Card game builds bridges at Chautauqua


Tara VanDerveer (right) introduced Marsha Reall to bridge over several Chautauqua summers. Reall, now an American Contract Bridge League certified bridge instructor, serves as director of the semi-weekly bridge games at the Sports Club, a position she took just before this season began. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Grant Engle | Staff Writer

Avid card players and intrigued beginners flock to the Sports Club every Sunday night and Thursday afternoon to learn a card game that has been a tradition at Chautauqua for years.

When the semi-weekly bridge game lost its longtime director only two weeks before the season started, Richard Ulasewicz, director of the Sports Club, feared the tradition was in serious jeopardy.

“The chances of getting a bridge director who is certified is pretty slim in two weeks,” he said. “But, Chautauqua can get an expert on anything sooner or later.”

Ulasewicz was faced with the dilemma of finding a certified bridge instructor from the American Contract Bridge League, or ACBL.

While walking to the Sports Club only days before the season started, Ulasewicz saw Rita VanDerveer sitting on her porch reading with a friend. They exchanged greetings, and VanDerveer asked Ulasewicz how his day was going.

He told VanDerveer his day had been pretty rough, and that he was desperate for a certified bridge instructor. He asked VanDerveer if she, by any chance, knew someone who could help.

VanDerveer pointed to her friend who was reading on her porch and said, “There’s your new bridge instructor right there.” It was Marsha Reall.

Reall had become close friends with the VanDerveer family when she was a graduate assistant for the Ohio State University women’s basketball team in 1978 with Tara VanDerveer, Rita’s daughter.

The Columbus, Ohio, resident went on to eventually coach the Ohio University women’s college basketball team for nine seasons. Reall led the team to its last NCAA tournament appearance in 1995.

Tara has been head coach of the Stanford University women’s basketball team for almost 27 years, and was elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.

Though Tara said it was a “big stretch” to say she taught Reall how to play bridge, Reall credited her friend with showing her the game she now loves.

“Tara gave me a cheat sheet that I would use when we first started playing,” Reall said. “She had to make me a new one each season we’d come to Chautauqua.”

Over time, Reall took serious interest in learning the game, and she decided to pursue becoming a life master and bridge director. The ACBL uses a point system that allows players in sanctioned leagues to earn points based on victories and high placements in tournaments.

Reall has competed in state and national tournaments and eventually achieved her goal of becoming a life master and certified bridge instructor.

As an experienced basketball coach, Reall said the transition was natural because of her love for teaching. She outlined four key similarities between the two games:

• It’s competitive: “You want to win. If you’re a competitive person, that’s how you play any game.”

• There is strategy involved: “In bridge, when you’re on defense, you’re playing with a partner. When you’re the declarer, it’s all on you. There are team and individual parts to the game.”

• It’s social: “We want to be hanging around other people. We usually have seven or eight tables, and that’s great. You get to see a group of people for three hours, and you get to know people.”

• It’s like solving a puzzle: “You’re always trying to wrap your mind around the game and solve the puzzle. It’s such a thrilling card game. There are more than 5 billion possible hands.”

Reall started her tenure as a bridge instructor in Columbus with a class of about six students. Now, she leads classes of 100 students per week.

Ulasewicz raved about Reall’s performance this season and said he was relieved to find a quality instructor on short notice to keep the Chautauqua Bridge Club alive.

“Bridge is a great way to hang out,” Ulasewicz said. “It’s a wonderful way to spend a Sunday evening. I think it’s a real part of the Sports Club, and it’s a real tradition.”

Tara described Reall as a natural bridge player and instructor. She pointed to her friend’s 19-year career as a basketball coach as useful experience to run the bridge club.

“Marsha does a really great job teaching the game, and we’re lucky to have her at Chautauqua,” Tara said. “I think Marsha can grow it into a first-rate bridge club.”

While playing bridge is a passion for Reall, she said the bonus of being at Chautauqua was another reason to take the job.

Reall regularly attends morning meditation, morning lectures and everything else she possibly can.

The bridge club’s congenial attitude has been another plus for Reall. She said the social atmosphere during the game has made her first year in charge of the club a fun experience.

“It’s a very friendly group,” Reall said. “Sometimes people in other clubs lose the perspective that they are here to play cards and have a good time. They might get nit-picky or testy. Everyone here is friendly and cooperative.”