Palo Alto woman wins national bridge tournament

Geeske Joel found her passion in the 'most challenging card game ever invented'

Geeske Joel might have come to bridge at a late age for a competitor, but that hasn't stopped her from reaching the top. Joel, 48, and her team won the fall North American Bridge Championships board-a-match team competition last Sunday (Dec. 4). The three-day event was held in Seattle, Wash., and is sponsored by the American Contract Bridge League.

Joel, a Palo Alto resident, captained the team of six, which includes Tobi Sokolow of Austin, Texas, Jill Levin of Henderson, Nev., Jill Meyers of Santa Monica, Janice Seamon-Molson of Hollywood, Fla., and Debbie Rosenberg of Cupertino.

Considered the world's most challenging card game, bridge attracts players of all ages and all walks of life, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and tennis champ Martina Navratilova. Joel said the game's complexity and its continual challenge are draws. Bridge offers growth on many levels, she said. It is a game of strategy and spatial relationships; a game of anticipating one's partner's thinking and a game of logic and of memory, she said.

"It's an incredibly challenging game. There is never an end to the puzzle. The beauty of the game is you can play it at any level and find it challenging and interesting. If you like challenges, there's nothing better," she said.

Joel said she came to the game just eight years ago, but that hasn't stopped her from successfully competing.

"I really, really am ambitious," she said.

Before bridge, she played soccer, got a doctorate in biological sciences from Stanford University and bred Leonberger dogs, a large breed from Germany, according to her United States Bridge Federation profile.

But now most of her time is spent perfecting her bridge skills, she said.

"My husband claims I put in 40 to 50 hours a week. I don't think it's that much, but it's a lot of hours. It has become what I do -- and I love it," she said.

Joel played chess in high school. A math teacher at the time told her she should play bridge, she said. But she didn't begin for at least 20 years, preferring other card games and puzzles. It was through a local group playing duplicate bridge that she became hooked. The 900-member Palo Alto Bridge Club accepts all levels of players. Joel's interest and skill "catapulted," she said.

These days, one doesn't have to sit around a card table, she said. Her bridge instructor lived in New York, so Joel conducted her lessons online.

"It doesn't matter where you live, you can teach and play," she said. But she met her team partner, Tobi Sokolow, at a face-to-face tournament in San Francisco at the first national championship she ever attended. She and Sokolow practice through the Internet, she said. All of the women on her team have won national competitions, according to the American Contract Bridge League. Sokolow has won many championships, Joel said.

The women came in 10th when they started out in San Francisco. Joel's team has played together for 2 1/2 years, and the last two tournaments they've played they came in second place.

"We finally won by a very good margin," she said, sounding satisfied.

Joel thinks bridge should be taught in schools, with its important skill-building lessons. And despite its reputation for complexity, Joel said bridge offers something for everyone. Bridge is a game that is enduring, she said.

"It keeps you occupied and challenged for the rest of your life. There are people in the club who are over 90 and they come every day."

The Palo Alto Bridge Club is also getting a permanent home in Mountain View, where a wing at the I.F.E.S. Portuguese Society is being renovated, she said. The club offers classes, mentoring and a lecture series.

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