Andre Bovee-Begun

An Interview with Mary Ann Dufresne and Marion Ellingsen


Between the two of them, Mary Ann Dufresne and Marion Ellingsen have two Bridge books and over forty years of Bridge teaching experience. The first book they collaborated on, We Love the Majors, won acclaim as a well-organized, easy to understand introduction to the complexities of the game. The pair’s latest book, Bridge with Bells and Whistles, brings a new level of Bridge concepts, conventions, reviews and quizzes to take students beyond the ideas covered in beginner Bridge courses. Mary Ann and Marion took some time to sit down and answer some of our questions about what separates a beginner from a strong intermediate player, their favorite moments as Bridge teachers, and a few bidding techniques every player should have in their toolkit.

What kind of students did you have in mind when you set out to write the book?

Marion: We were thinking about students that have a good understanding of basic Bridge and are ready for the next step.

Mary Ann: These are the novices that have learned most of the basic rules. They’re doing pretty well against other novices, but seasoned players still roll right over them. Now what?

Could you tell us a little more about some of your favorite “bells and whistles” that your book will teach students who have mastered the fundamentals of Bridge?

Mary Ann: This was a fun question for us. We prepared our “favorites” lists independently, then compared notes. Our lists were a little different but…Surprise! The two of us agreed that these four are the most important of all the “bells and whistles” we teach in the book.

• The negative double — a basic survival tool for responders. Nowadays you can count on those pesky opponents to interfere at the slightest opportunity — even with relatively weak hands. If the opponents come in after partner opened a suit you don’t like, you have to scramble for a fit. The negative double is the best scrambling gadget in the toolkit.  Apart from Stayman, it’s our very favorite convention.

• Jacoby Two Notrump. It’s trivially easy to get to game when partner opens and you have a fit plus game-going values. But what about slam? Often that’s a matter of fit rather than points. Jacoby Two Notrump lets you show your game-going hand at the two-level — so you have a wealth of bidding room to explore the overall fit.  You’re definitely missing some slams if you don’t play Jacoby Two Notrump.

• Roman Keycard Blackwood. Basic Blackwood will tell you about aces but it won’t tell you about the quality of the trump suit. If you want to improve your slam bidding, Roman Keycard is the first step forward.

• Weak jumps and cuebids in competition.  In our highly competitive Bridge world, you can’t afford to pass just because you have a weak hand.  Weak jumps and cuebids are the coping tricks every player should be using.

Marion: Bergen Raises are also on my short list. When partner raises my major, I really want to know whether he has four trumps or just three.

Mary Ann: And I’d add New Minor Forcing and Fourth Suit Forcing. Sometimes you really want to partner to bid again but he might pass any of your reasonable natural bids. What can you do? These conventions will force partner to bid again — and give you more information about his hand.

Your last book together — We Love the Majors! — was a great, clear introduction to the game’s complexities and strategies. How does Bridge with Bells and Whistles pick up from there?

Mary Ann: We Love the Majors! is mostly a summary of bidding rules. That’s where every Bridge student begins. Bells and Whistles is mostly about subtle bidding ideas.

Marion: We’re talking about understanding concepts like:

• Points don’t tell the whole story about the playing strength of your hand.

• Your playing strength isn’t static. It changes every time somebody bids.

• Games and slams are a matter of fit — not points.

• Jump with weak hand; go slowly with strong hands.

• There’s a world of difference between three-card support and four-card support.

Mary Ann: Bridge rules will only carry you so far. What characterizes the intermediate player is a genuine understanding of the game.  He knows why the rules make sense. He can improvise sensibly when the rules don’t quite fit the cards he’s holding. He can interpret the information available at the table and draw inferences. No teacher or writer can give students the genuine understanding that comes from experience, but we can introduce them to new ideas and challenge them to think — and think, and think — about what it all means. That’s what we’ve tried to do in Bells and Whistles.

From your experience, what do you think are the most difficult concepts that students have to grapple with in order to succeed at the immediate skill level?

