Uncovered by Bridge, But Hearty at Hearts

''Did you just trump my ace?" he asked. "What ace?" I replied. "The ace of hearts on the table!" "Oh, that ace. Is it yours?"

Many such exchanges have taken place over the years between my husband and me. In this particular game of bridge, I had gotten a little carried away and enthusiastically placed a winning card on top of my husband's already-winning card. Why did I take the trick with my trump card when he had already captured it with his ace? We were partners!

Our opponents were ecstatic. That trump was one less card they had to worry about. They would make their bid for sure. "Sorry, dear," I murmured sheepishly. But it's only a game, right?

I learned to play bridge in just a few evenings after I met my husband's parents for the first time. Everyone in the family had played cards for years. They congratulated me on having the courage to dive into this game without even a course or a rule book. I mean, how hard could this be? I thought. They're just cards.

We play regularly with other family members during Maine winters, when there are no more fences to mend or lawns to mow and the snow drifts up to five feet. A rousing game could start at 4:30 in the afternoon, just about when darkness falls and the kindling is lit in the fireplace. We pull out the card table from behind the den door and drag over four chairs. If it's a serious game, we may place a padded Goren cover on the table and play by the rules. Then we pour four glasses of ginger ale and deal.

Other than trumping your partner's ace, there are other egregious errors you can make in bridge. I've tried them all: Playing out of turn, thereby giving an advantage to your opponents, comes to mind. I have misarranged the suits in my hand and then bid thinking I have a small slam in hearts when in fact I have only one heart. The rest are diamonds.

Meanwhile, my partner is joyful that we match in hearts. At this point, I break out in a cold sweat and start praying that our opponents will take the bid.

THEN, occasionally, I leave my partner in his secondary and weaker suit because I don't want to play my hand, particularly if our opponents have been bidding my suit forcefully. Sometimes I find I must play my weaker suit, too, because "Gee, I meant to say 'clubs' in my bidding but instead I said 'spades.' After all, they're both black suits and so easy to confuse." "Too bad. Play the hand," our opponents say.

At one point my husband and I decided to get serious about our card skills since they were clearly homespun. We attended bridge lessons in the basement of a fitness center. Most of the class came with notebooks and pens. I had no idea we were going for college credits. Isn't this just a friendly game? A way for people to get through the long Maine winters?

At one time Henry David Thoreau discovered a dingy pack of cards left on a log in an abandoned Maine lumber camp. Out in the wilderness, loggers used to play by the light of pitchpine knots. Let's at least learn this game for tradition's sake, we thought.

The teacher entered the room and modestly mentioned his state and national championships. Then he drew four card hands on the chalkboard like a coach drawing football plays. He noticed how intrigued I was and asked me what I would do with such hands. I was lost. "I'd throw in the cards and declare a misdeal," I replied. Now I was sure we were in the wrong class.

Over the years we moved on to louder and more mean-spirited games like hearts. Hearts is a game fit for a crowd. And it usually attracts a large one, both spectators and players. If there are more than seven players, you play with two decks. The more decks, the meaner the game.

Unlike bridge, you want to take as few cards as possible with the exception of one card, the jack of diamonds. He's worth 10 points in your favor. Meanwhile, you dodge the other players trying to pass you such cards as the queen of spades (minus 13 points) or the 10 of hearts (minus 10 points). You have no partners or friends in this game. It's every man for himself.

The largest hearts game I ever saw was played at our summer camp one hot July night. By 11 p.m., the noise from 10 rowdy players was attracting the more civilized bridge players who had finished their game in a nearby room. Two of them pulled up chairs and joined in.

The camp kitchen has a large wooden table with benches to accommodate a host of card players. Spectators peer over their shoulders or sit on the sidelines. By this time, the camp lights overhead were dim with use. But those cards were passed across that table just fine. The players were waiting for a winner to lose big before calling it a day. Peals of laughter rang through the wilderness from the players, no matter how heartless they were.

Just the other morning I caught my youngest daughter dealing out seven cards in a row on our kitchen table. I can recognize a game of solitaire anywhere. She was sitting beside the window waiting for the school bus to arrive. I could tell that she had card fever. She whipped through the deck quickly, her hands moving like a blackjack dealer's, slapping down those cards firmly and looking for the big win. That morning she broke the bank twice before she left for school. She was going to have a good day.

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