Bridge Mates

Move over, match.com. Hush, eHarmony! Men and women seeking companionship, adventure and a shared passion for their favorite card game need look no further than the bridge connection.
From the highest echelons of international competition to the club down the street or the tournament across town, players are glancing up from their cards to find their soul mates sitting right there at the table.

Mike + Nancy

Ask Mike Passell how he met his wife, Nancy, and he’ll say, “I saw a hot girl at a tournament and I pursued her.”

Needless to say, Nancy remembers things a little differently. She was living in Indiana and teaching high school. She was also a serious bridge fanatic. In the spring of 1979, she and a group of bridge friends traveled to Norfolk to attend the NABC — her first.

“I was so excited,” Nancy recalls. “I was going to play, play, play.”

Her friends, however, advised her to take at least one session off. They pointed out that the best players in the world were competing and that she should take the opportunity to watch. She did. She grabbed a seat, and for no reason that she remembers, chose to kibitz Mike Passell and Malcolm Brachman. After a short while, she got up and left. And that was it.

The Summer NABC that year was held in Las Vegas, where Nancy again saw Mike. She boldly approached him: “I watched you play,” she said, then asked, “Did you notice me?”
The conversation became a relationship, and soon Nancy moved to Dallas.

Mike had chosen the career path of a bridge pro about five years before meeting Nancy. Getting a spouse’s up-close look at the pro circuit, and sometimes
participating in it, was a learning experience for her. She traveled with Mike, slowing down when their daughter, Jennifer, was born in 1982.

Even on the job, Mike likes to kid around. “He is such a prankster,” Nancy says.

She tells how, in 1979, Mike and Mark Lair were working to help Clarence Goppert win the McKenney masterpoint race. Once in a while during the campaign, she would play with Mike at regionals, and on these occasions, she was nervous.

“We sat down to play a knockout match against these two women, very quiet, very sedate, and I excused myself to use the restroom,” says Nancy. While she was gone, Mike enlisted the ladies’ participation in a joke. He arranged one of Nancy’s hands, and told the women that under no circumstances were they to let the bidding die.

“On the third board, I picked up all 13 hearts,” Nancy continues. “What I thought I needed to do to get a good score was get to 7 doubled.”

Nancy opened 2♣, Mike responded 2 and Nancy bid 2. One of the opponents bid clubs, and rather than risk a disaster, Nancy immediately launched Blackwood. The auction proceeded Pass by LHO–Pass by Mike! The tears started welling up.

“Mercifully,” Nancy says, “the woman on my right bid 5♣.” Before anything else could happen, Nancy leapt to 7.

“After some thought, Mike ‘corrected’ to 7NT,” she says. “I felt awful. The tears were just pouring down my cheeks.”

Neither Mike nor the opponents could keep a straight face at that point, and they reshuffled the board and played it for real.

Through the years, Mike has won the Bermuda Bowl, a World Transnational teams gold medal, two world team silver medals and 23 NABC titles.

“That’s his job,” Nancy says about her Hall of Fame husband. “He loves what he does. He loves making people winners, and he’s good at it.”

Nancy is a very fine player in her own right. She is an Emerald Life Master who has a Venice Cup and three North American championships to her credit.

In 1982, she and Mike finished second in the Rockwell Mixed Pairs to Barry Crane and Kerri Shuman (Sanborn). Nancy says they would have finished first, except Mike made the wrong lead against Crane’s 1NT doubled contract.

Nancy and Mike are cheerleaders for each other.“He is so supportive of my bridge, and I am always rooting for him,” she says. “When I play, he is always there at the end of the session to see how I did.”

Mike was the nonplaying captain during the trials for Nancy’s Venice Cup team. “We reversed roles,” says Mike of the 1991 World Team Championships in Yokohama. “Nancy went and played, and I stayed home and babysat.”

The Passells have been married 34 years. If you took bridge away from them, their life together would be every bit as rich and fulfilling, Mike says.

Jenny + Gavin

Gavin and Jenny Wolpert epitomize bridge romance: They are young, beautiful, playing at the highest competitive level in the world and doing it well. Gavin is a sought-after professional with five North American titles; Jenny has won seven NABC championships. Just last year, she returned from Bali a member of the gold-medal-winning Venice Cup team.

Gavin comes from a Canadian bridge-playing family; Jenny comes from the Swedish bridge-playing Ryman family.

