Bridge player passes skill along to students

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

In what looked like a series of equations, Jim Davis scribbled numbers and letters across a whiteboard at Lafayette High School.

This wasn't Algebra. Or any high school math class, for that matter.

The formulas on the board revealed strategy in the game of bridge, and the eight students in the classroom listened before launching into a few games of their own.

Davis, 73, teaches the card game to nearly 80 students across eight Williamsburg-James City County schools.

He had never before taught bridge when he started nearly four years ago. The retired contract administrator had never taught anything.

Not long after Davis' wife, Bonnie, passed away in 2011, he remembered an article he'd read about a man teaching bridge at a local school. He found a way to contact the man, Sam DeCroes, and helped out initially with a class at James River Elementary School in 2012.

To this day, Davis has no idea why that article came to mind.

"It happened, and I didn't realize what it was going to evolve into," he said.

A love of bridge

Davis and his wife married in 1967 and, soon after, the couple began taking a bridge course while Davis was stationed at Langley. That would start Davis' love of the game.

"I like the playing and the thinking," he said.

He described bridge as a partnership game among four people, "with the object of bidding and taking enough tricks to make your contract."

The game involves heavy strategy, and that's where the captivation often lies.

"It's really fun to see how the cards are dealt and see what you're going to get and how you can use it best," said Helber Oliveira, 15.

Oliveira started as a sixth-grader in Davis' bridge class at Berkeley Middle School, prompted by an existing enjoyment of card games. Oliveira, now a sophomore at Lafayette, sticks with the game.

"I'm still learning quite a bit, because there's a lot to the game," he said.

Still, if Davis' praise and Oliveira's quiet confidence were any indication, the sophomore's not too shabby.

For Davis, the best part is watching the light bulbs switch on, when students grasp a concept.

"It's just watching them learn and have fun, (observing) their growth," Davis said.

Davis moved to Williamsburg in 2007, joining Unit 110 in the American Contract Bridge League. But it wasn't until he began helping DeCroes at James River Elementary in 2012 that Davis fell in love with teaching the game.

That first year Davis taught at two schools; DeCroes eventually handed over the reins. In 2013, Davis started a youth bridge tournament, attended a teacher accreditation program for bridge and took some students to their first national tournament.

Davis teaches five days a week on a volunteer basis. A typical week takes him to Lafayette High, Matoaka, Rawls Byrd and James River elementary schools and Berkeley, Toano and Lois Hornsby middle schools.

"My kids are growing up," he said. "They just stay with me all the way through."

And they constantly surprise him.

He mentioned the younger sibling of one of his students who turned out to be so good that she was allowed to join the bridge program at James River. She took second place in the local tournament and, at nationals, she earned more points than the other local students.

She was 7 years old at the time.

Keeping bridge alive

Davis also offers occasional weekend workshops, as well as adult classes on Tuesdays at Mount Vernon United Methodist church in Toano and Thursdays at Denbigh Community Center.

The average bridge-playing age is in the 60s, Davis said.

"It's really a dying art," said Betty Case.

Case attends Davis' adult classes and, with 37 years teaching math at Lafayette under her belt, the now-retired teacher helps Davis in classes at three schools.

She loves when the young students teach her bridge about the game. Case pointed out that some of the students in the Lafayette bridge program have low self-esteem in math.

"They get in here, and they do great," she said.

In addition to mental math, bridge necessitates and develops memory, critical thinking, communication, sportsmanship and etiquette, according to Case and Davis.

"My ultimate goal would be to have a bridge program at every school in the system, but there's not enough of me to go around," Davis said.

He fears, if something were to happen to him, the program would fall apart.

Hosted by Unit 110, the next local youth bridge tournament will occur February 25 at the DoubleTree hotel, and Davis said he'd like to see 100 kids in attendance from around the region. Last year, there were 53 from Williamsburg and Virginia Beach.

"He is truly keeping bridge alive through the young students," Case said.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

To reach Jim Davis

Email bdavis143@cox.net or call 757-869-6310.

Adult classes

10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 6:30-8:30 p.m., Tuesdays at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Toano

10 a.m.-1 p.m., Thursdays at Denbigh Community Center in Newport News

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