Bridge expert heads for championship

With a vocabulary all its own, bridge can seem like a foreign language to the uninitiated, but people like Michael Hess can turn 13 playing cards into a statement of victory.

Hess, a Wilton resident who is a Level 5 gold life master of the game, will get a chance to match wits with the best of the best when he and his partner, Gary Miyashiro, a silver life master from West Redding, compete in the Summer North American Bridge Championship July 19 in Toronto.

Hess and Miyashiro will compete in a team of four that also includes Barry Bragin of Prospect and Weiling Zhao of Brookfield. They  will represent District 25 — the New England Bridge Conference — of the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL).

For Hess and Miyashiro, this won’t be their first trip to the championships. They played together in the summer of 1981 where one of their competitors was U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. “We did OK,” Hess said during an interview at the Wilton Senior Center last week. Stevens wasn’t the only celebrity at that event. “A few seats away was Omar Sharif,” Hess said, adding they did not get to play against the actor.

To get to Toronto, Hess’s team won a two-day regional tournament in April in Sturbridge, Mass. An analysis of the 28 hands they played in the finals round may be found here.

Hess has been playing the game for more than 40 years. A pinochle and poker player while at Loyola University, he picked up bridge while studying for a master’s degree in psychology at Columbia University.

“I glommed onto it right away,” he said. Hess met Miyashiro when they were both students at Wharton where Hess was studying for an MBA. In 1977 they won their first ACBL masterpoints in a non-masters pairs competition in Cherry Hill, N.J.

As with many avocations, life took over and Hess worked to balance family, work, and bridge throughout his career in advertising. While living in the Chicago area, he played regularly on the commuter train.

When he semi-retired in 2015, there was more time for bridge and so he and Miyashiro began playing again. They play with the Newtown League, where Miyashiro is a member.

When Hess and his teammates begin play in Toronto next week they will be one of 32 teams to start. That number will be reduced to 16, then eight, then four, with the two final teams playing Sunday, July 23.

To reduce the luck factor with the draw of the cards, each team will play the same hands. The cards are pre-dealt and kept in a device called a board, with a slot for each seat. After a hand has been played, all four players put their cards back into the board, ready to be played by the next team.

What makes Hess and Miyashiro a good team?

“We’re both analytical, we both love the game, and we both care about all the aspects of the game from bidding to play,” Hess said.

“Some players don’t care for defense, but Gary and I both really like defense,” he added, which is important since it is half the game.

“What’s really important is we go easy on each other’s mistakes,” he added. “It’s a tough game, you inevitably make mistakes.”

After each game in Newtown they spend half an hour or so analyzing their play.

“We take responsibility for our errors. We’re both even keel,” he said.

That last quality is evident from one of the comments on the District 25 analysis of their play in Sturbridge which said, “Gary and Mike don't jostle easily.”

Miyashiro told The Bulletin’s sister paper, The Redding Pilot, he enjoys bridge because it’s mentally challenging.

“It's a combination of chess and poker. It involves a lot of strategy. You have to be able to think ahead, read your opponents and understand strategy,” he said.

Part of the fun of the game for Miyashiro is the suspense surrounding it.

“I have always believed that every hand is an adventure because every hand is different,” he said.

However, he pointed out that bridge differs from both chess and poker in that, while the other two games are individual, bridge is a partnership.

“You not only have to be able to play well yourself, you have to be able to communicate and play well with your partner,” he said. “It’s a great social game.”

The grand prize is not money but masterpoints. Hess received 36 gold points for winning the regional tournament to add to his total of more than 2,500. To become a sapphire life master he needs 3,500 points.

For him, the prize is “recognition in the bridge community and satisfaction.” The lack of a monetary prize is not a problem since for him, “bridge is an art form.”

Bridge in Wilton

Hess moved to Wilton in 2004 when he became global research director for a big advertising agency. He now divides his time between statistical modeling for advertising and teaching bridge.

He was first approached to teach by Rolling Hills Country Club.

“I figured it would be fun” to teach, he said, “but I didn’t realize how big the demand would be. He then began teaching bridge at the Wilton Senior Center as well, and then Wilton Continuing Education. In the fall he will teach two classes at Staples High School.

“There’s been a groundswell of interest in bridge,” he said. “As the baby boomers retire, bridge has become popular.”

Some people want to play with their elderly parents, he said, while others have read that playing games like bridge is good for the brain.
— Sandra Fox contributed to this story.