A tight-knit community of bid whist players is getting its game on every Tuesday at Ed’s Tavern in Lakewood Ranch.
As a kid growing up in the 1950s, Carol Cooper was forbidden to play cards. With the exception of a few rudimentary children’s games, playing cards was equated with drinking, gambling and rabble rousing. Even Old Maid was prohibited on Sundays.
Cooper, a native of Washington, D.C., didn’t sit in on her first real card game until she left in 1956 to study business administration at Howard University.
She remembers the scene like it was yesterday. Packs of students gathered around tables in Douglass Hall, laughing and trash talking, bidding and tricking, slamming down trump cards and feverishly keeping score. She pulled up a seat. Watched and learned.
The game was called bid whist and she was immediately hooked. Without her churchgoing parents to rein her in, Cooper played every chance she could get. She played so much bid whist in college she nearly flunked her classes.
“I was up all night studying to make up for it,” Cooper says. “It was terrific fun.”
A distant cousin of bridge and spades, bid whist — or just “whist,” as it’s referred to in some circles — is best known as a kitchen table pastime in the African-American community. Cooper, now 79, is among a few dozen people who gather every Tuesday afternoon to play it at Ed’s Tavern in Lakewood Ranch. Even though she and her husband, Lanier, live in North Port, they drive 40 minutes each week to participate because bid whist players are hard to find. It’s not like finding a dime-a-dozen bingo night or mahjong group. It is the area’s largest organized bid whist group.
“Really we do it more for the camaraderie than the game,” Cooper says. “It’s not a serious thing. I mean, we’re competitive to a degree. But it’s not like it’s chess. We’re not sitting there all quiet. We’re just having fun, socializing.”
HOUSE OF CARDS
At the height of snowbird season, the Lakewood Ranch bid whist group takes up almost half of Ed’s Tavern. In the slower summer months, they still manage to take over four or five tables. Some players drive from as far away as St. Petersburg; others live in Sarasota and Bradenton, but the majority live in East County. About 70 people — most of them retirees and transplants from other cities — belong to the group. All of them are African-American.
University Park resident Julie Cook Downing is the group’s official organizer. A stalwart poker player and longtime corporate management trainer and marketing executive, Downing inherited the crew about four years ago after suggesting it move its games to Ed’s, where she plays poker.
“Even though plenty of African-Americans retired here, it’s unusual to see a group of us in one place, much less one place in Lakewood Ranch,” Downing says. “This isn’t your typical happening.”
Founded in 2010 by Don Jordan, the whist group was handed off to Sarasota snowbird Margaret Harrison, who used to run it out of Bobby Jones Golf Club until it outgrew the space. Since moving to the Lakewood Ranch watering hole in 2014, the game has generated a larger crowd than Tuesday night poker.
“They’re here 52 weeks a year, in the low season, the high season and the hurricane season,” says Bruce Mahnke, Ed’s general manager.
The usual cadre of players is 65 and older — the oldest is 90. Like Cooper, a lot of them were banned from playing bid whist as kids and didn’t learn how to play until college due to what one player calls rampant “Bible thumping.”
They bring to the table a wealth of unique experiences plucked from a variety of high-achieving careers. Downing’s loose “member directory” includes doctors, college professors, lawyers, business consultants, university deans, investment bankers, nurse practitioners, government administrators and high-ranking military officers. Some of these players are also members of the Xi Boule, an elite fraternity of accomplished black business leaders.
“On a personal level, playing with these people takes off any load that I’m carrying,” says Downing, who runs a multitude of caregiver support groups, including her own company, Caregivers’ Comfort Creations. “I’m appreciative that there are things we as a group of African-Americans can latch onto and look forward to. It is authentic fun.”
They come with spouses, friends and neighbors. One clique of female players hails from the same street in Esplanade Golf and Country Club, where they also meet to play canasta and poker. They spread out across tables and booths, making room for beer, martinis, chicken wings and nachos. The first hand kicks off at 1 p.m., but some players arrive earlier or later. The diehards sometimes stay straight through the dinner rush, wrapping up their final hand as late as 6 p.m.
They are as much a mainstay as the tavern’s famous chili and disco fries. They have a designated server, Janae Poppa-Deis, who has waited on the group almost exclusively since they started meeting at Ed’s. She knows almost all of their orders by heart. Reggie gets his chicken grilled extra crispy with sauce on the side. Jim gets the Asian salad with shrimp and no tomato. Bo gets Sam Adams. Julie gets an iced tea.
“They’re a good group,” says Poppa-Deis. “They treat me well.”
ALL FUN AND GAMES
Bid whist is a partnership trick-taking game. Players are paired off into teams of two and then pitted against one another in a battle to win tricks. The game’s cardinal walk of shame is referred to as “rise and fly,” which means players are forced to leave their seats when they lose so other players can move in. Depending on the intensity and sense of humor of the people playing, rise and fly can be a source of both comedy and scorn.
In the 2005 book “Rise and Fly: Tall Tales and Mostly True Rules of Bid Whist,” authors Greg Morrison and Yanick Rice Lamb share the story of one woman in Atlanta who makes players leave her home and stand outside when they lose.
“My skin is not thick enough to play with people like that,” Cooper says. “You come across some partners, they can be sort of cruel. Our group isn’t like that. We’re laid back. We tease each other, but it’s not like what other groups do. Some groups are just bullies.”
In Cooper’s house when you lose at cards, you rise and fly to the kitchen to refill the other players’ drinks and snacks. “Someone’s gotta keep the bowls of peanuts filled,” she says. “That’s just practical.”
Most players agree: If you can’t hang at a bid whist table, you should play bridge. It’s calmer. More conservative. There’s less smack talk and no game shaming. Bid whist can get rowdy; even the most unassuming players are apt to talk trash from time to time. The game brings it out in you.
When Lakewood Ranch resident Phyllis White brought her 83-year-old neighbor Willa Williams to play at Ed’s, she had no idea the mild-mannered Williams could hurl barbs.
Unlike a lot of the older players in the group, Williams — or “Wee” as she’s known among friends — was brought up on bid whist. Playing cards was fully sanctioned in her home. In fact, entire neighborhood parties were planned around the game.
“My parents were strict to a degree, but they let us be us,” says Williams, a retired business owner from Cleveland. “If there was a party happening, it was always at our house. There was always jazz or blues on, and everyone would be gathered at the dining room table, eating finger sandwiches and pretzels, playing cards.”
Decades later, Williams and her brother, local attorney Clarence Rogers Jr., are carrying on the family tradition. Both widowed, the siblings live together in Esplanade Golf and Country Club, where some nights they’ll get 60 to 70 people at their house to play cards.
The feisty senior is so accustomed to playing in the privacy of her home, she sometimes finds it difficult to bite her tongue at Ed’s.
“Oh, I still have a good time,” Williams says. “The first time I played at Ed’s, Phyllis said to my brother, ‘Willa should come with a warning sign. That sweet little innocent face! I didn’t know she was such a good trash talker.’”