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Bess AdlerPhotographing inside New York’s bustling Bridge clubs

Published
Words
Diane Smyth

New York’s bridge clubs not only provide the city’s tight-knit Bridge communities a place to play their hands, but also a space to engage and socialize. Photographer Bess Adler’s lens is usually focused on hard-hitting international stories, but when she’s at home in New York, she loves to capture “intricacies of community,” and that’s why these clubs caught her eye. She tells writer Diane Smyth about the family connection that introduced her to the game, and about why it’s so important the clubs that took such a hit during the pandemic manage to find their feet again.

“Tournament Bridge is highly competitive,” says Howard Flaxbaum. “It does bring out the competitive instinct. You’re playing for Masterpoints, and every level of Masterpoints is harder to play. Sometimes I compare it to Year One in Kindergarten, when you’re trying to get a gold star. You’d kill for it!”

It sounds intense but Flaxbaum is chuckling while he speaks. He’s been playing Bridge for more than two decades at the club at Temple Tikvah, New York, having taken the game up when he was widowed. Despite the competition, he says the social aspect is part of the appeal, and he settled on the Temple Tikvah because he likes the people. Bridge is a game played in pairs, and he’s always taken a “no fault” approach with his partners, he says. “Then they felt more relaxed, and it was more fun. But you know, we’re all individuals. I’ve seen all kinds of things!”

And it was this social aspect that got Flaxbaum’s great-niece, Bess Adler, interested. A photojournalist who works on hard-hitting stories such as Haitian-American deportation, she prefers to focus on “intricacies of community” when she’s working back at home in New York. She was also intrigued by how challenging Bridge is, and how lo-fi in an increasingly tech-heavy world. “I was thinking a lot about how people spend their time when they grow older, how they stay engaged both mentally and with their community,” she explains. “I just admired how people come together, to be with each other and play this game. If people see each other once or twice a week for years and years, that’s a really beautiful thing.” 

Adler asked Flaxbaum if she could go with him to the Temple Tikvah in 2018 and, enjoying her time, returned with him many times afterwards. She also found three more clubs to photograph, at the East Midwood Jewish Centre, Brooklyn; the Riverdale Senior Services, The Bronx; and the Honors Bridge Club, Manhattan, phoning to ask if she could come and take pictures. Adler has found that the atmosphere varies widely from club to club, from those that take it very seriously to those that are more lighthearted; either way, they all share a sense of camaraderie. But sadly she’s recorded what might be the end of an era, because COVID-19 hit the game hard. 

“A lot of the clubs were closed for a year to a year and a half, and people started playing online,” she explains. “And even now [that things are normalizing] there are empty tables, because people are still playing online. I’d like to photograph people playing at home on their computer, but it does make me think of the future of the game. That loss of attendance seems unfortunate when the clubs offer such a benefit for players.”

Bernice Burge plays a novice game of bridge at Honors Bridge in Midtown Manhattan.

“I loved her outfit, and as soon as she walked in I really wanted to photograph her. You know it’s an exciting social occasion when people come and play, it’s a good excuse to dress up. The Honors Bridge club was the biggest in New York City, it was a two-floor club and on the main floor it was very serious. There were national winners there. I had more fun photographing the novice play downstairs, though of course they were taking it seriously too.” - Bess Adler.

Rubin J Rubinstein plays bridge as Amalia Ottenberg looks on at the Riverdale Senior Services Bridge Club in the Bronx.

“This actually wasn’t even an enclosed room, it was just a part of the senior center and people were walking through it into other classes. It wasn’t a very large space, but they seemed really happy to be there. The organizer told me it was a pretty packed day for post-pandemic Bridge, but they used to have a lot more tables. It’s such a shame because Bridge clubs are really special for seniors—there are a lot of cognitive benefits, and there’s also social stimulation.” - Bess Adler

Rose Repke and Eleanor Tannenbaum hold hands during a break from playing bridge at Temple Tikvah in New Hyde Park, New York.

“Before and after the game and during the little breaks, people chat with each other. People talk about their lives, about their grandchildren, they share snacks. I thought this was a really nice moment; they were chatting, and they just started holding hands. It captures the camaraderie in the room.” - Bess Adler

Howard Flaxbaum plays bridge at Temple Tikvah.

“Everyone liked the attention of somebody coming around taking pictures, I don’t think anybody refused. Later on when Bess wasn’t there, people would come up to me and say ‘Where’s your niece?’ We’re elderly people, we like and we need attention. And also, anything my niece wants, she gets.” - Howard Flaxbaum

Gloria Kerzner and Rose Repke play bridge at Temple Tikvah in New Hyde Park, New York.

“This is at my uncle’s club, where it seems like everyone has such a great time playing. There are lots of deep friendships, and people have a lot of fun with each other. I also took so many photographs of hands, I had to edit them down! The players’ hands have these beautiful textures, and often the women are wearing such beautiful jewelry.” - Bess Adler.