Staying in the game: Longtime Greenfield resident keeps bridge alive by bringing it online

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 06-12-2023 11:07 AM

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit three years ago, one longtime Greenfield resident never would have guessed that the online bridge community he helped to create would later become the one he’d rely on.

“The pandemic has caused us to rethink an awful lot of things,” said Robert “Bob” Sagor, 77. “No one ever thought about online board meetings and committee meetings before the pandemic.”

Sagor, who has been playing bridge on and off since college, started playing the game online at the start of the pandemic, using an online interface already in place, thanks to the American Contract Bridge League. He made a call to the national organization and learned how to set up an online group through the ACBL, which would be exclusively for members who’d been playing in Northampton. 

“When the pandemic hit, it was go online or close,” he recalled. “I quickly decided that I was probably – through a combination of bridge skills and computer skills – the person with the most potential to do it. I called the ACBL and got myself set up to… put the game online within a few weeks of the ACBL shutting down live bridge. We kept the club alive.”

Sagor learned to play the game in college. When he and his wife, Claire, moved a few years later to a farm in Nova Scotia, he started playing weekly with customers who visited the farm. 

“It’s a wonderful game, and it’s dying,” he said. “The average age of the members is 74. Very few kids play bridge. I was afraid if we didn’t keep it going online, we were going to lose not only contact with each other, but the game. Those of us who play – you kind of get hooked on it.”

The game, he said, requires an element of skill and luck, while also being a game that relies heavily on the strength of a partnership. 

“Chess is also a competitive game that requires thought and tactical ability, but bridge has the additional component of being a partnership game,” he explained. “You and I can be the two best players at the club, but we may not do very well if we can’t play together... Everybody has a chance against everybody, which is kind of fun.”

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Roughly 30 years ago, after 19 years in Nova Scotia, Sagor moved to Greenfield, where he worked for two years at Pioneer Valley Veterinary Clinic before he founded the Greenfield Veterinary Clinic. All the while, he continued playing bridge, participating in games held in Greenfield and Northampton. Shortly after the death of Charlie Keller, a friend who he traveled with to and from games in Northampton, the Greenfield club went defunct, and Sagor stopped playing the game and picked up an interest in triathlons. 

“When I retired in 2012, I decided to go back to (bridge) and I did,” he said. “I taught bridge at (Greenfield Community College) for a couple of years in an adult evening program… When [the pandemic] hit, they shut down the leisure program and by the time they started it again, I wasn’t fit to teach anymore.”

Seven years ago, Sagor was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder that affects the nervous system and the parts of the body controlled by the nerves. 

“I don’t have cognitive deficits, but I have physical issues that make it tough,” he said.  

Holding cards, for instance, can be a challenge. Dropping a card in a regular game isn’t a big deal, but in a tournament, it requires calling for a director. There’s more at stake, he said. And then, there’s the fatigue. 

“A live game is typically three-and-a-half to four hours,” Sagor said. “An online game is two to two-and-a-half hours. That’s one of the reasons online is better than live.”

The pivot to online in 2020 went well, according to Sagor. Participants logged onto a Zoom call for about 15 minutes before each game, played bridge from 7 to 9 p.m., and ended the evening with another Zoom call to discuss the game. 

“I ran that for about 19 or 20 months,” he said. “By the time I felt I couldn’t do that anymore because of my Parkinsons', there were a couple people willing to be trained, and the game has gone on.”

Though no longer running the group, Sagor still plays online on Tuesday evenings. The online group is similar in size to the in-person group, with 40 to 60 people playing online each week, compared to the 60 to 70 who previously were playing in-person. 

“I’m playing less and less as time goes by,” he said. “Even online, sometimes I have no trouble at all and sometimes by the end of the game I can’t even use the mouse.”

Recently, Sagor earned a Sapphire ranking, just a few rankings shy of professional players. To achieve this, he had to earn 3,500 master points by playing, and winning, ACBL-sanctioned games.

“I just got to 3,500,” he said. “I was hoping I would, because I was creeping closer and closer to 3,500 and playing less and less bridge. I was on a team that came in second place in an event a few months ago, and that got me over the hill.”

Sagor said he’ll continue to play the game as long as he can.

“I played bridge for 30 years, and I’m glad I did,” he said. “I can’t run or bike or swim much either, and that’s all too bad, but I do what I can.”

The Northampton club offers online open pair games at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at https://www.bridgebase.com. In-person games are played at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays at the Christ United Methodist Church, 271 Rocky Hill Road (Route 66) in Northampton.

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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