Phillip Alder Says Good-bye to His New York Times Bridge Column

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Senior Woman Playing Cards
Photo: Luke Jarvis/Corbis

The New York Times announced that it was ending its bridge column, which managed to outlast the chess column by one year, after an 80-year run. Letters began pouring in from subscribers who considered Phillip Alder’s thoughts on the card game to be the best thing the newspaper published. Marilyn Schwartz in Florida wrote

How could you? In these days of devastating earthquakes, uprisings in Baltimore, and fear and uncertainty around the world, you are severing from your paper the one bastion of stability, intellect, escapism perhaps and “card sense” that has been my refuge (as well as for so many others) for lo these many years.

The New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, spoke to culture editor Danielle Mattoon, who said“It’s regrettable. We would like to keep everything. We know that these features provide a service and a connection to the paper, and that things like the bridge column speak uniquely to a certain audience.” 

Daily Intelligencer spoke to the man who managed to inspire this passionate outpouring of puzzle love, Alder, who wrote the column for its last ten years of existence, about his thoughts on his column’s demise and the ways in which the business of bridge journalism has sometimes mimicked trends in the rest of the media. 

The New York Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, spoke to culture editor Danielle Mattoon, who said“It’s regrettable. We would like to keep everything. We know that these features provide a service and a connection to the paper, and that things like the bridge column speak uniquely to a certain audience.” 

Daily Intelligencer spoke to the man who managed to inspire this passionate outpouring of puzzle love, Alder, who wrote the column for its last ten years of existence, about his thoughts on his column’s demise and the ways in which the business of bridge journalism has sometimes mimicked trends in the rest of the media. 

I’m curious to know what kind of feedback you’ve gotten since readers found out your column was ending.
Lots. I’ve gotten over a hundred emails, that’s for sure. The Times said they had about 2,500. That was rather more than I was expecting. It was nice of them to write, especially in that number.

Did you have any idea you had so many ardent fans?
I was not surprised; I was expecting to hear, I don’t know, from maybe 200 people. I knew a lot of people would be unhappy about it.

Were there any responses that were particularly memorable?
One of them said, “Soon, the obits will disappear, and we won’t even know if we’re alive or dead.” I thought that was quite funny.

Were you surprised that the column continued for so long?
I was more surprised that it was ending. It seems like rather a strange decision. They’re claiming it’s financial. But I think there’s a good chance they’re going to lose money over stopping it. I calculated; they don’t need that many people to cancel their subscription for them to lose more money from the loss of income than it is costing to pay me to do them in the first place. From that point of view, I’m a little bit surprised.

I know that the New York Times wrote in their response to all the people writing in that it was difficult to find an editor who played bridge and knew the rules.
When I started the column, the guy who edited it had edited [Alan] Truscott’s column and was a bridge player. He retired, and the next editor also played bridge. But when he was reassigned a few years ago, since then, I think I’ve had five different people work on it. The editors have been rotating. I’ll have one person one day, and another person the next column. None of those people play bridge. That was obviously a snag from my point of view. It didn’t seem like it was a big deal for the paper. 

How did you end up becoming a bridge columnist?
Well, it depends how you define "bridge columnist." A long time ago, when I still lived in England, I started submitting articles to Bridge Magazine, which is the oldest publication on the game still in existence. And then I became assistant editor for a new bridge magazine that started up. That didn’t last very long. They made some bad mistakes, issue No. 1 was very bad, and I wasn’t involved with this, but they had editors who were fired, anyway, and they collapsed. And then I became the editor of Bridge Magazine. And then I ended up moving to this country and became a newspaper columnist in 1991. That syndicated column is still continuing now; I’ve been doing it for 24 years. I’ve done more than 7,500 columns.

How big is the community of people who are writing about bridge, at this point?
In this country, there have been five syndicated columns for a long time. That’s been the number for years and years and years. Not a lot has changed. Most of the magazines are still going. One was absorbed by another magazine. The one that I was co-editor of stopped and then restarted some time later, and then was bought out by Bridge Magazine a few years ago. Bridge Magazine is now only published online, but many others are still being published.

Do you know whether you had many young people reading your column?
This country is finally trying to get young players into bridge. How many of those read my column, I’m not sure. It would not surprise me if they were reading the column online. Anybody who gets keen on bridge, it’s an addictive game. So you tend to absorb anything you can read about it. Most of the readers, though, were more senior-aged. The average age of an American bridge member is 70-something. I do a lot of bridge teaching, and a lot of my new students are people who just retired, who did play 40 years ago, and have now decided to come back to bridge.

Do you think you’ll have any more time to play now that the New York Times column is done?
The syndicated column will keep me writing; I don’t anticipate that collapsing in the near future, even though newspapers are struggling so badly. I might play more with my wife, whom I enjoy playing with. 

Besides reading and writing about bridge, is there anything else you particularly like to read about?
Right this instant, I’m into historical novels of some ilk, where authors are blending fact and fiction together. I don’t know quite why I’ve suddenly gotten into that recently. I read something by Leon Uris. I thought he was an extremely good writer, maybe the best writer I’d ever read. Lately I’ve been going through the last of my David Downing, who you might not of heard of. He’s an Englishman. He wrote a series of six books about World War II. I’m now reading another one he did about World War I. If you really care who I like, I’m a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse.

The last sentence of Alder’s penultimate bridge column mentioned P.G. Wodehouse. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.