When Yonnie Fuller picked up a deck of cards to play a game of bridge with seven of her new neighbors, she had no idea she was forming a bond that would eventually span five decades.
The young mothers were pioneers of the Johnson County suburbia scene, moving to Prairie Village to live out the American dream in the early 1960s.
While energetic children ran around sprawling green lawns and husbands donned suits and ties to work, Fuller and her fellow stay-at-home moms set up shop in dining rooms.
They laughed and socialized and ate lunch during their bridge games.
Fifty years later, they haven’t stopped.
The eight women no longer gather in their homes, keeping an eye on little ones in the next room. These days, they meet at the Embassy Suites at Metcalf Avenue and Interstate 435 in Overland Park. Sitting quietly in the back dining area, they keep their eyes on the cards. Concentration is key. One false move could ruin a game.
Sipping coffee and waiting for the lunch menu to arrive, the women murmur to each other as they each take a turn placing a card on the table.
Despite the trickling sound of the decorative waterfall nearby and the soft shuffle of the dining staff setting up tables for guests, the women could have been back in those cookie-cutter suburban houses again. The intense card game offers a time portal, where everything is different and yet everything feels the same.
“A lifetime has flown by, but in some ways it hasn’t,” said Fuller, wistfully. “It’s been a good life. Bridge has helped us all become close friends.”
Husbands have passed away. Children have started families of their own. Addresses are now different. But one thing has stayed the same — their passion for bridge.
Their group — along with dozens of other bridge groups — meets at Embassy Suites because it is simply more convenient. Most of them no longer reside in the Corinth neighborhood they once shared. Plus, for a small price, Embassy Suites offers unlimited water, coffee and tea throughout the day, as well as lunch.
“And it’s quiet,” Fuller added with a smile. “That’s the most important part.”
Her friends smile and nod.
The group of friends is part of a fading generation that still gets a kick out of 52 playing cards, rather than digital thrills.
“In 1962, television wasn’t a big part of people’s lives, so bridge offered a reasonable and inexpensive type of entertainment,” Fuller said. “I feel like a dinosaur right now with all of the kids and their texting.”
It’s a tale repeated all over Johnson County.
Devotees worry that bridge, once so popular with young suburban newlyweds, will fade away after their generation. After all, it is not an instant gratification that can be turned on with a click of a smartphone. It takes time to learn — and can take hours to play.
Based on chance, logic and problem solving, bridge is difficult to master. Using a standard deck of 52 cards, it involves foursomes, acting in two partnerships. Each partnership tries to win, or take, as many tricks as possible, similar to spades but with a lot more brain power. It’s a complex game that used to seem so exciting to young people in a world without the Internet and cellphones.
When Esther White moved with her husband to his family farm in 1952, the 19-year-old was a tad alarmed at her new surroundings.
Her house faced a two-lane highway, with a filling station across the street and acres of farmland surrounding it.
A far cry from what the nearby intersection — 83rd Street and Metcalf Avenue — is today.
Now, her home faces a bustling four-lane main drag, with sports cars, buses and SUVs whizzing by. Amid the flashy restaurants and strip malls, there is virtually no reminder of the slow country days she remembers so fondly.
“Back then, there wasn’t a lot to do in this area,” White said.
To pass the time, while her husband worked, the young bride would play bridge with her mother and sister-in-law.
And when her husband helped build the White Haven Estates neighborhood, she soon found that the game was a perfect way to form a community. She quickly set up bridge nights with her new neighbors.
“Everyone had to take a turn hosting each game,” White said. “It was a very close-knit neighborhood. You don’t see that too much anymore.”
After building up her confidence, she even started competing in local bridge tournaments.
She vividly recalls the first bridge tournament she ever won with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law back in 1963, held at the Glenwood Manor hotel.
“You would have thought we won the Academy Awards,” she said with a laugh. “It was so much fun.”
She still regularly plays the game. Now she plays bridge in the Overland Park community center named after one of her White Haven Estates neighbors, Matt Ross.
The Johnson County Fifty Plus Program hosts bridge games at the Matt Ross Community Center, among other various spots around Johnson County, every week.
But White sees the once-popular card game slipping away, as younger generations turn a blind eye to it.
“I’ve been seeing the same people playing for decades,” White said. “There haven’t really been any new faces, which is sad. We’ve all grown up together and now meeting a 40-year-old bridge player is young to us.”
During the first half of the 20th century, bridge was the game everyone wanted to play, she said. Now, it’s a game only those who remember it want to play.
And most bridge players find that fact extremely disconcerting.
After all, for many of them, bridge is a way of life.
At the Kansas City Bridge Studio, over on 95th Street and Metcalf, competitive bridge is more than a mere hobby for hundreds of people.
Dozens of them gather, every single day, at the studio to play for hours, eagerly accumulating master points, in order to earn titles.
The large white room features a bustling crowd of devout players mingling, studying their cards, sometimes even arguing. But in a friendly manner, of course.
