The National Bridge Championships. John Knight considers his next play. Photo: Rohan Thomson
If there can be such a thing as sensible fanaticism (it sounds like an oxymoron) then hundreds of earnest contract bridge players have just begun displaying it at Rydges Lakeside Hotel.
On Wednesday, and with the heat hellish outside, 450 bridge players, as focused and as competitive as Lleyton Hewitt but having had the sense to choose an indoor game as their obsession, played intense bridge in the airconditioned comfort of the vast, windowless ballroom.
Elsewhere in the hotel, organisers told us, hundreds more were playing in Wednesday's National Life Masters Teams event. There are 1700 bridge players, from all states and territories, here for the annual and always-held-in-Canberra Australian Bridge Federation's Summer Festival Of Bridge.
Mixed bathing Photo: Supplied
Contract bridge, or just bridge, is a very cerebral card game (Wikipedia calls it ''a trick-taking game'') that uses a standard 52-card deck. It's played by four players in two competing partnerships, with partners sitting opposite each other around a table.
On Wednesday there were 113 tables arranged in the ballroom, each table with four intense souls at it. For the bridge-ignorant (like this columnist) this gave the ballroom the ambience of a vast dining room, or perhaps a school canteen where there are strict rules against noisiness. Conversation at the tables (and there has to be some conversation because the game requires negotiations and exchanges of data) never rose above a polite rustle, like the rustle of dead leaves in a park on a breezy autumn day.
Contract bridge looks like an intense game (Hewitt will probably have just the temperament for it if ever he looks for a post-tennis passion). When in conversation I told the tournament's convener Sean Mullamphy that Canberra Times photographer Rohan Thomson was looking for some smiling faces in the room, he mused that Thomson might struggle to find any while the 2½ hour matches were under way.
''We've got three team events going on in this room,'' Mullamphy explained as we contemplated the summery-looking congregation (lots of shirtsleeves and sandals, and even some frivolous Hawaiian shirts, their frivolity at odds with their wearers' deep-thinking demeanours). ''Over the next three days the teams will play nine matches [that's three Lleyton-length matches a day] against nine different teams. It's a card game but it's actually more. It's a problem-solving game as opposed to a normal card game which is just a memory thing.
''What makes it so [consuming] is that every time you sit down to play you never face the same problem twice. There's always something different. And the better players are better because they analyse better. They analyse the data they receive from the play. Yes, it's cerebral. It really is. But it's like tennis in that you can play it in hit-and-giggle ways or like the Davis Cup. Each has its place.''
But there was no giggling in the ballroom on Wednesday. It was all Davis Cup.
But this bridge/tennis analogy is not always a good fit. For example, are there any crime novels with a tennis setting? None leap to mind but, perhaps because tennis players and fans read fewer books than cerebral bridge geeks do, and perhaps because bridge requires such fiendish cunning, there certainly are crime novels with bridge settings. Perhaps they are the bedside reading of the 1700 at the tournament. There is a kind of bridge paraphernalia and merchandise shop at the Lakeside for the duration of the tournament and its book tables are festooned, not only with books about tactics, but also with bridge-based novels.
One is Georgette Heyer's Duplicate Death (''Inspector Hemingway has his work cut out for him when a civilised game of duplicate bridge leads to a double murder.'') Then there is Carole Coplea's Death In Duplicate (''A deadly game. A mysterious illness. Two dead bridge players. What's going on at Kensington College?'') with a most striking cover picture in which the skeleton of a very late bridge player clutches the king of clubs in its bony fingers.
The Summer Festival Of Bridge continues until January 26.