STAFF WRITER SUZANNE FREEMAN
It’s easy to get in the game in the Highland Lakes, whether you want to play bridge, mah jongg, dominoes, or another. Even if you’ve never played, the people who gather regularly to match their skills and meet new friends are happy to welcome and teach any and all newcomers.
If you want a more substantial reason to play — beyond fun and friends — look no further than research conducted by the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and Harvard University.
Studies show that activating brainwaves by playing games reduces the risk of dementia — along with eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking, and keeping blood pressure and weight in check, researchers added as a caveat.
Routine social and intellectual stimulation offered by mentally challenging games such as bridge, dominoes, and mah jongg sharpen mental acuity and stimulate the immune system, according to Harvard research published by AARP.
Bottom line: Playing card and board games helps you retain mental sharpness. People who play more frequently score higher on cognitive tests.
Here are a handful of few places to start exercising those brain cells.
1-3 p.m. Thursdays
Highland Lakes Senior Center, 351 Chamberlain in Kingsland
The Kingsland Highland Lakes Duplicate Bridge Club plays an old-fashioned game with a high-tech twist. While a machine shuffled the seven decks of cards for the 28 different boards used on the day The Picayune Magazine came to observe, tech guru Michael Luckenbach set up the group’s computer and scoring devices. At the end of the day, what used to take hours — tallying scores and comparing plays — took about five minutes.
The pricey equipment belongs to the Highland Lakes Senior Center in Kingsland, which hosts a variety of community games throughout the week for the low price of $2 per player per day. With that and other donations, the center provides free coffee and iced tea and the use of the comfortable, well-furnished, and air-conditioned facility.
Luckenbach, 71, serves as one of two IT experts who handle the computer equipment that sends scores and points to the American Contact Bridge League. That information is used to determine certification and ranking of individual players on the national level. A Kingsland resident, Luckenbach is working toward his Life Master certificate.
Once he had the computer set up, he found his table as an automated voice announced that the game was ready to begin. Seven minutes later, the voice prompted the ending of one round and the beginning of another when the stacks of four boards, each containing a deck of cards, moved to the next table. At the same time, one of the two teams — the East/West team — at each table moved in the opposite direction.
“Some of the bridge clubs in Austin don’t have the stuff like we do here,” said Shirley Naumann, 76, of Cottonwood Shores.
Naumann is one of five lifetime directors in the Kingsland league who are called on to rule on any game irregularities.
“We don’t just decide among ourselves what we are doing,” said Jim Davis, another lifetime director as well as director of the senior center. “We study the rules and take a test to become directors. As lifetime directors, we won’t have to take another test.”
Davis does keep the blue rulebook at the center handy for reference along with the $4,600 shuffling machine, the computer, counting devices, boards, decks, and other accessories that go along with being part of a duplicate bridge league.
While it might seem that this group of 50-plus people take their bridge pretty seriously, most will tell you it’s more about the friendships and the fun.
“If you take it too seriously, you can’t play,” said M.J. Cogburn, 48, of Bertram.
She comes with her mother-in-law, Joy Cogburn, 71, of Burnet. Joy is also a dedicated 42 player. The duo drives to Kingsland each week because it’s the only duplicate bridge in the area.
“That’s why I cross the river and come here,” M.J. said.
She also serves as the group’s communications director, emailing updates to the entire group when necessary.
On this particular day, M.J. was the youngest player at her table, sitting next to the group’s oldest player, Mattie Hubbard, 96, of Burnet, who’s been playing for 60 years, 30 of those as a Burnet County resident.
“I took lessons in San Angelo,” Hubbard said. “Three of us ladies would spend four hours on lessons, then we would go have a lunch, then play until the children got out of school. I really got into it.”
She is not the only dedicated player in the group. Six of them participated in the Summer North American Bridge Championships in Las Vegas on July 18-28.
Luckenbach was part of that group. What he likes best about the game is the way it equalizes play, whether at a tournament or in a league
“You only compete with people at your skill level,” he said of tournaments, adding that the way the boards are set up equalizes play in all venues. “You are not playing for the luck of the draw. You are playing the exact same hand as someone else has played. It’s all about who played that hand better, not who got the best hand.”
Keeping track of all this in Kingsland is a computer, which times matches, announces moves, records scores, and sends in reports, all within minutes.