“For many of these people, bridge is 90 percent of their life,” said Lee Goodman, owner of the studio. “There are people who play three hundred times a year.”
The retired lawyer has met couples who fell in love over bridge games. He knows players who schedule their vacations around bridge tournaments.
“National and world champions play here,” he said, proudly.
And even though some of the elderly players show up with walkers or wheelchairs, all minds are sharp.
“Bridge gives the brain a good workout,” Goodman said. “It involves logic, memory and problem-solving. It’s pretty intense.”
The mental exercise is one of the main reasons Sylvia Beiser plays bridge.
The 101-year-old Overland Park resident says the game has kept her young.
Beiser has been playing the game ever since she was a newlywed in the early 1930s.
“I’ve been playing for more than 70 years,” she said, seeming a little startled by the number. “I don’t know how those years went by so fast. But one thing has always been steady — bridge has always been a significant part of my life.”
Even after seven decades of bridge, she has not gotten sick of the game yet. She’s quick to point out that no game of bridge is ever the same, and the game never gets any easier.
Now at the senior living center where she resides, Beiser has become the bridge player to beat. She won first place in a recent tournament there and has been one of the top players for years.
Goodman believes one of the reasons bridge players like Beiser remain startlingly sharp is because the activity helps offset Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
His theory is echoed in the scientific community.
In 2003, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City released a research study that determined playing bridge could in fact lower risk for Alzheimer’s. A more recent joint study done by the University of Southern California and the University of California-Irvine hinted at the same result.
The studies don’t surprise Dr. Jeffrey Burns, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Kansas Medical Center and the associate director of the KU Alzheimer’s Disease Center. He conducts research in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s.
“In the science world, it’s suggestive but not proven that mental activities are good for the brain,” he said. “We’re still working on the scientific proof. We’re getting there, though.”
He’s optimistic that bridge will be shown to be a game that improves brain health.
“I think it’s great so many older people still play bridge because it combines mental activity with social interaction,” he said. “Plus, it’s scheduled, which helps keep people engaged.”
Goodman has noticed that the buzz around bridge’s mental benefits has been enticing middle-aged people to attend his beginner classes at the bridge studio.
“When the kids leave the house and retirement is approaching, most people need something to fill their time,” he said.
But actually taking the time to learn the game has proved to burn many bridges.
With a set of complicated rules, the game is very time-consuming and difficult to learn. It requires intense concentration and fierce dedication.
“Learning bridge is a commitment — it’s not a game you can just learn in an hour,” Goodman said. “In my beginners class, I lose about one-third of the students by the last class, because the learning process can seem incredibly daunting. You really have to study the rules.”
He fears this may be a reason younger generations aren’t taking an interest in the game.
Goodman was a volunteer bridge instructor at Shawnee Mission East High School in the late 1990s and found it frustrating trying to grasp the teenagers’ attention.
“It’s hard enticing a generation who can play Scrabble on their phones to play bridge,” he said.
He believes there needs to be a big, national push to get kids interested.
His wish could be coming true.
Avid bridge players and close friends Bill Gates and Warren Buffett launched a million-dollar project in 2005 named School Bridge League that encourages teachers to implement the game into the classroom.
According to the organization’s website, the initiative is still going strong.
Goodman hopes it changes the future of the game. He’d hate to see the game die away.
“Bridge is cheap — all you need is a deck of cards,” he said. “And not only is it incredibly complex and entertaining, it’s addictive. I just think it’s such a shame younger people don’t play it.”
Chris Patrias, a national tournament director for the American Contract Bridge League, agrees it’s important to engage youth in the game.
The league boasts more than 200,000 members all over North America and hosts some of the biggest tournaments in the world.
In late December, the organization held its annual holiday regional bridge tournament at the Overland Park Convention Center.
Almost 1,000 devoted bridge players from Oklahoma to Illinois showed up to the six-day event, quietly playing in large meeting halls, to earn master points and bragging rights.
Once in a while, at tournaments such as this one, Patrias will come across a young person, some as young as 8 or 9.
Most of them learned to play the game online.
“I’ve encountered kids who had never held a deck of cards in their hands before,” he said. “Playing bridge against people from all over the world on a computer isn’t as foreign to them as it is to us old folks. It’s a strange thing.”
The league supports the Internet bridge community by hosting online tournaments throughout the year.
The organization also has a Youth 4 Bridge division which, like School Bridge League, encourages the game in schools.
Patrias hopes the league’s efforts encourage more kids to play the game in person as well.
“There’s something lost about not being able to play face-to-face,” he said. “For many people, that’s an important part of the game.”
And while many bridge players are worried about not enough young people finding interest in the activity, Patrias doesn’t believe it is becoming extinct.
The game’s chief audience is merely morphing into a new demographic of avid fanatics, he said with a smile.
In other words, the cards are still on the table. And they’re not going anywhere.
“There might not be a lot of young people playing the game anymore, but we are seeing a lot of retired people starting to pick up a deck of cards,” he said. “Once people start, they don’t stop.”