A rowdy room of fashionable women in smart suits, discussing the latest in housing costs and hair styles, suddenly take their seats and get very quiet.
The North-South pairs stay seated while the East-West partners shift tables every 15 minutes. Every fourth round is a smoke-able round, but otherwise smoking is off limits. Chitchats and telephone calls are frowned upon but these days you get the occasional call. It as after all, a serious, civilized game.
These 130 or so women gather at the Four Seasons Hotel on a Saturday afternoon to play bridge, the intellectual card game with its own World Cup, played in pairs and only perfected over years of practice and reading.
For some, it will be the fifth time they have played this week, at various sporting clubs or homes. For the less enthusiastic, it may only be their second or third time this week. Today’s event though is invitation-only, hosted by a handful of members from the Ladies Bridge Federation, the Spade, Heart, and Diamond Club, recognized by the butterfly broaches they sport on their lapels. Next month a different set of friends will organize the event.
The women present are mostly over 40, and many even over 70, but young players are entering the exclusive network as well, and taking private lessons in clubs and homes.
Aida Shoukry, who calls herself the “first of the group was the World Champion of bridge in its first Olympics in 1960. But Egypt gave her and her partner no recognition, she laments, while some foreign publications featured them.
She has been playing for 52 years now, ever since a man in her sporting club offered to teach her. In the early years, she says, bridge players in Egypt were far fewer and “you couldn’t hear a pin drop while playing. It is, after all, a ladies and gentlemen’s game.
Her long-time partner passed away some years ago and she is still visibly saddened when she is mentioned.
The only man in sight is the director Ashraf Wanas, who has known these ladies for years and is quite comfortable telling them jovially to be quiet and threatening them with penalties.
He explains that the game is a mental challenge, much like chess.
“There is no luck at all, he emphasizes, himself a long-time serious bridge player and for ten years, the Director for the Egyptian Bridge Federation. In fact, each table plays the same set of hands as the other tables, ensuring that luck is not a factor.
He adds that there are places in Europe and the US where bridge is taught at school, recognized for its value in strengthening concentration, memory, and math skills.
His role here is to keep track of time, count scorecards, and deduct penalties.
This is no coffee-shop card game. Laminated cards are placed on the table in lieu of verbally placing bids. The language used by the women and by the director is English. He explains that English is the international language of bridge.
A week before, Cairo hosted an annual international bridge tournament. Many foreigners play in bridge circles and many of the Egyptians who play learned abroad.
Hoda Helmy started playing when she was in Dubai 27 years ago. When she returned she began playing with an old acquaintance. They have been playing as partners for 25 years.
Partners “develop an understanding. There are different styles of players – gamblers, aggressive players, bluffers, and straight-shooters.
“You become very close, Helmy says. “We know everything about each other. It’s a mental exercise and psychological therapy.
Helmy explains that many women take up the challenging game after being widowed or divorced. “If you have a problem you forget it all. It’s an escape, to tell you the truth.
One of the women tells me that when they wake up in the morning these women “thank God that we play bridge. And at night, “we thank God that we played bridge.
Nobody around seemed to think this was an exaggeration.