“We met in 2003 at the Bermuda Bowl in Monaco,” says Gavin. “I was playing on the Canadian national team and Jenny had traveled from Sweden to play the transnational teams.”

Gavin says that when his team finished the last match of the opening round-robin, the scoreboard indicated they had qualified to advance. “We could only be caught by USA2, who needed a full blitz to pass us by 1 victory point. USA2 was 9 IMPs short going into the last two deals and their opponent, New Zealand, had achieved two optimal results, so it looked certain we would qualify,

On the second-to-last deal, there was a vulnerable game for North–South. The New Zealand East–West pair found a good, minus-300 sacrifice. In the other room, however, the NZ North–South pair failed to bid the vulnerable game. It was still OK — four IMPs was not enough to push Gavin’s Canadian team out of its qualifying spot.

“The New Zealand declarer was so upset to miss the game that he brutally misplayed the hand and went down in three,” laments Gavin, “meaning USA2 won 9 IMPs and passed us by 1 victory point. It was one of the most depressing moments of my bridge career.

“The next day, I was wandering around, sulking, and bumped into Jenny, who was just hanging around waiting for the transnationals to start. The rest is history.”

At the time, Gavin was a 21-year-old bridge pro living out of a suitcase. Jenny, who lived in Sweden, was 18 and still in high school.

“During her school holidays, she would come with me to tournaments, and I would visit Sweden when I had time off from bridge. By the next school year, Jenny enrolled in an online program
to finish her classes. We lived the next few years on the road, traveling and playing tournaments.”

At the 2005 Fall NABC in Denver, the engaged couple won the Kaplan Blue Ribbon Pairs. They are the youngest couple to win the prestigious event. She was 20 at the time and he was 23.
“We were on a life high for quite a while,” says Gavin.

Jenny and Gavin were married in 2007 and moved to Florida in 2008. They have two children: Danielle, 41/2 and Brandon, who will be 2 in April.

“It was quite a process securing a green card to live here,” says Gavin. “We applied as ‘aliens of extraordinary ability,’ using my close friend Jason Feldman’s immigration firm.”

Jenny appreciates the role that bridge — and specifically women’s bridge — played in shaping her destiny. In September 2012, she posted this on Bridge Winners: “I think the existence of women’s events is the only reason I was ever able to pursue bridge as a career. If they did not exist, I could no longer afford to play bridge at all. I would have gone to school, not traveled around the world, not met my husband, probably been married to some Swede, working 8–5 and complaining about having to go to work before the sun is up.”

Says Gavin: “Our whole life revolves around our family. Before we had kids, we would try to get scheduled to work the same tournaments. Since they were born, we do everything in our power to not play the same weeks. It’s really hard being away from them.”

Al + Ivy

Jonathan Steinberg invited his sister to the 1993 Fall NABC in Seattle, and while she didn’t originally plan to go, the invitation changed Ivy Steinberg’s mind.

“I had a partner for all the games I was going to be there for except for one morning game,” says Ivy. “So I decided to go shopping at Nordstrom’s.”

Five minutes before game time, however, Ivy changed her mind again, and presented herself at the partnership desk. She teamed up with two men she knew from Ottawa to play the knockouts if she could find someone to play with. The partnership desk volunteers introduced her to Allan Quaile from Toronto.

“Al and I ended up playing five mornings in a row,” she remembers.

Because both are Canadian (Ivy lived in Montreal at the time) and both frequented the same regional tournaments, Al and Ivy couldn’t help but see each other off and on.

“In 1996, I was scheduled to play the Easter Regional in Toronto with a woman whose husband decided at the last minute to attend.” Ivy recalls.

Left partnerless, Ivy decided to call Al to see if he was available to play. The only phone number she had for him was his office number but his office was closed. Al appeared, however, uncalled, and asked Ivy if she wanted to play all the midnight knockout games.

That was sort of the unofficial start of the sort-of-unofficial, mid-distance relationship — Montreal is a five-hour drive from Toronto. Al made it very clear from the get-go that he was not getting married again. He was adamant that if that’s what Ivy had in mind, it wasn’t going to happen.

Periodically, she checked in anyway: “Are we in a relationship?” she would ask.

Al: “No!”

Al and Ivy enjoyed much more than bridge together. Ivy, a competitive golfer and tennis player, got Al involved in those sports while Al, an excellent double squash player, introduced Ivy to that activity.

