by Jim Dey (Published in the Thursday, May 25 edition of the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette)
Christine Carroll was a little girl — "not even in school yet," she says — when her father brought her to the men's bridge game at his country club in Westchester, N.Y.
Suffice it to say, the appearance of the towheaded lass in such masculine surroundings was a departure from tradition..
"They all looked at me, and (my father) said, 'She can play!'" Carroll recalled. "They let me play."
So forgive Carroll if — more than 90 years and who-knows-how-many-thousands of bridge games later — she's not nervous about competing in this week's Illini Regional Bridge Tournament at the Hawthorne Suites in Champaign.
For her, it's just another game at another table in another place that's hardly as exotic as tournament games she has played in Japan, Great Britain and France.
"I've been all over," said Carroll, who is 99, and "I will be 100 on July 29."
The tournament, which is sanctioned by the American Contract Bridge League, started Tuesday and runs through Monday.
Hosted by the local Bridge at Ginger Creek club (www.illinibridge.com), the tourney runs each day, except for the final day, in three three-hour sessions that begin at 9:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. More than 400 players, mostly from the Midwest, will be competing.
Tournament chairwoman Karen Walker said the event is open to those who simply want to watch as well as those who would like to learn how to play a card game that has a zealous fan base.
"Kibitzers are welcome," said Walker, who also indicated that "experts will present short lessons" on the game at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
As the country club anecdote indicates, Carroll got an early start in learning bridge, a trick-taking game using a standard 52-card deck. Played by four players in two-member teams, the game requires skills in memory, tactics, probability and communication.
Carroll said she was taught to play by her father, who coached her because his wife would not tolerate him coaching her. Fearful of being exiled to sleeping on the couch, he focused on teaching his daughter.
"He could yell at me," she said, "but he couldn't yell at my mother."
Carroll said her father's best advice was, "Before you open your mouth, think."
Indeed, thinking is what Carroll likes best about the game, that and the competition.
"Bridge players are all the same. They all sit and think. A lot of them don't think the right way," Carroll said.
She credits her ability in bridge to an active mind and skill in mathematics, saying "you've got to know your numbers."
A facility with numbers is one of Carroll's strong suits. She and a younger brother grew up in a wealthy New York City family. Although Carroll never attended college, she performed well in a Columbia University calculus class she took at age 11.
Carroll spent most of her life in the New York and Chicago areas. Her husband, Luke P. Carroll, was a lifelong newspaperman, working his way up the ladder from copy boy to executive. A onetime White House correspondent for the New York Herald-Tribune, Luke Carroll, who is now deceased, associated with such luminaries as Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and as a result, Christine Carroll did as well.
After his stint at The Herald-Tribune, the Carroll family (Luke, Christine and their eight children) lived in the Chicago area, where Luke held executive positions at the Tribune and now-defunct Chicago Today.
Meanwhile, Christine Carroll raised the kids, teaching them, among other things, to play bridge.
"Since there were eight of us, there was always someone to play," said Deb Brinkmann, Christine's daughter.
Brinkmann ("She's No. 4," said Carroll) said she still plays bridge, but not with her mother's zeal.
"Mine is social bridge, nothing more," she said.
Carroll plays seven days a week: two days a week at Ginger Creek and the other five at home against unidentified opponents from who-knows-where on the computer.
"When her computer goes down, she has a conniption fit," Brinkmann said.
Carroll said bridge is just one way she remains active.
"I can't sit and do nothing," she said.
So while Carroll plays bridge on the computer, she keeps the television on for company and either knits or does needlepoint. Her residence is filled with her incredibly skilled needlepoint work, and a dining room table is covered with knitted scarves, socks and hats that she gives as Christmas presents to her 13 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and their spouses.
Brinkmann said her mother starts knitting the day after Christmas on the next year's Christmas presents and keeps going even after she produced enough gifts for everyone.
"There's no issue getting it done. She more than gets it done. That's why Bill sometimes gets three pairs of socks," said Brinkmann, referring to her husband, Champaign lawyer William Brinkmann.
Carroll takes no particular pride in her longevity. She attributes it to good genes, noting that her family members lived long lives. But she said eating the right way helps and so does her religious faith.
"God, see I happen to believe in him — wholeheartedly. I thank him every day for what he gave me," she said.
That list includes her children as well as longevity. As for skill in bridge, Carroll said that's something she worked out on her own.
"I don't think I'm pretty good. I know I'm pretty good," Carroll said.