By Mac McLean • The Bulletin

Huub Bertens arranged the cards in a newly dealt hand of bridge during a tournament at the Bend Senior Center on Wednesday afternoon.

“It looks like they are going to take us out,” said Bertens, 54, as he tried to communicate the strength of his particular hand to his partner, Cascade Duplicate Bridge Club President Dennis Douglas, so they could bid accordingly and get the most possible points from this round of play.

Bertens, who immigrated from the Netherlands about 2½ years ago, makes his living playing at tournaments across the globe or with people who will pay tens of thousands of dollars to have him travel to their homes, sit at their table and give them the game of their lives.

The Southeast Bend resident ranks among the World Bridge Federation’s top 100 players in the world, and last month came home with a silver medal he won playing for the American team at the fourth SportAccord World Mind Games in Beijing.

He’s also part of a plan that Douglas hopes will draw younger players to bridge. The average American bridge player is currently 69 years old. Douglas’ project may also give local students the same chance to succeed on an international stage that Bertens got when he started playing bridge 40 years ago.

“Bridge is a fascinating game,” Douglas said as he talked about his goal to create a bridge program in Central Oregon’s schools. “It’s something young people should learn how to play.”

The game

Contract bridge is a card game where two two-person teams deal out a 52-card deck and win tricks by playing the highest card in a particular suit or by playing a trump card that comes from a pre-designated suit and beats non-trump cards regardless of their denomination.

Teams start each round by bidding the number of tricks they should be able to win depending on the strength of their hands, and they score points based on how close they get to this goal once all the cards have been played. The team with the highest number of points after six rounds of play wins.

“It’s a very complicated game,” said Bertens, who continues to learn more about the game even though he’s been on the professional circuit for almost 10 years. “I can teach you how to play bridge in 10 lessons but you will spend the next 10 to 15 years learning how to play.”

Bertens started playing bridge with his family in the Netherlands when was 14. He said he fell in love with the game after his first hand and steadily improved his skills by going to social bridge clubs in the Netherlands, where people often played late into the night.

“Where I come from,” Bertens said as he compared the Dutch bridge scene to the American scene, where most games are played at people’s homes or at places such as the Bend Senior Center, “you started at 8 p.m., played until 11:30 p.m. and then the fun started at the bar.”

Bertens said the Netherlands — which today is one of the top four bridge-playing countries along with Italy, Poland and the United States — started paying some of its top social bridge players to practice one day out of each week so they could improve their skills and improve the country’s reputation in international bridge.

Bertens, who worked as a sleep specialist during the day, joined this effort and traveled with the Dutch team to play at European and world bridge championship tournaments in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009. But he caught his first big break in 2006 when he and a partner took first place at the Cavendish Invitational Tournament in Las Vegas. This victory, where he and his partner split the tournament’s $400,000 top prize, also marked his entry into world of professional bridge.

“When you reach a certain level,” Bertens said as he described how he makes a living, “people will hear about you, invite you to play with them and pay you for it.”

Professional bridge

Bertens walked past a snooker table in a back room at his southeast Bend home and reached up to a fireplace mantle, where he keeps a collection of trophies and medals he’s won over the past 14 years playing bridge with the Dutch team and other partners.

Since his appearance at the Cavendish, Bertens has used the reputation that comes with these prizes to attract clients, private individuals who pay large sums to sponsor a team at a tournament — provided the sponsor can sit in for a couple of hands before they go out to dinner — or spend a few days playing their favorite card game with some of the best players in the world.

“(I have a client who) wants fun,” he said, referring to someone who once hired him and a handful of other bridge players to spend a week playing the game at her house. “She wants a week of fun. That fun costs her $60,00 to $70,000 to hire the players and she doesn’t care.”

Bertens said he stopped working as a sleep specialist completely when he realized how much money he could make as a professional bridge player about eight years ago. He set up a small travel business that sent people on bridge-themed excursions and used his reputation as being the “most well-known European bridge player in China” to endorse an iPhone bridge app that still pays him a few cents every time someone buys it.

But Bertens knew that he’d eventually have to move to the United States — particularly the West Coast, where most of his private clients live — if he really wanted to make a living playing bridge. He said his wife, Jeanne van den Meiracker, who is one of the world’s top bridge referees and helped write the game’s current rule book, thought of the idea and encouraged him to do it.

“We love America,” said Bertens, who moved to Bend after he was declared an “alien of extraordinary ability” and got his green card in 2012. “It’s a lot of fun and we have a great life here.”

The club

When he’s not traveling to play bridge at his clients’ homes or tournaments, Bertens and his wife, who also spends most of her time on the road, relax and take it easy at their home in Southeast Bend. They also join Douglas’ group when it holds its weekly meetings at the Bend Senior Center.

“(Bertens) is such a good player,” said Douglas, who has played bridge for about five or six years and said Bertens did most of the work when they won the club’s professional-amateur tournament Wednesday afternoon.

Douglas said his club is fortunate because Bertens and Jeff Roman, a professional bridge player who lives in Bend during the summer but spends in winters in Arizona, moved to Central Oregon about the same time and they both play an active role with the 167-member group.

He said it’s almost unheard of to have such a high concentration of professional players. The American Bridge League has 167,000 members, but only about 70 to 75 of them earn enough money playing professional bridge to pay all of their bills.

But while the club may stand out in this way, it does not stand out in its demographics — its average player is 68 — and Douglas is having a problem finding younger players who could keep it going in the future.

“(The age issue) is something we want to improve,” said Douglas, who is working with Bertens and Roman to start teaching elementary school students how to play a much simpler version of bridge known as mini-bridge.

Bertens said this initiative — which will likely start at the Crook County School District because one of the club’s members is a teacher at Crook County Middle School — is based on similar program that came out of the Netherlands in 2000. He said once a child learns how to play mini-bridge it’s easy to teach them the full version of the game — mini-bridge has no bidding process — when they are teenagers.

Getting bridge players started at an earlier age also means they’ll have a chance to perfect their skills and improve their chances at becoming semi-professional or even professional bridge players, he said, noting the members of a Dutch National team that won first place at the 2011 World Bridge Tournament had an average age of 30.

“The average of American bridge players is very high,” he said. “It can’t get much higher because then we’d all be dead.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, mmclean@bendbulletin.com

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