Ricker has had a lot of success in keeping them. Eight years ago there were 3100 tables at the seven clubs that use the Knoxville Bridge Center. Last year there were 5800. This 88% growth is the result of a successful player recruitment and development program, he says. “Every limited game in Knoxville has had 200% growth over eight years.”
That’s the length of time Ricker has been playing. He got dragged into bridge by his wife, Patti, who was retiring then. She wanted to find something “fun, easy and relaxing,” Ricker tells people, usually to hysterical laughter. Bridge wasn’t exactly those things, but they liked it anyway.
There was a need for teachers in the area, so with just two years of playing experience, Ricker decided to start teaching bridge. He wasn’t satisfied with any of the teaching materials available – he wanted to teach 2/1 from the beginning – so at the same time he decided to write his own textbook. It was a Catch-22: He needed the materials to be able to teach the class, but he needed the teaching experience to be able to write the book. So he did both at the same time, writing a chapter each week while preparing for that week’s class.
Ricker is now a director, a club owner, a teacher, a cook and the author of three books. He doesn’t market his books to players for individual reading but to teachers for use as classroom textbooks.
When Ricker started his Wednesday 99er game, it was not expected to be successful, he says. But he created an experience that was a draw, starting with a 30-minute lesson, serving a full meal and concluding each game with a postmortem session (no preparation required – “they come with questions”). The game has grown to 26 tables. “They like the food, they like the game, they love the lessons,” he says. “When people eat together, it becomes a community.”
Ricker is a big proponent of offering multiple levels of limited games. “The ramp needs to start as low as the area can support,” he says. This approach trains players to graduate to higher-level games. “When they get better, they get frustrated with the slower play in the lower sections, and they move up.”
Having just one limited game doesn’t work as well; the limit tends to get steadily raised to accommodate players who don’t want to graduate out of it. Ricker is aware limited games have their critics, and the unwillingness of players to migrate to open games is what drives that criticism. While he concedes it’s not possible to replicate his approach in very small towns, Knoxville isn’t huge. It’s a city of 179,000.
Another of Ricker’s tips for keeping students: At the end of every lesson, he emails materials to everyone in the class. Ricker speculates that one of the reasons bridge classes shrink over the course of their run is that when someone misses a class, they don’t feel like they can catch up.
About 175 of Ricker’s students submitted testimonials in support of his nomination. Among them:
– “I have been a student all my life and he is the best I have ever experienced.” – Mary Davidson
– “He has this gift of explaining things in a way that makes it easy to follow.” – Leela Menon
– “If other bridge clubs had teachers like Jim, this game would explode with players.” – Jim Bookstaff
– “Jim is very patient with the rookies, explains things very well, and has a great sense of humor that makes learning a fun experience. Points out on a regular basis that we all make mistakes and he tells stories of some of his that are hilarious. Makes it easier to laugh at your own!” – David Wilson
The award was chosen by an ABTA committee chaired by Richard Braunstein. Committee members are Mary Jane Orock, Joyce Penn, Tina Radding, Enid Roitman, Barbara Seagram and Kathie Walsh.
Other finalists for the award were Robert “Buck” Buchanan of Arlington TX, Bruce Greenspan of Bonita Springs FL, David Libchaber of New York and Edward Scanlon of York PA.
Ricker had high hopes of being chosen for the award. “I wanted it really bad,” he says. “It’s re-energized me.”