By Joe Earle
Fred Strickland’s obsession started in college.
Other Florida State University students spent their time studying. Not Strickland. He spent hours in the dorms playing bridge. He fell in love with the game. He played all the time. He was captivated.
“When I became obsessed with this greatest of games, it was fun, it was fast, it was so exciting,” he wrote years later when trying to explain his attraction to bridge. “We didn’t know much, but we played a lot of hands. …. We weren’t playing just to be playing. We were playing to win.”
Strickland grew so smitten with the game of bridge that he started cutting classes to play. He read books on bridge. He’d sneak newspapers out of the boxes to read the bridge columns. He started playing duplicate bridge in tournaments as a way to meet girls.
Eventually, Strickland flunked out of FSU, he said, and ended up in the Navy. He kept playing bridge, even finding the occasional bridge tournament at a port of call. After he completed his tour of duty, he returned to FSU and, this time, he graduated.
And he kept on playing bridge.
That was in the 1960s. Strickland moved to Atlanta in 1969. For a while, he tried to make his living from cards. He found places he could play bridge for money. He also found there wasn’t a lot of money to be made playing bridge. “Looking back, I don’t see how I survived,” he said.
Now 65 years old, Strickland still plays the card game he learned to love in college. He’s ranked among the top players in Georgia. And he’s made his living since 1975 by teaching others to play bridge in group classes at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Buckhead.
“I lucked into the program over here,” Strickland said one recent Monday as he lunched on a sandwich between classes in the church recreation building. “It’s always been a pretty good living for a single guy.”
During his classes, he shares the secrets of the game: counting points, employing bidding conventions, taking tricks, finessing, reaching for big slams and little slams, pushing to win. During one recent class, he wandered among the card tables set up in a church classroom as 40 or so of his students puzzled over the riddles of bidding no-trump.
Strickland, a large soft-spoken man who dressed for class in a colored T-shirt and khaki cargo pants, towered above his seated students as he tried to show them how to think through how to bid and play their cards.
Strickland had arranged the cards so each foursome of students played the same hands. Each hand seemed arranged to teach a particular point – how to bid, how to size up the game, how to “smother” an opponent’s cards with your own. Some lessons were aimed at the declarer, the person playing the hand. Others were for players on defense.
“By the way, when you’re declarer and you’re in a bind, should you look like you’re in a bind?” Strickland asked his class.
No, several students responded.
“No,” Strickland repeated, eyes closed tight, his concentration apparent. “You should exude confidence, like you have no care in the world.”
Strickland has developed a following among metro Atlanta bridge students, said Gilda Morris, fitness and programs director for the church. People want to be in his class, she said. Some take his classes again and again to try to master the intricacies of bridge. In his intermediate classes, she said, Strickland teaches from a textbook he wrote himself.
“He’s got a computer for a brain,” Morris said. “I’m a people person. He’s an intellectual.”
And he takes his classes, like he takes the game of bridge, seriously. “He’s exactly what you want in a bridge teacher,” Morris said. “Don’t think you’re going to chit-chat in his class. This isn’t social bridge.”
He told one recent class that he sometimes wishes he’d gotten a degree in psychology. “I’d be so much better a bridge teacher if I could get inside your mind,” he said.
Occasionally, Strickland the bridge teacher merges with Strickland the bridge player. “He is very patient,” said Gabriel Fadel, his regular partner. “He never gets angry if I make a mistake. He never says a word. He might send me an e-mail after the fact teaching how I could have better played the hand.”
Strickland plays “duplicate” or competitive bridge most Friday nights at a club near Norcross. He’s one of the state’s highest-ranked players Fadel said.
“He’s an excellent player,” Fadel said “He knows the cards. He understands where the cards are. He can read the players when they play. You have to have ‘card sense’ in bridge. In the last five or six cards, he can tell you what each person has in his hand. …
“He is very methodical in his bidding. I take more chances. I’m more a gambler. He’s a machine. He plays the hand correctly.”
And he teaches his students to play to win. “Bear down,” he told his students one recent morning. “You can relax later this afternoon. Now bear down. …. If you develop a reputation as a person who doesn’t try to make the bid, that phone will stop ringing. People don’t like partners who don’t try to make their bids.”
After all, Strickland believes in playing to win.
“If you’re not going to be a bridge player who tries to [win], don’t tell your teacher,” Strickland said. “And don’t tell who you teacher is. That’ll embarrass me.”
To find out more, contact The Gym at Peachtree Presbyterian at 404-842-5852 or online at www.peachtreepres.org/thegym