“Very few clubs are as modern as we are,” Jim Davis said. “The technology we use is not unique, but we are ahead of a lot of clubs out there.”
12:30-3:30 p.m. Wednesdays (except the fourth Wednesday of the month)
Highland Lakes Senior Center, 351 Chamberlain in Kingsland
Mention the opening of the new RM 2900 bridge in Kingsland, and the mah jongg players at the Highland Lakes Senior Center cheer.
“I’m one of the bridge people,” said Katie Do, 78, who lives in Kingsland on the south side of Lake LBJ.
When floodwaters took out the bridge in October 2018, Do and several other regulars at the Wednesday mah jongg games on the north side of the lake had to “do a drive-around” to get to their game and their friends. It was a trial, but well worth it, they said.
Developed in China in the 1800s, mah jongg first became popular in America in the 1920s. Similar to rummy, a card game won by grouping suits and numbers, mah jongg is played with tiles stacked into walls, traded, and melded into a winning hand, called a mah jongg.
Players are seated by winds: East, West, North, and South. The East, or first player, moves to the next table at the end of each match. To explain much more is to get into the intricacies of an exotic game that can seem complicated at first glance but that players pick up quickly and with enthusiasm.
Called a game of skill and intelligence, it also takes a lot of concentration and the ability to adapt. The National Mah Jongg League levels the playing field each April when it issues a new set of Standard Hands for games. The new winning tile sequences are printed out on tri-fold pages that each player keeps close at hand for reference. The variety keeps players engaged.
“Every year, we get a new card, and you have to understand what those hands are,” said Pat Collins, 67, of Burnet. “It moves fast. There’s no feet dragging.”
The Kingsland gathering started five years ago when Margaret Thomson, who is now in assisted living, began teaching the game at the senior center. Many of the Wednesday regulars learned from Thomson, whom they revere. The group holds a lottery each week to choose which three of them get to go play with Thomson on Thursdays.
While other players learned from family members or friends, one player at the Wednesday game learned in Shanghai, China.
“The Chinese way is a lot different,” said Elaine Leach, 65, of Kingsland. “They don’t play with jokers, and they are very serious about the wall. It has to be built a certain way, connected a certain way, and they are superstitious. Nobody touches each other’s tiles. Ever.”
Leach prefers the American version of the game, which is more relaxed.
“I was really happy to see that Kingsland plays mah jongg,” she said. “It’s a good mind game, like sudoko or bridge.”
Players love the game for its complexity and annual changes, said Janet Delaney, 68, of Kingsland.
“It challenges your mind,” she said. “It’s good brain exercise since it requires some skill. It’s still a lot of fun, and I have met some great new friends coming here.”
Newcomers are welcome. Although formal lessons are no longer available, the Kingsland mah jongg group teaches anyone interested as they play.
12:30-3 p.m. Tuesdays
Trailblazer Grille, 216 S. Main St. in Burnet
Gloria Blanton of Marble Falls said she wouldn’t know a single person in Burnet if it wasn’t for 42. She likes the strategy, the competition, and the way the game draws all types of people to the table. The 79-year-old plays most Tuesdays at Trailblazer on the courthouse square in Burnet. She was also part of the first team to win the first 42 tournament ever held at the Burnet County Area Fair, which was just this year.
“I’m a walking, talking 42 person,” she said. “There’s just something about throwing the bones that I love.”
Created in the 19th century by two North Texas teens looking for a loophole to a Baptist restriction against card games, 42 continues to grow in popularity 132 years later. Designated the Official State Domino Game of Texas by the state legislature in 2011, 42 brings the challenge and strategy of trump-based card games to a box of numbered tiles that click and clack as they are shuffled across a slick tabletop. It is named after the number of possible points a player can earn.
“I like the people, the games — I just like the sound of the dominoes,” said Joy Cogburn, 71, of Burnet, another Tuesday regular at Trailblazer. “I play for the fun, friendship, and social activity. You get caught up on the local news. Everyone knows a little piece of what’s going on in town.”
The group of about 12 grew from four players who met regularly to bid, follow suit, or lay down a winning hand at each others’ homes.