Marion: One specific thing — really part of beginner Bridge — is the question of what’s forcing and what’s not? That’s absolutely crucial to success and seems to be the last thing that novice players master. Advancing players also find it very hard to give up mechanical point counting and step up to serious hand evaluation.

Mary Ann: Just as much as concepts, intermediate players need better concentration and attention to detail. Novice players tend to obsess about their own hands. How many points do I have? What’s my next bid? Intermediate players look outward and ask much better questions. What is partner telling me? What information does he need from me? What can I infer from the opponents’ bidding and carding? How are the points distributed around the table? Recently one of my students began to really pay attention to defensive signaling. She told me: “There’s another whole game going on that I never noticed before!” There’s always a lot going on around you. The more you’re able to simply notice and interpret, the better you’ll play.

How long have the two of you been teaching the game?

Marion: I’ve been at it for over 30 years.

Mary Ann: I’m a relative newcomer: I’ve only been teaching for about 10 years.

Could you share any favorite memories about teaching the game?

Marion: I remember when I was teaching my third-graders to play Bridge. One day the principal came to observe my class.  I don’t know what he thought about my teaching or the students’ learning, but from his comments I knew he really understood that long suits are important!

Mary Ann: Every class is special in some way, but my very first Bridge class will always be my favorite. What marked that particular group is that almost all of them fell in love with the game! Most still play at my local club. Several are Life Masters — even Bronze and Silver Life Masters.  I acquire new memories every day when one of my former students beats me fair and square at the table or uses some trick I taught him against me. Those are the memories I really treasure. They remind me why I love teaching.

Marion: Then there’s the funny stuff. When I teach Stayman I emphasize that a 2 response to 1NT asks partner whether he has a four-card major. One day I saw one of my students responding 2even though she didn’t have a four-card major. When I pointed it out, she said: “You mean I have to have one, too?” Needless to say, I tuned up my Stayman lesson after that.

Mary Ann: And I remember the time I was playing against one of my students. She opened 2 on my right — puzzling because I had a VERY good hand. When my partner and I found our slam I realized she had opened a weak two with a six-card club suit! We teachers have a lot to answer for.

You’ve both taught some young students — third graders, in Marion’s case! Would you like to tell us a little about what’s it’s like to get such young people playing Bridge?

Marion: With the third-graders, I kept it simple and fun — how to count high-card points, who leads, following suit, high card wins. Eventually they learned that trump is the “power” suit. I declared success when they learned not to trump their partners’ tricks. I often wonder whether they’re still out there playing Bridge. I really wanted to whet their appetites for the real game.

Mary Ann: There are no third-graders in my history but I’ve taught a few teenagers. The joy is: They absorb new information like sponges! The challenge is: Keeping their attention. Today’s computer-oriented kids like ACTION! [Editor’s note: guilty as charged, but despite the handicap of having been born in the computer age, even my Bridge game is making progress!]

Do you have any tips for teachers from all this experience?

Marion and Mary Ann: This is our best advice:

• Don’t cover too many concepts in one lesson.

• Don’t be a slave to your script or teacher’s manual. Teach at the students’ pace. If you can’t cover everything, so be it. You’ll get to it later.

• Never worry that your lesson is too easy.

• Never underestimate students’ capacity to misunderstand. Say the same thing in as many different ways as you can think up.

• Use visuals of all kinds: flip charts, posters, and so on. Students need to see the information, too.

• Always keep cards on the table as a practical demonstration.

• Let them play as much as possible. That’s what they really like and that’s how they really learn.

• Be prepared to be misquoted!


Linda LeeMarch 14th, 2011 at 9:09 pm

I was really impressed with you comments about how satisfying it was when one of your students does well against you. I was thinking about that just this weekend when playing a session with students.

I remembered why I loved teaching so much. It makes you feels so good when somebody has learned something.

Ray Le FaivreNovember 11th, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Is this the Mary Ann Dufresne who graduated from IHA in Watertown, NY in 1960? Fellow grads have been looking for you. Ray Le Faivre Anne Marie Diefendorf (Dooley) would like to reconnect with you.

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