Ben Benson leaned back in his chair, heaved a sigh and pressed his big bassett eyes with the palms of his hands. Three other pairs of eyes at the table turned and locked on Benson, who searched inner darkness for a vision.
Suddenly, Benson threw his hands into the air, hunched his massive torso over his cards and, in a thundering basso, nearly shouted his bid: "Six no-trump!" Grinning triumphantly, he threw out the challenge: "It's make it or break it this time."
His partner Dorothy Friedman glanced dubiously at her cards and looked ill. She pursed her lips and fell silent, anxiety engulfed in the rising murmur of a dozen other foursomes behind her, the sound of lethal combat being waged over hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades.
Twice weekly, that sound fills the old assembly room at Guy Mason Recreation Center, just north of Georgetown on Calvert Street NW. Mondays and Thursdays at noon, Friedman, Benson, and as many as 80 fellow combatants file in under the Art Deco ceiling lamps 14 feet overhead, taking their seats at folding metal card tables to battle for "master points."
Like thousands of other bridge enthusiasts in the area, they focus their lives for a few hours on performing mental somersaults against mathematical odds. Yet, there is something singular about those who come to Guy Mason at noon on Mondays and Thursdays, or, on Tuesdays and Fridays, to the Chevy Chase Community Center on Connecticut Avenue. Nearly all the players here have passed retirement age. Some saw that benchmark 20 years ago.
Worries of work and childrearing are memories. The patterns of life have been set. They are retired teachers, government workers, salesmen, military brass. They have pencils and score cards in their hands, tricks, transfers and slams on their minds.
They bring to the bridge tables stories of lives well-spent and for many, the game has become an anchor in the weekly routine, a form of sustenance, a means of survival as well as pastime.
"I'm a bachelor. I don't want to be by myself," said 70-year-old retired hairdresser Charles Steiner, a naturalized Swiss who, like many, plies his bridge skills at both Guy Mason and Chevy Chase. "When I was working, I was talking to the public all day, standing on my feet. To shut up and think and sit down, that's my life now."
"My wife loves for me to play bridge," says Benson, who plays almost every day. "She knows it makes me happy."
Dozens of organized bridge games are played each week in the Washington area. Three fall under the aegis of the D.C. Recreation Department senior citizens program: those at Guy Mason, Chevy Chase and Banneker Community Club on Georgia Avenue NW.
William Coulter, 86, started playing 60 years ago with the Red Triangle club at the YMCA downtown. Retired in 1974 after 46 years as comptroller of Joseph Gawler's & Sons funeral home, he passes his days tending a quarter-acre garden behind his home near Friendship Heights, where raspberries, corn, cherry tomatoes, watermelon, okra and butternut squash ripen and swell a block off Wisconsin Avenue.
Tuesday mornings, Coulter sets hoe and trowel aside to lay preparations for the bridge game at Chevy Chase.
In the kitchen off the first floor community room, he boils water in a giant percolator for the coffee, puts out a jar of instant Maxwell House. He lines up 36 cups on a table -- enough for nine foursomes -- and stuffs a yellow paper napkin into each one.
Coulter has been playing 10 years with this group, has seen partners come and go. "Sometimes they get sick," he says. "Some of them die."
The Tuesday morning game is known as "rubber bridge," also called "party bridge" because it is a social sport, no rank or standing to be won. Most of the players are women, their arrival a parade of print cotton dresses, hoop earings and coifs of various tints. Each table is its own world, defined by friendship, familiarity and unbroken habit. The foursomes play from 10 a.m. to mid-afternoon, as they have for the last 30 years.
Mary Richardson and Elizabeth Strang have been regulars there for the last six years. Both grew up in the city, taught school here and lived across from each other on 31st Place in Chevy Chase until their husbands died. Now they share an offbeat sense of humor, an apartment in Friendship Heights, and travel together around the world, as well as play bridge.
"At our age," said Richardson, "you've got to keep busy. You've got to get out there and try. Bridge keeps your mind active."
The Friday game at Chevy Chase, organized three months ago, is bridge of a different sort. Like the bridge at Guy Mason, a game that's been running continuously longer than anyone can remember, it is sanctioned by the American Contract Bridge League and draws many of the same players, who compete for points toward a rank of "life master." This is duplicate bridge: predealt hands circulate from table to table in a metal tray. By the game's end, contestants have all played the same cards. Their performances are scored one against the other.
Most players swallow their luck, and partner's gaffes, smiling. In some cases, the competitive spirit thrives undiminished by advancing age. The more ambitious sorts seek points with bounty-hunter drive, bouncing their heels nervously off the floor, sweating crescent-moons under their arms, harassing partners with verbal assaults that would make Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts blush.
"Some people don't enjoy it," said Jean Arret, whose husband Bernard, a director of the Washington Bridge League, is paid from a small admission charge to keep score and referee the duplicate games at Guy Mason and Chevy Chase. "They're just out for points and they'll step all over you."
"There's been times when I've had to step between two players," said Bernard Arret. "You wouldn't believe it. Two guys kicking each other in the shins under the table. One partner standing over the other ready to hit him with a chair. They can get real nasty."
Ben Benson of Wheaton and Dorothy Friedman of Northwest Washington bid six no-trump, meaning that of a possible 13 plays or tricks in the hand, they would have to win 12. They fell one trick short and lost.
"I'm sure if you ask around, you will hear terrible things about me," said 68-year-old Benson, a former customs agent for the British in Burma who says he lost a trucking business there to politics, spent three years in prison for his views, then immigrated to the United States to sell sewing machines for Sears.
"Some of the people want to pick on you. I shout right back at them because nobody pushes me around.
"Bridge," he said, "is such a wonderful recreation. There's really no reason to spoil it by getting mad."