Holding all the cards: At age 18, Walnut Hills High School grad is the King of Bridge

CINCINNATI - John Altman has traveled across much of the country the past several years, playing contract bridge.

Canada, Houston, St. Louis, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington state are just some of the places where the Walnut Hills High School grad has participated in bridge tournaments. 

Altman is only 18 years old.

In fact, bridge has been such a large part of Altman’s young life that the American Contract Bridge League Educational Foundation recently named him its King of Bridge, an honor bestowed annually on the nation’s top high school senior player.

“I was extremely surprised, and I’m absolutely ecstatic that I won,” Altman, who became an Ohio State University freshman three weeks ago, said. “It’s just been so cool starting from when I was small and having no idea that this hobby would turn into such a big part of my life.”

If the top player is female, then she is the Queen of Bridge, but there’s only one honoree each year, and that person receives a $1,000 scholarship to go with the award. The American Contract Bridge League, which serves 167,000 members and 3,200 bridge clubs, has selected a King/Queen of Bridge every year since 1973.

“I’ve been playing cards since I could count, with my grandma,” Altman, a chemical engineering major, said. His grandmother, B.J. Kolkman, saw something special in Altman’s card-playing abilities and turned him on to bridge when he was 12.

“She paid for some lessons, and my dad and I learned together” at the Cincinnati Bridge Association.

It was in the cards

Contract bridge is a highly strategic, complex game. It is one of the world’s most-played card games, and it is especially popular among senior citizens competing in clubs and tournaments. In bridge, two pairs of two partners play against each other, with hands taking about seven minutes and a session—or game—taking about 3 to 3½ hours.

Altman said that at tournaments, “you can play from nine o’clock in the morning ‘til two a.m., if you wanted to. Every day.”

So what’s his tournament day like? “Nine a.m. to two a.m.,” he laughed. “I’m one of the ones that plays every opportunity they give me. I’m happy to go play.”

Altman, son of John and Peggy Altman, mostly plays against adults in tournaments.

“Some of them see this kid coming up and think they can take advantage of him. Usually, they think I’m a lot older than I am,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Altman surprises his elders with his playing skill and often beats them.

Altman participated in the Youth North American Bridge Championships the past two summers and the World Youth Open Bridge Championships this summer. His partner this year was one of the newer players from a high school club. Even though they didn’t win anything, Altman said, “We did well considering how long he’s been playing, so I was happy with it.”

The best of the best

The King of Bridge award recognizes a graduating high school senior’s participation in the local bridge community as well as the accumulation of masterpoints, which are earned while playing well in competitions.

“Junior players like John who are passionate about the game and enthusiastic to teach others are a critical part of keeping the game of bridge alive,” said Robert Hartman, CEO of the American Contract Bridge League. “The King of Bridge is a title bestowed not just to outstanding performers, but also those who love to share the game with others. John is a representation of our hope for the future of Bridge.”

Altman said that before becoming the King of Bridge, his proudest moment “was when I made the rank of Life Master in Philadelphia two years ago.” A select few top players, depending on the size of a tournament, receive masterpoints.Through the years, he played well enough to collect 300 masterpoints, which gave him the rank. He now has more than 425 masterpoints.

Altman said his mentor Bill Higgins helped him reach the heights of the bridge world. The teen described Higgins "one of the best, if not the best, players in Cincinnati."

"I understood the game, but he helped me improve my game to a level where I could compete nationally.”

Higgins, of Indian Hill, called Altman “extremely bright, mannerly and a real quick study. Bridge can be a passion, and he has a real passion for it,” especially as the average age of bridge players increases.

An early leader

Altman became a certified director at the Cincinnati Bridge Association at 16, which is unusual for a youngster. A director must undergo extensive training and then oversees the games at a club for the day or evening. Directors act as part referee/umpire and part bouncer. They keep the game moving on time, deal with any infractions of the rules and ensure that there is no abusive or rude behavior, which can result in ejection.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a director that young,” said Higgins, who started playing bridge in the eighth grade in the mid-1950s and then got more serious about playing in the 1980s, accumulating 8,000 masterpoints.

If there’s a problem at a table, the director is called to handle it, and “you could have somebody who’s played bridge for 35 years or more, and they’re listening to a 16-year-old telling them what has to happen,” Higgins said of Altman, noting that he has maturity beyond his years. “But they have to do that.”

Altman, who lives in Mariemont, graduated this year from Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati. He started an after-school bridge club during the eighth grade, drawing between eight and 20 students, depending on the sports season. His senior year, the club joined with St. Xavier High School’s club, which expanded the possibilities of play and learning.

When asked whether his friends considered him a nerd or a geek, Altman said:

“When I was younger, that’s how it seemed. But as I got older, into more of the later high school years and now in college, everyone thinks it’s really cool because it’s something completely unique. For instance, here at OSU, a lot of people know that I’m a bridge player and have won this award and everything, and they think it’s actually really cool.”

Ohio State has no organized bridge club, but Altman wants to quickly change that. He already has found a few interested students who want to start a club, and a friend of his grandmother’s is sending him extra teaching materials. He hopes to have a university-sponsored club up and running next semester.

Altman's other passion is jazz.

“I love to play jazz piano. I’ve been a member of a jazz band and jazz combos, and just jamming out with friends.” He has played numerous times at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club in downtown Cincinnati.

Altman said that like most youths, he’s played his share of video games, “but I would’ve rather gone out and played bridge.”

Bridge is not the only card game he loves.

“I’m a big fan of Hearts and Spades and pretty much any social card game. I like to play with my friends.” How about Rummy? “Oh yeah.”

He also plays bridge online with players he has met at tournaments. He and his grandmother, who lives on the West Coast, play card games online as well.

Altman's message for his peers and younger kids? 

“I would tell them how unique of an experience it is to be able to travel around the country and play against professional players in your hobby. If you’re looking at a group of seventh- and eighth-grade kids, and their hobby is, say, football, they would never be able to do something like that. They would never have an opportunity to play against professional football players on a regular basis or be able to get to any kind of competitive level until they’re much older."

Bridge expands horizons

“My favorite thing (about bridge) is just how competitive it can be while at the same time it’s just an enjoyable experience,” Altman said. “I also really like being able to travel all around. I can play with people from other countries who don’t speak English, and we can still play bridge together even though we can’t have a conversation with each other. That happened this year in Atlanta. We played with some Colombian guys, and neither of us could talk to each other, but we were able to play bridge for a couple of hours.”

Not only has Altman encountered diverse cultures, but he also sees diverse skill levels.

“I remember at one tournament, I sat down at a table and played against someone who had just learned a few days ago from a friend or something, and then I went to the next table and played against a guy who has books and books and books, and he’s an accomplished bridge professional,” he said. “They were just right next to each other.”

“In bridge, you can sit down from day one. You might not win, but that’s the best way to learn. At least you get to play against people who know what they’re doing. It’s a great opportunity and great use of time, and it keeps you sharp and helps your logic skills and math and everything.”

The excitement in Altman’s voice tells you why he’s the King of Bridge.

Interested in learning about bridge?

King of Bridge John Altman said that if you would like to start playing bridge, you should first visit the American Contract Bridge League website.

“They have lots and lots of different resources on there,” he said. “You can find what kind of clubs are in your area of town, and they have websites for those clubs, and they have lessons and teachers.”

As far as books go, he’s partial to Audrey Grant’s “Club Series” introductory books on bridge.

“It’s really straightforward and clear and easy to learn from.”

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