply a conversion factor to determine the number of ABA points to award, approximately triple the ACBL number.

Since meeting with ABA officials at their 2019 national, Jones has been working on plans for a closer relationship between the two organizations. The coronavirus sidelined those plans, but when it’s over, he hopes to pick up where they left off.

Jones’s vision for the future includes: joint nationals held consecutively at the same venue, with a crossover flighted teams competition like the GNT; publishing the ABA’s quarterly newsletter as an insert in the Bridge Bulletin, with masterpoint listings for both organizations available on the back cover; and, ultimately, joint membership. He notes it would require no rule changes to designate the ABA as an ACBL club and allow it to award ACBL black points in all its events.

It would be important to ABA members to keep their own masterpoint races and system of rankings, Jones said. “We need to be respectful of their identity and integrate the best way possible.”

For now, the only dual memberships belong to players like Patton, willing to pay two sets of dues. Patton appreciates the structure the ACBL provided when she was learning the game, as well as the community she has found in the ABA.

“It was an adjustment for me, but over time I have come to appreciate the differences, and I look forward to playing in both worlds.”