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Bridge Club Founder Bids Farewell

Kurtz Was Co-Creator of BASIC Programming Language

  • Tom Kurtz plays Contract Bridge with about 75 others during his last session as director of the American Contract Bridge League at Lebanon College in Lebanon, N.H., on June 25, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Tom Kurtz plays Contract Bridge with about 75 others during his last session as director of the American Contract Bridge League at Lebanon College in Lebanon, N.H., on June 25, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tom Kurtz, right, helps Amy Nachman of Hanover, left, and Muriel Steinberg, center, of Quechee, with a Bridge-related question during the a weekly American Contract Bridge League game at Lebanon College in Lebanon, N.H., on June 25, 2014. Kurtz, who created the league, celebrated his last day before retiring. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Tom Kurtz, right, helps Amy Nachman of Hanover, left, and Muriel Steinberg, center, of Quechee, with a Bridge-related question during the a weekly American Contract Bridge League game at Lebanon College in Lebanon, N.H., on June 25, 2014. Kurtz, who created the league, celebrated his last day before retiring.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • (Left to right) Margaret Fanning of Hartland, Vt.,  Joe Watts of Grantham, N.H., and and Jim Daigle of Plainfield, N.H., inspect their hands of cards during a weekly bridge game at Lebanon College in Lebanon, N.H., on June 25, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    (Left to right) Margaret Fanning of Hartland, Vt., Joe Watts of Grantham, N.H., and and Jim Daigle of Plainfield, N.H., inspect their hands of cards during a weekly bridge game at Lebanon College in Lebanon, N.H., on June 25, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tom Kurtz plays Contract Bridge with about 75 others during his last session as director of the American Contract Bridge League at Lebanon College in Lebanon, N.H., on June 25, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Tom Kurtz, right, helps Amy Nachman of Hanover, left, and Muriel Steinberg, center, of Quechee, with a Bridge-related question during the a weekly American Contract Bridge League game at Lebanon College in Lebanon, N.H., on June 25, 2014. Kurtz, who created the league, celebrated his last day before retiring. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • (Left to right) Margaret Fanning of Hartland, Vt.,  Joe Watts of Grantham, N.H., and and Jim Daigle of Plainfield, N.H., inspect their hands of cards during a weekly bridge game at Lebanon College in Lebanon, N.H., on June 25, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Lebanon — Whether it’s computers or card games, Tom Kurtz, the co-creator of BASIC, the programming language that first made computers accessible to laymen, has spent a lifetime explaining complicated things to everyday people.

By Kurtz’s reckoning, the bridge club he founded 13 years ago at Lebanon College is the largest in New Hampshire. Its members will miss him after his retirement as director on Wednesday.

Many of them learned to play in his bridge classes, including Henny Philips, of Hanover, who has known him for more than 20 years.

“Tom has been our director, our guru, our leader,” she said.

At least 76 players, enough to run 19 simultaneous games, assembled Wednesday in the basement of Lebanon College for a potluck lunch, followed by an afternoon of cards, all in Kurtz’s honor. They milled about just outside a windowless room full of bridge tables, picking over an enormous spread of potato chips, baguettes laden with fancy spreads and everything in between.

“What a zoo this is!” Kurtz said, looking around.

“Boy, oh boy, what a party! You think these people are happy to get rid of you?” Dick Olson, a veteran bridge player from Florida, said.

While Kurtz will still play in the group, Jane Verdrager, a longtime member, will manage it in his stead.

When Verdrager takes over as director, the club’s $3 entry fee will rise to $4, she said. Kurtz used to donate the proceeds to Lebanon College, but Verdrager said she was unwilling to manage the club without receiving compensation. In Manhattan, she reasoned, an afternoon of bridge can cost as much as $25.

In contrast to Kurtz’s work in mathematics and computer science, bridge doesn’t require high-order calculations.

“Basically all you have to do is know how to count to 13,” Kurtz said, referring to the 13 cards of each suit of a 52-card deck.

Yet like chess, bridge is a game of incredible complexity. Two teams of two players compete to win “tricks,” or play the high card, scoring points based on an “auction” that takes place before the game begins. As in any other auction, the teams bid for the chance to choose the “trump,” or highest suit, promising in exchange to win a certain number of tricks. The teammates, who sit across from each other, can’t see each other’s cards until play begins, and when the deck is properly shuffled the players should never see the same set of cards.

Unlike chess, where the strongest computers can reliably beat any human, no one has ever written a program that can play a good hand of bridge, Kurtz said.

Many of the club’s members have played for decades; Kurtz has played since 1951.

“It’s a seductive game,” Olson said.

Olson, as well as many other players, comes up during the summer from Florida, a bridge paradise with its high retiree population. The state has at least 500,000 players, not counting those who visit in the winter, according to South Florida resident and club member Ellie Hanlon.

Hanlon and her bridge partner, Mary Savko, are among the club’s most accomplished players. Three summers ago they competed in the world championships, falling only in the finals to a team from the Netherlands.

Hanlon has around 16,000 points in the national bridge league’s rating system. Many players calculate their scores to within hundredths of a point, and 350 points is often a lifetime goal, but Hanlon doesn’t keep track quite so closely.

“With that many, it’s just...” she said, trailing off.

As the club finished lunch, Verdrager ushered Kurtz and his wife and bridge partner, Aggie, over to two canvas folding chairs decorated with caricatures of their faces as playing cards.

“They’re the King and Queen of Hearts,” Verdrager said. The players, already in their seats, applauded.

Kurtz solemnly bit into a chocolate chip cookie, while Aggie leaned far back in her chair, smiling.

Soon after, the games began, and the chatter of the room faded to near silence, broken only by murmuring and the shuffling of cards. All bridge games are quiet, according to Kurtz. The players even have bidding cards that help them avoid speaking during the auction. A lasting memory for him will be attending the larger tournaments, where up to 400 people play at once, all in total silence.

“It’s an awesome sight,” Kurtz said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

Correction

Tom Kurtz, the co-creator of BASIC, founded a bridge club at Lebanon College 13 years ago. The name of the institution was incorrect in a photo caption in an earlier version of this story.