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Reinventing the Game

Zoom brings the social element back to online bridge

Bridge players have been forced to migrate online. While they’re generally pleased to have the opportunity to play at all, the truth is, it’s just not the same as playing in person. Virtual clubs typically limit the length of their games to about 18 boards – because a two-hour online game feels like four hours.

A few groups on the West Coast are pioneering a solution to the tediousness of online bridge: using Zoom. For many of those who’ve tried it, it’s the only way to play online.

The Mercercrest Bridge Club in Seattle has been running games with Zoom since mid-March. The Portland Gay Men’s Bridge Group began using the same format in early April. Tom Reynolds of Los Angeles hosts online knockouts, an easier way to make use of Zoom, as no movement is required.

The U.S. Bridge Federation also planned to use Zoom in its invitational tournament in late May/early June.

The first cases of coronavirus in the United States emerged in the Seattle area, where things began shutting down earliest. Mercercrest director Aaron Mohrman, who had experience using Zoom for work, had the idea to use the free videoconferencing software to bring his club together. A couple of weeks before ACBL’s Virtual Club program came to fruition, he arranged with Bridge Base Online to run free, private tournaments.

“Everyone was feeling isolated in their homes, especially those of us who live alone,” Mohrman said. “It is so comforting to hear familiar voices and see people’s faces.”

Running a pairs game on Zoom requires using a feature called breakout rooms. Before the beginning of the game, everyone joins a Zoom meeting. After a few minutes of socializing and announcements from the director, the host assigns players to breakout rooms corresponding to the table number where they start. At the end of each round, the East–West players need to be moved to the next room. Then, at the end of the game, everyone returns to the main meeting for more social time.

All players need to do is keep two windows open on their computer – one for BBO and one for Zoom. The Zoom window works best sized so that the four pictures stack vertically and placed off to the side – big enough to see the four players at your table. “They can talk freely about what is happening at their table, and no other table can see or hear them,” Mohrman explains.

You may place the Zoom window on the left, on the right, or on another device. Shown here on the right side.

The format has been so popular that Mercercrest expanded from one night a week to three. The club regularly draws 10 to 12 tables on Tuesday nights and six to eight on Thursdays and Sundays.

In Portland, Zack Woodbury has been hosting a social duplicate game on Friday nights since 2012. He, too, had the idea to use Zoom when he brought his game online. Even with his younger, more tech-savvy group, there was a bit of chaos figuring out how to make it work the first week, but since then, it has worked smoothly. Whereas Mohrman (or fellow director Jeff Ford) handles moving people from one breakout room to the next himself, Woodbury makes all of his players co-hosts so that they can move themselves. Only those who are using Zoom on mobile devices need help getting moved.

For those who play quickly, there are usually several minutes left on the round clock when they finish their boards. Sitting at home alone with no social connection, those minutes feel like an eternity. With Zoom, they’re enjoyable.

Because Zoom makes the time go by so much quicker, Woodbury is able to run regular-length games. But his Zoom meetings last much longer than the three hours of game time. He starts an hour ahead with social time. After the game, players continue to socialize on Zoom for hours. Some stay as late as 3 a.m. “It’s the closest we can come to actually being together,” Woodbury says.

Reynolds likes serious bridge. When the Columbus NABC was canceled, he began planning his games as an alternative to the Vanderbilt. But even for many serious players, using Zoom is an improvement. With the knockout format, breakout rooms aren’t necessary. The four players participating in a match simply join a meeting. Reynolds tried using Skype initially, but switched to Zoom. “In both cases it is more like a bunch of friends getting together over drinks, except bridge is deadly serious and everyone is quiet during the play and bidding,” he says.

Eric Sieg is a Seattle-area player who participates in both Reynolds’s matches and the Mercercrest game. He was working from home before quarantine, and bridge was his main social outlet. Playing with Zoom helps, Sieg says. “It’s a lot better than no bridge or no social connection, but I definitely miss in-person bridge and activities.”

Reynolds has been exploring ways to use video technology to protect the integrity of high-level bridge events online. He’s tried using Zoom with two rooms for each table, so that each player is on a call with only their screenmate from the opposing team, but found it ineffective without a third-party monitor. “I am totally consumed with the hand and never glance at my screenmate,” he says.

While the USBF would like to run events like Reynolds envisions with remote monitoring, the plan was to start with the invitational using Zoom for screenmates, according to Jan Martel, the COO. “Our reasons are primarily social, to allow players to interact with each other in a better way than they can on BBO,” she says.

Other clubs have expressed interest in the idea of using Zoom, but – having encountered the depths of technological ineptitude that exist among their players in getting them onto BBO – fear it’s just too much for them to handle.

The Portland Bridge Club has been using Zoom for teaching and slowly introduced a social hour before one evening game, but co-owner Dave Brower says he’ll be very cautious about trying to integrate it into games, waiting until players are much more comfortable with the technology they’re already using. “It was five weeks after the club shut down before we finally got open-game players back to the point where they want to play,” Brower says. “To add Zoom on top of that for people who are already unsure of BBO seems like a nonstarter.”

But in Mohrman’s experience, it’s not as hard to teach players to use Zoom as club managers and directors fear. He requires first-time players to attend a 20-minute orientation before the game, but that’s enough. “Like most clubs, we have players with a wide range of technological prowess,” he says. “Most players get comfortable with it quickly. We’ve had well over 100 people play.”

Sue Crist is a Mercercrest player who had not previously used BBO, and describes her initial comfort level with the game technology as low to moderate. “It’s just been excellent. It took a little bit of getting used to. But both Aaron and Jeff, the two directors, have been very clear in their instructions and very patient,” she says. “It works very well. It makes it feel fun. Once you get some help and get going, it’s really not that complicated. Now it’s very easy.”

Shawn Abernethy had played online before but didn’t enjoy it much without the social aspect. But add in Zoom, and now she has a reason to keep coming back. “It’s been really great,” she says. “When we sit down at our table, it’s just like the four of us. I find it a lot more pleasing.”

Mohrman expects more clubs will want to try his format after they’ve had a few months of online play under their belt. “My experience, once people see the format, a lightbulb goes off and they see how much sense it makes,” he says. He plans to create a tutorial for interested clubs.

“It’s something units should be looking at to help save our game,” says Abernethy.

For Woodbury, Zoom is the only way to go. “Just playing on BBO without being able to see and talk to everyone at my table on Zoom would not be the same experience,” he says. “Given the choice between playing on BBO with friends without Zoom, or robots, I would rather play with robots since I wouldn’t have to wait for everyone to bid. I have tried a few virtual club games on BBO, but without Zoom, it’s just not the same.”