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Bridge Player Helps Fight Alzheimer's Playing the Game He Loves

Bridge Player Helps Fight Alzheimer's Playing the Game He Loves
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June 11, 2024
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As the inaugural partner of The Longest Day® — where participants fight the darkness of Alzheimer's and all other dementia through a fundraising activity of their choice on a day that works for them — the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) has raised $10 million for the care, support and research efforts of the Alzheimer's Association.

The ACBL's San Diego Unit 539 has generated over $60,000 in donations for The Longest Day since 2018. "We're so grateful for the commitment and success of San Diego Unit 539," says Sarah Granby, Alzheimer's Association San Diego Chapter/Imperial Chapter senior constituent events manager. "So many people in the unit contribute through planning their event, participating in the pros auction, donating or simply coming out to play. It's a true collaboration."

Sam Madison, 72, is "a huge part" of the unit's fundraising success according to Granby. Originally from England, Madison, a former financial services and software consultant, moved to the United States in 1991 and lives in San Diego with his wife, Diane. He's part of the fight against Alzheimer's because the disease has impacted two people very close to him. Below, Madison talks about his love of bridge and how he hopes his expertise can help end Alzheimer's.

How long have you been playing bridge?
I began playing when I was 26 or 27. The bank I was working for sent me to the Middle East to help restructure operations in a large bank that they acquired there. My mom is half-Italian, half-Lebanese, and I speak a few Arabic words. I ended up getting stuck there because the bank had 400 branches all over the Persian Gulf, and there was so much to do.

One day, a co-worker offered to teach me how to play bridge. That's how I learned. I continued playing until around 1992, then I stopped for almost 20 years because work life got in the way. I just came back to it about seven years ago.

Before you took the break from bridge, what was it about the game that you liked and that kept you interested in it?
I fell in love with the game for two reasons. One is the social aspect. I love traveling, and I've traveled all around the world. I've found that whenever I travel, I've got friends or meet new ones. I can go anywhere in the world, and I'll find the nearest bridge club, and I'll be playing and meeting people. I have friends in Denmark, Germany, France, Sweden — you name it.

The second is the mental challenge. I used to play chess at university, and chess is a lonely game. It's all in your head. Bridge is a social game. You have a partner, so you have to have a good way of communicating, which means learning how to treat partners well. Bridge keeps your mind engaged in so many ways.

When you began playing again, were you rusty or did you feel like you picked it up easily?
Oh, I was rusty. The challenge when you leave bridge for a while is not the mechanics of the game or the theory of what you should do. It's the ability to focus. The rusty part comes because you can't keep your mind focused like you should. I didn't forget how to play — I just couldn't bring myself to focus right away. That takes time.

Are you considered a professional bridge player?
In a sense. I teach bridge, and some of my students pay me to play bridge with them because that's how they learn and get master points if we come in the top three pairs. Some players want to play somebody who's better than they are so they can learn.

You talked about the focus needed to play bridge. There's evidence that learning something new like bridge might help brain health. What's your opinion on that?
That's something I always say to everybody I teach. Exercise is good for your body, but your brain can die faster than your body if you don't do something about it. To me, bridge is my insurance against old age. My body will give up on me, I know — it's already giving up on me — but I'm hoping my brain will stay sharp. It goes back to those aspects of being social and communicating, and having to focus so you can plan how you're going to play and the strategies involved. It all helps keep you engaged.

What's your personal experience with Alzheimer's disease?
I've really had two experiences. My ex-father-in-law, Pat — my first wife's father — I call him the father I always wanted to have. My dad and I have never had a good relationship, so Pat was really my dad. I loved him to death. He was a wine master, and he took me all around the world, tasting wines and learning about them. About 11 years ago, when he was 71, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and died two years later. It was really something that kind of shocked me, that this could happen to somebody who was so smart and so well educated.

Then, unfortunately, two years ago, one of my best friends, Klaus — whom I've known for 40 years — developed the disease. He's 73. He's originally from Germany, and we used to work together. I talk to him as often as I can, but the first time [his diagnosis] hit me is when I went to see him last year. We talked many times before my departure, and I informed him of the date and time of my arrival [from San Diego to London], but when he saw me, he said, "Oh, you're here. I did not realize you were coming." It was just shocking.

How difficult has it been to see your former father-in-law and your friend go through this?
You don't want to even think about it sometimes. I would go see Pat, and it made me cry every time I walked in there and he wouldn't even recognize me. That always kind of got to me. He'd smile, and sometimes you could see a flash in his eyes, but then he'd sit there and say nothing. Alzheimer's is an experience I wouldn't wish on anyone.

Not everyone who is impacted by Alzheimer's or other dementia raises money. How did you become interested in helping the cause?
When I went back to bridge, I learned about the American Contract Bridge League and joined Unit 539 here in San Diego. Then I learned that the ACBL raises a large amount of money for the Alzheimer's Association every year. They're the biggest supporters of The Longest Day of all the sports or games. I began to donate games to play against me, and we also created an auction of professional bridge players. Last year, we raised $18,500, which was the biggest number so far.

How does that make you feel personally to help the cause that's impacted you?
All I can say is that I'll keep doing it. I'm hoping that whatever amount we raise will help. Believe me, I'm very proud of it. I feel like at least I'm contributing something, and bridge is the only way I know how. We need to figure out a cure for this disease.

Each year, ACBL members across the country host tournaments, teach lessons and play multiple sessions to advance the cause. Learn more about ACBL and bridge here.

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