William Zhu ’15 says he never would have learned how to play bridge if a teacher at his high school hadn’t bribed him into it. Now he’s one of the top young players in the country and will compete in the World Bridge Federation’s Youth Team Championships in Istanbul this summer.
Zhu says he knew “literally nothing” about bridge before he attended his first meeting of the club at Lowell High School in San Francisco. “No one in my family had ever played, and I didn’t know anyone else who’d played either,” he says.
Zhu says the only reason he joined was that the club’s advisor was having difficulty recruiting players and had resorted to offering his students some extra points on their social studies grades if they’d sign up. “I figured I had nothing to lose, so I joined the club in 10th grade—mostly to get that extra credit,” Zhu says. “For the first four or five weeks, I was totally clueless. But over time, I grew fascinated with all the bidding conventions, and I just wanted to learn more and more.”
Several of Zhu’s close friends also joined the club, and by their senior year they had mastered some of the complexities of the game. Zhu discovered how much he still had to learn, however, when the San Francisco-based Center for Bridge Education sponsored him in a tournament in Toronto. “I was terrified,” he recalls. “For the first few games, I was praying I’d be dealt really bad hands so someone else would be doing the bidding.” As the tournament wore on, however, Zhu began to gain some confidence, and he ended up finishing in the top half of the field.
When he was accepted at Vassar in the spring of 2011, Zhu reached out to some local bridge clubs asking if they knew anyone at the college who played the game regularly. He was referred to associate professor of economics Robert Rebelein, and the two teamed up for games at bridge clubs in Poughkeepsie during Zhu’s freshman year.
Rebelein, who has earned international master’s points at competitions himself, says he recognized Zhu’s talent for the game immediately. “William has a sound knowledge of the game, a firm grasp of the bidding conventions and mathematical probabilities and all that,” he says, “but he also has an innate sense of the possibilities the cards in each hand hold, and you can’t teach that.”
As Zhu honed his game playing almost daily online against top players from all over the world, he began to gain a reputation as a rising young star. Last year he was asked by three of the top rated young players in the country to join their team for the Under 26 division of the national championships in Atlanta. His playing partner, Edmund Wu, is also from the Bay Area. The other two members of the team, Jimmy Wang and Erli Zhou, are from China but are attending college in the United States. “That was a really lucky break for me, to be asked to play with those guys,” Zhu says.
Following some elimination rounds online, the top four teams squared off in Atlanta Dec. 27 to Jan. 2. Zhu’s team was behind halfway through its final match but triumphed with what he says was a combination of solid play and some timely mistakes by their opponents.
“In bridge, there’s always an element of luck, and we could easily have lost,” he says. “But it was fun to pull off the victory, and I enjoyed competing against players of that caliber.”
An economics major carrying a full course load and a varsity tennis player, Zhu says he’s devised a strategy for preparing for the world championships without spending an inordinate amount of time playing bridge. “There are bridge sites online that pose specific problems and challenges that come up in games, and I’m studying those to learn how to navigate those challenges,” he says. “I think that’s a better use of my time than just playing lots of games.”
Rebelein says he and Zhu texted each other during the national tournament in Atlanta, and he’ll be following the action in Istanbul through online bridge sites that provide play-by-play coverage of the competition. The 11-day tournament begins Aug. 13. Rebelein, who is also Zhu’s academic advisor, says he expects his student to excel at the international event.
“William is by far the most talented bridge player I’ve ever met on campus in my 12 years at Vassar,” he says. “He’s very serious about bridge, but he’s also found a way to balance that with his studies and his tennis and his other activities on campus, and I really admire him for that.”
Photo by Imrul Islam ‘17