UI competitive bridge team looks to national tournament, encourages collegiate players

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By Maaike Niekerk, Summer Editor

A team of University of Illinois students will be competing in the 2023 Collegiate Bridge Bowl in Chicago next month. The Illini team won one of only eight travel packages to attend the event.

The bridge bowl will consist of 12 to 14 collegiate teams competing for a top prize of $10,000 in scholarship money.

Of the 80 college bridge players who will be participating in the competition, four will be representing the orange and blue after placing in an online tournament this past semester to win the fully paid trip.

Bridge, also known as Contract Bridge, is a classic card game, which consists of two pairs that compete against each other by bidding for points. 

Ryan Fu, Nick Koskelo, Han-Mo Ou and Danny Schuck are a self-coached group of University students who recently formed a competitive bridge team to represent their school. 

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    “I think it’s really exciting that we’ve just started a team and we’re able to compete well enough to qualify for this,” said Schuck, an incoming sophomore in LAS and the youngest of the group.

    Schuck has only been playing the game for eight months and describes himself as “pretty much a beginner.” However, due to his dedication for the game, his skill has grown incredibly quickly.

    “Danny really improved a lot in the past eight months,” said Fu, an incoming junior in engineering. “It seems to me like he just spends every second of his spare time playing bridge, so that’s how he became such a good player.”

    Fu began learning bridge as a primary student in China, and has been playing the card game for a decade already. His years of experience playing competitive bridge have prepared him well for the upcoming tournament, he said.

    “Both Han-Mo and me, we’ve played for around ten years, so we were already decent players when we got into college,” Fu said, adding that the concept of playing at the national level is  “not really intimidating.”

    Ou, a third year graduate student pursuing a PhD in electrical and computer engineering, learned bridge in Taiwan. When he came to the United States to attend the University of Illinois, he began playing competitively because Fu needed a partner.

    Koskelo, the fourth member of the team and an incoming second year graduate student studying computer science, is also relatively new to the game, learning it during his undergraduate years. 

    Competing on the national stage is not exactly new for Fu, who has competed in national championships for bridge before. However, competing for the University is a different experience.

    “I finally have a chance to represent my school, and to compete in these tournaments,” Fu said. “I feel really honored.”

    Schuck agreed. “It’s really exciting to be playing for the school,” he said. “I’m not super involved with any sport or anything, but this is kind of like my way of contributing,”

    Reaching the level of a nationally recognized team is only one hurdle for collegiate bridge players. Getting enough people who are interested in playing the game and competing is the first necessary step.

    “We have four people that are actively interested in playing in such a competitive and sometimes stressful environment,” Ou said. “I’m very happy to have these teammates.”

    One of the primary goals for holding the Collegiate Bridge Bowl is to promote playing bridge at the college level.

    Stephanie Threlkeld, the manager of education and marketing for the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL), said that the event helps spread interest in the game.

    “We revived the collegiate bridge bowl in conjunction with an attempt to get bridge going at different universities all over the country,” Threlkeld said.

    According to Threlkeld, college students across all majors can enjoy and participate in the game of bridge, although there are some noticeable patterns among participants.

    “I think we skew very heavily towards engineers and math majors, although some of our most successful bridge players have been like English majors,” Threlkeld said.

    Bridge involves a heavy amount of inferential reasoning and statistics, but is neatly balanced with a social aspect due to the fact that players must compete in pairs.

    “It’s a great game because it’s a social game,” Threlkeld said. “Unlike a game like chess, you have to have a partner in bridge right?”

    The Illini players commented on this social aspect as well as the welcoming community that bridge offers its players.

    “I’ve met lots of friends from playing bridge, it kind of helps me to become more social,” said Fu, with Koskelo adding that the bridge community is “well formed” and “very accepting.”

    “Because bridge is played in pairs, we have to familiarize ourselves with our partner’s styles,” Ou said. “I think it’s a very special game.”

    Schuck said that the skills required to play bridge are useless to players who aren’t trained in the social component.

    “You could put two very skilled players together, but if they don’t agree on anything, they’re not going to play well,” Schuck said.

    According to Threlkeld, younger bridge players tend to lean into this social side of the game more, while still staying very competitive.

    “The college kids are definitely competitive, but so are some of our older players,” Threlkeld said. “But the college players seem to have more fun. I’ve noticed when we’ve had college events online, there’s a lot more chatting that goes on in those games, than when our general bridge population is playing.”

    The bridge community welcomes everyone with open arms, and encourages more college aged people to learn the game.

    “I’m really pleased to see the college programs expanding,” Threlkeld said. “I think we’re going to see more activity from this generation it terms of playing bridge throughout their lives”

    “We really appreciate new players,” said Ou. “Even with a very limited background, people can learn bridge very fast.”

    For anyone interested in learning bridge quickly, the North American Bridge Convention in Chicago – where the Collegiate Bridge Bowl will be held – is hosting a “learn bridge in a day” event on July 15. 

    The event is open to the public, and more information can be found here.

    The Illini Orange bridge team encourages University students to join – no experience required – by joining their Discord server here.

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