Jeanette Lanfear, 85, of Morgan Creek on Lake Buchanan was one of the trailblazers who opened the game to more people by moving it to Trailblazer. She, too, took part in the Burnet County Area Fair tournament but said she plays because of the people more than the competition.
“I think most of our players are just interesting to talk to,” she said. “We enjoy communicating with one another about what we’ve done over the week. Our lives are all different.”
Players come from across the Highland Lakes, most of them meeting at about 11:30 a.m. to eat lunch together in the dining room before moving to the adjourning event room for a few hours of play. While many of them have been throwing the bones for decades, they welcome newcomers, taking the time to teach anyone interested. The game is about sharing and getting to know each other, not about champions, they agreed.
“I don’t win too much because I’m over aggressive,” said Gus Willeke, 88, of Buchanan Dam. “I bid my hand too high, but (my partners) forgive me all my mistakes. It’s a good game. It’s fun that doesn’t make a difference whether you win or lose.”
1-3 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month
Highland Lakes Senior Center, 351 Chamberlain in Kingsland
The sound of pennies being poured from cups to bags to bowls follows an excited shout of “po-ke-no!” from the first player to cover images on a card in a designated shape or line. Which images to cover are called out one at a time to the group by the game’s host.
While the rules are a lot like bingo, po-ke-no has its own fun quirks, drawing about 28 enthusiastic players to the Highland Lakes Senior Center in Kingsland for an afternoon of play the second Tuesday of each month. Instead of pulling lettered and numbered ping-pong balls out of a rotating cage, game director Joanne Butler shuffles a giant deck of traditional playing cards and begins pulling and announcing each card from the top of the deck. The game’s name actually comes from the melding of poker and keno, though — as previously stated — it’s played a lot like bingo.
Players cover the corresponding image on their individual bingo-like sheets with a penny. The winner gets the pennies from everyone else, plus the contents of an ante cup that has been filled with pennies by everyone playing in the game. Cups are marked to be given to winners of four corners, postage stamp, center, full house, and four-of-a-kind. The last game, black-out, costs 5 cents to play.
“It’s almost like shuffling pennies back and forth,” Butler said. “Everyone has their own little container, and you see the level of pennies go up and down as we play. I’ve had the same set of pennies for about 12 years.”
Butler brought the game to Kingsland about six years ago when she and her husband left full-time RV living to settle in the Highland Lakes. She began playing at her home, but the group soon grew too big.
Two years ago, they moved to the senior center, where they pay $2 each as a rental fee for which they get a clean, air-conditioned playing room with tables and chairs and coffee and iced tea.
Since she has only 28 playing sheets to go with the large deck of cards used for calling, Butler said the game has to be played on a first-come, first-served basis. Most days start with a full house and last for about 20 games.
Newcomers are welcome, however, and Butler always makes sure to have about $15 in pennies on hand in case anyone forgets their stash — a gesture that defines the the true nature of this group of gamers. They don’t play for the pennies or the thrill of yelling “po-ke-no!”
“We care about each other,” said player Mary Churchwell, a Kingsland retiree. “We have a good time.”
Originally a group of strangers, they have become close friends who look out for each other, calling to check on players who miss a game. Each month, they celebrate birthdays with cake after the games.
“We look forward to it,” Butler said. “I feel very fortunate. I can look at them and see my very special friends.”
VARIETY OF GAMES
Weekly at different times
Marble Falls Senior Activity Center, 681 Avenue L in Marble Falls
The Marble Falls Senior Activity Center is another great place for Highland Lakes residents to play games and become part of a thriving and vibrant community. Established in 1987, the center at 681 Avenue L celebrated 32 years of service to the Marble Falls area this year.
Locals ages 50 and older are welcome to come by the center for fellowship, recreation, programs, games, potlucks, blood pressure checks, and seated exercises.
Potluck lunches are held every Friday at noon.
Games include bingo, 42, 88, canasta, bridge, dominoes, 12s, and more.
Tuesday is Bridge Day, and games start at noon. Thursday is All Games Night. On the first Saturday of each month, the center holds a 42 tournament.
Open six days a week, the center is one of the few independently operating organizations in the area with a nonprofit status. It is funded by membership dues, grants, donations, memorials, building rentals, and fundraisers. The volunteer membership runs, owns, and governs its operation.
For more information, visit marblefallsseniorcenter.org or call 830-693-5611.