Contract Bridge & Writing: How to Become a Grand Master

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, December 2004
I'm a writer, and now I'm a bridge player. I've been playing bridge for thirty-four months. I've been writing for thirty-four years.

You'll have to judge how good a writer I am, but on the bridge front I can refer to my accrued points, my formal ranking, whether or not I can hold my own on a club night (and just how far I am from being a real bridge player). But the best bridge players say "points-schmoints." They know that some players, whatever their rank are not that good (or are way better, will be better, than their formal ranking shows).

It's occurred to me that learning to write is not that far from learning to play bridge. I've realized how some players simply start playing -- well, it's just cards innit? Clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades, no trumps: aces beat kings, kings beat queens, fifty-two cards to the pack, no problem! They play kitchen bridge or find a nice easy bridge club. OK so they don't do so well to begin with, but that's because all these people have been playing for years right? Just wait 'till they've got experience.

So they muddle along, they find their lowly niche and stop there, never exactly shining but they get their lightly-competitive social nights out, and once in a blue-moon get a good result. What's there to learn?

Once in a while a newcomer arrives at the club. He might be a rare twenty year old, more likely someone in his forties, maybe a recent retiree. This chap actually asks questions. Should I have played my King there or ducked? I see I went off in my contract but most of the field made it? Can you recommend any books on finessing?

Then one night, months later, this upstart comes in. He's developed his system. He still doesn't have that experience that the old cruisers take for granted, but heck, here he is coming top! Well, I never! And now he says he's not coming to the club any more. He's moving to "Aces" where the opposition is much tougher. You are not kidding, my friend, the players there take things very seriously! Where's the fun in that, eh? You'll be hammered there.

But the bridge neophyte knows he must read the best at bridge about bridge. He knows he must listen to the best, attend courses, play online, devour theory and pit himself against far better players. He must accept the beatings and learn.

In Bridge 50% is "par". But 50% in a tough club is streets away from 60% in a small club and 57% in a major competition, better still. In writing, maybe we can sell our story to a small ezine, damn, sell all our stories to small ezines, the occasional small print magazine.

On the other hand we can aim higher, then higher. A rejection is a rejection is a rejection, but a letter back from The New Yorker (yes it's a rejection but asking you to keep trying), well, that says you are seriously learning your game.

In Bridge, if we want to be seriously good, we first must understand theory, learn "ACOL" or "SAYC" or another system. We learn to count the cards that have been played, interpret the moves of the opposition -- why did he lead the Jack and not his Ace? In writing we should not merely know grammar and syntax but should also understand the elements of rhetoric and how flow, rise-and-fall and word-sounds and shapes affect meaning.

We find out a lot from bridge books. We can read about "declarer play," and "better defence," "opening leads," and "inference." And these books can be hard! But meanwhile we should be playing cards, getting the feel, building experience, making the thousands of possible mistakes, logging them, making them the things we once did but don't do now.

And as writers we should read too. We should read every how-to book, many of them bad, read articles like this (cough!), go to lectures on the craft, go to seminars, workshops, work in a well-led group. But meanwhile we should be playing the stories, getting the feel, building experience, making the thousands of possible mistakes, logging them, making them the things we did once but don't do now.

If you work at the theory, listen to the top performers, put in the hours, take on the criticism, adjust, rethink, practice, try again, there comes a time, when you look up one day and think, hell, I'm OK at this. I can play bridge. I can write.

This is where many stop.

The bridge players are playing in a decent club. They glance at the bridge problems in the newspaper, they expect to comfortably beat par on club nights, they get tops, seconds, thirds. Once, at a National Event they were in the top ten with three rounds to go, before they faded to 98th (but it was exciting).

And the writers? They publish steadily. Oh, you know, a little magazine here, a slightly better one there. Maybe they'll enter a small competition and win, or come second in a bigger one. They even get fan mail once in a while. They are writers, they say, part-time of course, but it's a nice hobby. No, they are serious about it. It's just a time thing.

And now about those who are going to write, the ones who are destined to be grand masters. The bridge players who don't stop. They read on and on and on. They read all those beginner books again, and now they can see that a certain lead from an ordinary player is the clue they seek to make an impossible, match-winning game. They read about the Bath Coup, and a hundred other coups, about strip squeezes, yet more about inference and table psychology, how to mislead the opposition, to false signal, to false card. They learn to consider not just what the opposition does but what they did not do. They move beyond the mechanics, beyond mere craft into a world that's almost esoteric, nebulous, into art.

Meanwhile they are playing, playing, playing, looking at their near-misses, analyzing hands to see if those "unmakeable" contracts were in fact possible, if there was a way to stop the opponents in their lay-down game. They don't stop, these driven people. They live and breathe and eat their sport, this craft, their new-found art.

The writers? They read. They read the books and stories which once they discarded as too tough, too literary. They read their own works, look at the crudeness in their successes, the potential in their failures. They work hard critically because they know by critiquing others we learn about ourselves. They stop settling for OK, now they won't even accept "good". They expect to write for the best magazines, they don't care that the odds are hopeless. They have things to say, real things, true, dark, brutally honest things, and they deserve an audience.

Old bridge players, even the unambitious, still socializing in their small-time, fun, club, have learned stock things, fundamentals. No longer do they have to think of card combinations, how to finesse the queen, when to go up with their ace, how to guarantee three tricks from the last four, what to lead from QJT7. These things are old hat to them, just as the writer now intuitively knows about emphasis, pacing, rhetoric and strong verbs.

The old, "getting-by" bridge player uses his fundamentals to play mostly on autopilot. The good player uses his freed intellectual space to push further on.

The "getting by" writer churns out a decent piece, barely thinking of how he slows the pace, speeds it up, emphasizes a point, alludes.

But the writer who is still growing keeps examining, the text, the ideas, himself. If he churns something out it's only the substrate, for on top of what the passable writer writes he wants to add another level, the depth, the subtlety, the perfect word instead of the good word. He wants his work to be so powerful that the paper vibrates and gives off heat, that when his reader finishes, he looks again at the page, his heart sick, soaring, pounding, he closes his eyes. He thinks, "Oh, God" and is a little changed.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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