On the first evening of our trip, the 16 members of the Stocken Bridge group got back in good time from an exhilarating day on the groomed pistes of Montgenèvre, a small resort on the French side of the Alpine border with Italy. But instead of hours in the bath before hitting the après-ski scene, there was time for only a cursory shower before the real business began at five. We trooped to our private games chalet and were sitting down at crimson-velvet covered tables when Zebedee Stocken arrived for our bridge lesson. With tea and scones, we embarked on session one: transfers.
These, as any decent bridge player will know, have nothing to do with getting to and from the airport. That had happened the previous evening, after an uneventful flight to Turin. I had not previously met any of my holiday companions, but when I first saw them, gathering at the airport, I immediately identified them as fellow card players; they had the bright-eyed look of people who could carry in their heads the odds of an opponent holding a fistful of aces. But where poker addicts tend to affect a jaded exterior, all dark glasses and putty complexions, these bridge players looked as if they enjoyed outdoor as well as indoor games.
I have played bridge for decades, but only intermittently, and veer towards an organic approach that depends more on luck and cardmanship than on knowing the myriad conventions that separate the kitchen-bridge player from the expert. Most of my companions played bridge weekly or even more frequently. Many were retired and had come on this first winter alpine Stocken adventure as much for the snow and the fellowship as for the bridge; but, as I was to discover on the mountains, they were fit and brave and, on the other side of the bridge table, as sharp as the cards with which we played.
That first lesson was a revelation. As the setting sun turned the mountains behind my partner from gold to vermillion to a delicate mauve, Zeb whisked us through the basics, scribbling on the whiteboard as fast as he spoke, explaining not only the hows but the whys. Over the next days, as we delved deeper into conventions and card play, a beautiful logic started to emerge from the thicket of instructions. Perhaps it was the cleansing effect of alpine air, but I started being able to sense intuitively which card to put down and when. Playing specially arranged hands during the lesson, and then with shuffled packs after dinner, just piqued the appetite for more. On day two, several of the non-skiers, who had a full programme of guided snow-shoe treks along quiet mountain paths, opted to go off piste and return to the hotel after lunch to play bridge under the watchful eye of Zeb’s mother. By day three, we were taking packs of cards up the mountains for a quick hand at lunchtime.
The Stockens are a sort of one-stop bridge family. All of them play to tournament level and, to varying degrees, it has become their careers. While both Zeb and Claudia – a vet who moved to the mountains after marrying a French ski instructor – jointly run Stocken bridge holidays, their brothers teach bridge for rival organisations and their parents, Peter, a puzzle-maker, and Dinah, a former judge, take it in turns to accompany them around the world on bridge trips. “Mum can’t make the Morocco one, so Dad’s coming instead,” says Claudia, “which means we’ve had to up the red wine order.”
Philippe, Claudia’s husband, was our daytime guide, leading us down ever-steeper slopes and farther afield into the wider ski area known as the “Milky Way”. Montgenèvre itself was gloriously quiet. When the icy winds of the first day subsided to bring crisp days, we almost had the slopes to ourselves, never having to queue for a lift or do battle with a snowboarder. I became obsessed with trying to work out whether a person’s skiing style matched their bridge-playing; whether a dare-devil on the slopes was more likely to take a punt on a grand slam. In my case it was sadly true: on the last day, I crashed on a black run and, later that night, went hopelessly down on an over-optimistic six-spade contract.
As the ski days and bridge nights went on, the joys of a two-activity holiday became apparent: once we tired of one, it would be time to swap to the other; when the body was working the mind was resting. It was like being Jack Sprat and his wife. After a week of it, I had improved at both bridge and skiing and, surprisingly, felt both invigorated and relaxed. I’m not sure that a straight ski holiday will ever feel the same. At the least, I will pack cards – and perhaps a small bridge table.
Samantha Weinberg was the guest of stockenbridgebreaks.com. The 2017 Montgenèvre trip costs from £1,431 pp