It was on Barbara Seagram’s 1997 fall cruise to Barbados that something changed. “When we returned from that trip, I invited him to my mother’s, and he came,” Ivy says.
A year later, Al proposed.

“I had driven in from Montreal for a long weekend. We went out for a really nice dinner. When we got home, Al proposed.

That was on a Thursday night. Saturday, they were going to a sectional. On Friday, Al announced that he wanted to take Ivy shopping for an engagement ring.

“We don’t have to do it immediately,” Ivy said. “We can go to a place in Montreal.”

He wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re not engaged without a ring.”

They went to the local mall and selected a ring. It was sized and on her finger within an hour. “The humor,” she notes, “is that I may be the only Jewish woman in North America to have gotten an engagement ring retail!”

They were married in October 1999, “and we have yet to have an argument,” she claims.

According to Ivy, her brother, Jonathan, takes full credit for their happiness. “He periodically reminds us that we owe him everything.”

Ivy says, “The secret to our success as a couple and as bridge partners is that we tell each other every day how lucky we feel to be together. We believe we are the luckiest people in the world.”

Al + Ann

Ann Lindley was 65 when she was casually matched up with Al Duncker, a widower, by a well-intentioned tournament director. She played with him on a round-robin team, “then nothing,” says the Gaithersburg MD resident. “I asked him to play three more times, but he never asked back.”

She let it go, and then after three years, resumed her efforts. Ann and Al started playing once a week at the Knights of Columbus club in northern Virginia. “I thought maybe we could go out for a drink or something, but he’d disappear right after the game.”

She sighs. “Everybody in the whole world knew I liked him — but him!”

Finally, Al got the message.

“Ann broached the subject of us in an email, he says.” She said she liked playing with me and liked being friends … and can’t we be more than just friends? So I gave that some thought, and we started dating.

Ann picks up the story. “It was in the hospitality suite at the Virginia Beach Regional a month later that Al announced to everyone that we were in love, which was very good news to me.” That December, Al proposed, and they were married the following April.

“At our age, you don’t waste time,” Al says.

Ann calls their life together “idyllic.” They travel extensively, and not just for bridge tournaments. “We’ve been to Europe three times, and Australia, New Zealand, Alaska and Hawaii. This spring, we’re going to the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu, and I’m so excited!”

They play bridge together — sectionals, regionals and NABCs — but generally not club games. “I have my regular partners,” Al says.

When they met, Al says he had about a 100-masterpoint lead over Ann. “In 2012, her team finished third in the women’s Swiss teams in Memphis and she catapulted over me. Now she’s running 50–100 masterpoints ahead of me.” Is he bothered by that? “No, not really. But I am eager to reclaim the lead!”

Ann and Al are nearing their eighth anniversary. “We feel like we’re the luckiest people in the world,” Ann says.

Chris + Ellen

When Ellen Dilbert and Chris Apitz of Waltham MA broke ground for their dream winter home in Arizona last year, they inscribed a heart in the sand: “C + E 4ever.” Ellen laughs. “Just like we were in high school or something!”

She describes the moment she first thought of Chris in that way.

“I met Chris at a sectional in 1993,” Ellen says. “My partner and I had one of those beginner misfit auctions and got too high. While Chris was pondering whether to double or pass, part of my brain was thinking, ‘Don’t double me,’ while the other half was thinking, ‘He’s cute … no wedding ring … is he new?’”

Chris thinks back to what attracted him to Ellen. “I was new at bridge in 1993. I was playing in the 199er games, and everyone was so friendly. Everyone said hi. Everyone except for one curly-haired girl, who didn’t say hi.”

It wasn’t long, however, before she did say hi. Although there was mutual interest, Ellen and Chris didn’t start dating immediately. They were concerned that if they didn’t work out, things in their small bridge community might be awkward.

Each was playing with someone else when, at the Cavendish Club in Brookline MA one night, a man had a heart attack and died on the spot. That spurred Chris to action. He called the following night to ask Ellen to play bridge with him, “and how about dinner, too?”

“We became pretty inseparable pretty quickly,” Ellen remembers.

“We really appreciate each other,” she believes, “and we try to remind ourselves of that every day.”

For Chris, the key is to keep agreement to a maximum and criticism to a minimum. “The small stuff doesn’t matter,” he says, “and almost all of it is small stuff.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 Bridge Bulletin.

Please follow and like us: