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Game changer: Bridge, mah-jongg play shifts online during coronavirus social distancing

Silvana Scotto-Morici of Sands Point hosts a live

Silvana Scotto-Morici of Sands Point hosts a live tutorial for about 100 senior citizens about how to get online to join Bridge Base Online.  Credit: Marina Zangri

Silvana Scotto-Morici, owner and operator of Sagamore Bridge Club in Syosset, created a thriving, welcoming venue where about 40,000 players gather annually at as many as 50 tables daily except for Thanksgiving Day. The 5,000-square-foot club doesn’t even close for New Year’s or other holidays.

That was, of course, until the coronavirus hit. Scotto-Morici closed the doors March 17, at least temporarily, leaving tables empty and players stranded.

Yet, as in cards, so it is in life: Scotto-Morici, 48, of Sands Point, decided to play the hand she was dealt.

“I’m helping people get online,” she said. “I thought how many people in this crisis are sitting home alone? What if I could connect them online so they’re doing what they like to do?”

Scotto-Morici found a flood of interest as this pastime, played in pairs, went from being played together in a physical place to online.

“I had a lot of calls from people who said, ‘How do I do this?’ I said, ‘Let me walk you through it,’” she added.

An experienced bridge player and teacher, she began on the phone and soon was teaching people in crash courses online how to set up and play virtually.

She has been busier than ever, teaching mostly club members (as well as the general public from as far away as California) to make the transition. She has barely had time to play on her own.

“I’m doing live tutorials through Zoom,” she said of the service she hadn’t heard of until the pandemic. “I have had to do it several times a day because my sessions fill up with 100 people each time.”

Onward online

Such video games as Call of Duty and Fortnite have huge online followings, but those who are baby boomers and older often prefer old-fashioned board and card games.

And thousands of them ordinarily gather to play bridge and mah-jongg at home, in restaurants and clubs. As part of the Long Island leisure scene, a board game boom continued as baby boomers began retiring.

Since people stopped gathering in person in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, technology began transforming how this traditionally less-tech-savvy crowd plays.

“I generally play between four and six games a week until the fishing season comes,” said Howard Cohen, 75, an Oceanside resident and experienced bridge player who has shifted to online play. He retired two years ago, selling Shane’s Dollar Daze in Island Park. “Now I play [online] three or four hours every day.”

With players who have time on their hands, bridge and mah-jongg are in the middle of an online boom amid the coronavirus crisis.

“We’re playing more, because we have more free time,” said Amanda Gilligan, a 48-year-old physical therapist and Rockville Centre resident who made the leap to myjongg.net. “We’re all stuck in the house with nothing to do.”

Grace Gustin, 74, of Plainview, said she has been playing online and spending time with friends at realmahjongg.com.

“We always play together, but we can’t be together,” she said. “So this is the next best remedy. We are surviving the pandemic by playing mah-jongg online and talking on FaceTime instead of in person. Those of us who play mah-jongg go crazy if you don’t have the games to play. It gives us some companionship.”

The tech transition

Playing online means learning how different sites and platforms work. Scotto-Morici has been teaching players to transition online to Bridge Base Online (bridgebase.com) by teaching classes on Zoom with help from her seven children, including those home from college. Although she charges for live tutorials, Scotto-Morici has taped lessons that can be viewed for free at sagamorebridgeclub.com.

“They’re teaching me so much. They’re saying, ‘If you want to do this, do it this way,’” she said. “I didn’t even know Zoom existed. I didn’t know I could share my screen or get a direct link.”

Zoom has opened a whole new world, she said, adding, “I didn’t even think of using anything like this.”

In a recent tutorial, Scotto-Morici showed players how to set up, play digital cards and navigate bridgebase.com.

“That’s a good question,” she told a player who asked how to find other players he knows online who might want to play. You can find them through an online search of the site, she explained, adding that her own club has begun collecting user names and posting them on its website to make players easier to find. 

Cohen said he asked Chuck Scharf, a friend from North Baldwin who plays online, to help him find a place to play online.

“I stumbled a little bit. The more I do it, the more I’m getting familiar with it,” Cohen said. “I’m learning how it works.”

