Melbourne centenarian Joan Smurthwaite retires from card game bridge after eight decades of competition

Melbourne centenarian Joan Smurthwaite retires from card game bridge after eight decades of competition

It is one of the most popular card games in the world, and it’s about to lose one of its oldest, longest — and fiercest — competitors.

The game is called bridge, and the player is 106-year-old Joan Smurthwaite from Melbourne.

She is officially retiring on Friday, eight decades after learning how to play the competitive strategy game.

The centenarian has played twice a week at the Melbourne Bridge Club in Kew for about 30 years, but has decided to put down her cards for good.

“Lately, life has become more challenging for me and I find it hard to get around,” she told ABC Radio Melbourne.

“And I just think that although the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.”

Competition and friendships

Mrs Smurthwaite said the card game has always been a big part of her life.

It is played by four players in two pairs, where partners sit opposite each other on a table.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Melbourne centenarian Joan Smurthwaite retires from card game bridge after eight decades of competition

Teams collect points for particular moves, and the players with the most points win.

Players compete for three hours at the Melbourne Bridge Club, which runs multiple sessions a week.

“You need your brain to be working well. There are so many conventions and rules with bridge,” Mrs Smurthwaite said.

Learning how to play in her 20s, Mrs Smurthwaite developed her skills by reading books about the game and having “good playing partners”.

She has seen it change from when she started, back when she said people played solo and “it wasn’t that popular”.

A woman blowing out a 100th birthday cake with dozens of people surrounding her
Ms Smurthwaite celebrates her 100th birthday with the Melbourne Bridge Club.(Supplied: Ian Mansell)

But what has kept her coming back is the competitive nature of the game, and the great friendships it has fostered along the way.

“My husband was a banker, and we moved around from town to town,” she said.

While she enjoyed her decades playing, the COVID pandemic and closure of the club diminished her desire to compete.

“When the bridge club closed for two years, I seemed to have lost interest in playing,” she said.

‘Cheerful’ player

While Mrs Smurthwaite insists that she is “not a very good player”, Melbourne Bridge Club director Ian Mansell said she and her partner usually won.

“She was very friendly and cheerful player,” he said.

A photo of a woman next to a cake that's made into the shape of
Ms Smurthwaite rings in her 104th birthday at the club.(Supplied: Ian Mansell)

Mr Mansell said she was one of a number of older players who had stopped playing.

The bridge club currently has about 250 members aged from their 30s to 100s, down from 420 before the COVID pandemic.

The club runs sessions multiple times a week, and are keen to attract more participants of all ages.

Mr Mansell said Mrs Smurthwaite would be missed.

“We have a large number of members and they are continuing to play, so we will survive without her,” he said.

“But the challenge, I think, will be slightly diminished.”

‘No problem’ leaving the club

Mrs Smurthwaite was adamant she wouldn’t play another game again, even privately.

“There’s not a lot of private bridge playing. It is mainly in a club because it’s very competitive.”

A voracious reader, she’s looking forward to having more time to tuck into a novel.

“When the sun is shining through the large windows, and I’m looking out at my garden with a good book, that’s about as close to heaven as you can get.”

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