The 120 young bridge players, 36 of them from China, were competing for several scholarships at the Youth North American Bridge Championships, which began Thursday in Philadelphia, but they much more frequently mentioned the other prize - master points.
They are among the 6,000 players in the American Contract Bridge League's summer 11-day North American Bridge Championship, which ends Sunday at the Marriott Hotel.
The winners of each session at the three-day youth tournament can earn up to three of the coveted points, the merit badges of the bridge world. Some of the players competing Thursday had already earned dozens of points at prior contests; the youngest Life Master ever acheived the rank, which requires 300 points, at the age of nine.
Joel Metcalf, 11, came from Newton, Mass., hoping to earn his first point in Philadelphia. He played with a rotating stream of partners--players who could have been his grandparents as well as kids like Drew McNamara, 10 who had .96 points to his name.
Both come from bridge-playing families. McNamara's dad won a trophy in the world championships; Metcalf's dad is a director of the competition and his mom is a life master. "I kind of had no choice," Metcalf said.
Others had consistent partners - Eric Rodriguez and Piper Ziebarth, both 14-year-olds from Memphis, have been playing together for five years. They've competed in Atlanta, New Orleans, Toronto, and Washington, often beating the adults they take on.
Ziebarth actually introduced the game to her parents after she picked it up from her grandmother. "Now all we do is play bridge all the time," she said.
Rodriguez learned to play in an after-school club. "I just liked playing cards," he recalled. "And I enjoyed math, so I thought, 'how different can it be?'"
The American Contract Bridge League tries to attract kids like Rodriguez to the game by convincing teachers to introduce the game in schools. "In addition to math, it's the deductive reasoning and logic that really is enhanced by bridge," said Bryan Delfs, who runs the league's educational programs. "It's not always what your opponent did do. It's sometimes what they didn't do that's important - it captivates them so strongly."
The concentration in the room Thursday mimicked the adults' games going on upstairs. But sometimes, the quiet talk over the cards tended more toward playground banter.
As McNamara debated whether to pass or keep bidding on one hand, his opponent Amanda Harper nudged him to keep his cards away from her and playfully badgered him, "Wanna do it? Wanna do it?"
At a few tables, the quiet conversations were in Chinese, not English. Thirty-six young players from China traveled to Philadelphia to compete. During the morning round, the Chinese players won four out of six sections.
"They are doing well after the first pairs results," Delf said, mentioning as well that he was pleased to see the cooperative interactions between a few newly introduced American and Chinese youth who competed together as pairs. But most of the Chinese players competed in their own pairs, and Delf observed, "They definitely came to play bridge."
Contact staff writer Julie Zauzmer at 215-854-2771 or email@example.com.