Jun. 27—TUPELO — While Ron Ashby and Bill Langston both played bridge in their college years, neither picked up the game again for decades. Now, the two are life masters.
Ashby, 73, started playing duplicate bridge in 2007, after being encouraged by a friend to give it a go. Langston, 87, found the game in 2012, when his golf buddy started talking about it.
“I won’t say I was hooked the first night, but it was pretty close to it,” Langston said.
The two men played regularly with the Tupelo Duplicate Bridge Club, which used to meet at the Bel-Air Center. Now, the group meets Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 1 p.m. at the J.T. Neely Center at Veterans Park.
Ashby, a certified public accountant, and Langston, who is retired from Chevron, both had regular bridge partners, but more and more often they were paired together.
By 2014, the two had started traveling to duplicate bridge tournaments in the Southeast.
“The first place we went was Birmingham,” Langston said. “We’ve been to Nashville, Tunica, Jackson, Augusta, Biloxi, New Orleans, Atlanta and Gatlinburg.”
The partners often wore matching T-shirts they got from Ashby’s son, who has a brewery in Memphis. The shirt has a map of Tennessee on it, with a star where Memphis is located.
“It says, ‘When you’re bad you get put in the corner,'” Ashby said. “We got a lot of laughs about that.”
And, to draw more attention to themselves, they also regularly wore visors with fake hair coming out of the top — Ashby’s is gray and Langston’s is white.
“When people would comment about our hair, we’d say, ‘We go to the same barber. He only knows how to cut hair one way,'” Ashby said.
In 2020, the pair decided they wanted to play at a tournament in each of the lower 48 U.S. states.
“That was our goal,” Ashby said. “We were going to drive out to Colorado and play in as many states as we could along the way. Then we were going to fly to New England, rent a car, and pick up another five or six more.”
But then COVID-19 came along and stopped the face-to-face tournaments. So the pair did what other duplicate bridge players did: They started playing virtual games on their computers.
“We were playing a virtual game against a pair from Ohio and they told us they were playing in all 50 states virtually,” Ashby said. “They had already done 30 states. I said, ‘Bill, why don’t we do that, since we can’t play face-to-face?'”
On Monday, the partners reached their goal with a virtual game in the last state on the list, Montana. They have now played a duplicate bridge game in each of the 50 states, plus a game in the District of Columbia on Wednesday, as a bonus.
“The virtual tournaments go on all day long,” Ashby said. “They’re sponsored by local clubs and sanctioned by the American Contract Bridge League. You have to get an invitation to play.”
For a virtual game, Ashby and Langston play on computers in different places, so there’s no hint of cheating.
“Bill and I get on our computers, log in, and find a game we want to play in,” Ashby said. “Either he invites me, or I invite him to play. Each game takes about seven minutes to play. We usually play between 16 and 24 games at a time.”
Duplicate bridge is the most widely used variation of contract bridge in club and tournament play. It’s called duplicate because the same bridge deal — the specific arrangement of the 52 cards into the four hands — is played at each table.
“It’s scored by how well you do versus other teams playing the same hand,” Langston said. “Each team is awarded points depending on how you finish. There’s no record kept of party bridge. There’s a record kept of duplicate bridge, if you’re a member of the ACBL.”
Both men are dues-paying members of the ACBL, and both have achieved life master status or better. Ashby has earned 570 points and Langston has 1,170 points.
“Life master — that’s 500 points — that’s what everybody strives to get,” Ashby said. “One of our regular players in the Tupelo Duplicate Bridge Club has over 5,000 points.”
Each time the partners play at the Tupelo club, they have an opportunity to earn points. But when they travel to sectional or regional tournaments, the points are higher-rated, and therefore more desirable.
“I think Bill and I will probably travel together to a tournament together again this year, but we don’t have to,” Ashby said. “We started going to tournaments because we wanted to be life masters, and we’ve both got that.”
But that doesn’t mean the pair are going to stop playing the game they love.
“Bridge keeps the mind sharp,” Ashby said. “There are all kinds of stories about people in nursing homes who like to play duplicate bridge. When they start to slip, they get frozen out of the group. And shortly thereafter, they die. Bridge is what kept them going.”