Indeed, it can be easier to find games online than in person, since the pool is global rather than local: A recent visit to Bridge Base Online showed more than 36,000 players and 8,200 tables.

“It’s people from around the world,” Cohen said, noting profiles include name, nation and level. “Every time I go online, there’s never fewer than 20,000 people online.”

Hal Rekate, 74, a neurosurgeon who retired in late 2018 and lives in Laurel Hollow, began playing bridge online against people and robots once the pandemic struck.

“You’re playing against computers that are able to go through huge amounts of data,” Rekate said. “Then you’re playing against people from everywhere. It’s very challenging.”

Bridge players can play virtually anytime, since there are players from around the world.

“A game typically takes us 15 to 20 minutes in person. On the computer, you have to wait for everyone to have their turn,” Gilligan said, noting their first online games took nearly an hour and a half. “I think as we get used to it, it’ll be less. There was definitely a learning curve. “

Mental health benefit

Playing games can be healthy, keeping the mind sharp and, many believe, potentially slowing the onset of dementia. “I like the competitive challenge of it,” Cohen said. “It mentally stimulates you.”

Rosanne Cohen, 74, Howard’s spouse and an experienced bridge player, said online play has big benefits when traditional bridge isn’t possible.

“Howie likes the socialization of it,” said Rosanne Cohen, who worked as the bookkeeper at Shane’s Dollar Daze. “When you can’t be social, I thank God for this. Otherwise, he’d be going stir crazy if he didn’t have anything to stir him mentally. It allows him to do something that he loves and keeps himself mentally active.”

Players can communicate via text through chatting with the opposing team on Bridge Base Online, but only about information necessary for the game.

“You just see the hands,” Cohen said. “When it comes around to you, it tells you it’s your turn.”

Many bridge players say they've lost a lot of the social element, focusing on cards, at least during the game.

“Most of the social element in bridge doesn’t happen during the game, but after,” Scotto-Morici said.

Since software preserves the game after it’s played, players can analyze the game play by play, often via phone afterward.

“They can now get on the phone and discuss what they did. Most people talk with their game partner,” Scotto-Morici said.

Better than being there?

While most bridge players play blind (that is, not seeing one another’s faces), many mah-jongg players use such apps as FaceTime or Houseparty to see and chat with the group on their cellphones.

“I think it adds a lot to the game. It lets us catch up on what’s going on during the week, how everybody’s weathering the stay-home order,” Gilligan said.

Barbara Kaplan, 54, of East Hills, who also transitioned to mah-jongg online, loves seeing others in this virtual room. “Without it, it’s completely silent,” she said. “You don’t know what the person’s thinking.”

And Alex Pollack, 68, of Lake Ronkonkoma, who plays with her, said the game remains social, because you are with each other, even if you aren’t together physically. “You can see them,” he said. “Not just hear them.”

There can be a downside to spouses and significant others who find their loved ones have got more game than ever.

“I’m used to being on the computer all day. Now I have to make an appointment to get on my own computer,” Rosanne Cohen said about sharing the home computer with her husband. “I had to squeeze in an hour before he plays his next game.”

Scotto-Morici believes there may be a revolution in the cards for bridge, even if online isn’t always better than real life.

“I haven’t had a minute. People are Netflixing and chilling — I haven’t had a second to myself. We’re definitely busy,” she said. “In between, we’re still teaching our students online. We haven’t stopped. We’re going to get through the COVID-19 crisis.”

Scotto-Morici has taken a passion for bridge and helping others play and found a modified mission during the coronavirus crisis.

“I think I was bred to do things like this,” she said, noting her club is getting its own private area online at Bridge Base Online. “I never thought I would have an online bridge club, which I’m going to have.”

Meanwhile, Rekate, the retired surgeon from Laurel Hollow, said he’s looking forward to returning to traditional play, but that doesn’t mean an end to the online game.

“I’m going to do most of my play back in live action. That’s much better, because it’s a social experience,” he said. “You chat about nothing and things that are important. You meet and talk to people.

“But online is significantly more challenging. It requires you to be focused every second. I will continue, to be sure.”

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