Duluth teen among world’s best young bridge players
In silence, the four competitors sat around a card table, studying their hands. Sixteen-year-old Ben Kristensen glanced only briefly at his cards and seemed to almost scowl down at them as he cupped his face in his left hand. "Small diamond," sai...
In silence, the four competitors sat around a card table, studying their hands.
Sixteen-year-old Ben Kristensen glanced only briefly at his cards and seemed to almost scowl down at them as he cupped his face in his left hand.
“Small diamond,” said Dianne Carr, sitting to Kristensen’s left.
“And a diamond. … Club. … Small.”
Suddenly, the hand ended, and there was a flurry of cheerful conversation - although to the uninitiated, the four players might as well have been discussing nuclear physics.
“I was playing to hold it to four,” Kristensen said.
“I had a bunch of hearts. No points,” responded his partner and dad, Curt Kristensen, from across the table.
“I’m the dealer again,” Carr said, prompting Ben to laugh. Carr added: “I didn’t expect that.”
“I don’t think any of us did,” Ben said.
It was Friday afternoon, and the four were playing the classic card game of bridge in the comfortable living room of the Kristensens’ home in Duluth’s Morley Heights neighborhood.
But one of these four was not like the others. Curt Kristensen, a podiatrist, has played bridge since his dad taught him how to play in 1980. Carr and her bridge partner, Lee Steinmeier, are retirees who have played the game for about 40 years.
Ben, on the other hand, is the only teenager in Duluth who plays bridge competitively, Carr and Steinmeier say.
He’s also among the best young bridge players in the world.
The evidence: In August, Ben was in the six-member USA 1 team that earned the silver medal among teams whose players are younger than 21 at the World Youth Team Championships in Istanbul.
“They kept winning and winning and winning, and they came in second in the world,” Carr said.
Bridge is often seen as a social game, and in that sense it might not seem to be Ben’s strong suit. He has Asperger syndrome, a disorder characterized by poor social skills and narrow interests, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
But although he comes across as a little reserved, Ben is polite and gracious and seems at home among his older bridge-playing colleagues.
“I’ve had some issues socially, but I think I’ve been coping pretty well with it,” said Ben, who is working toward his high school diploma while taking courses at Lake Superior College. He plans to specialize in computer science.
Asked if playing bridge has helped, Ben said: “A little. It helps you make some friendships. I think it does help socially.”
Marilynn Norenberg, who knows the Kristensen family from church, introduced Ben to the game.
“As soon as he got better than me, I gave him a book to read,” said Norenberg, who still teaches junior bridge at Congdon Park and Marshall schools.
Ben remembers receiving that book about bridge for his 10th birthday. He found the game appealed to his analytical mind.
“You have to think a lot and use critical thinking and logic,” he said.
Seeing that his son was attracted to the game, Curt Kristensen started brushing up on his own bridge skills. They partnered for a tournament in Hayward early in 2009.
Steinmeier was among the first to play with Ben and has been among the teen’s mentors in bridge. He said he could see Ben’s talent immediately.
“He is such a natural,” Steinmeier said. “He can look at a hand and instinctively know how to play a hand or how to defend a hand.”
Bridge tournaments and youth national and world championships have taken Ben to Las Vegas, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Toronto, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Chicago, Minneapolis and Taicang City, China (near Shanghai), as well as Istanbul.
The competition in China was the previous world youth championship, in 2012. That time around, another U.S. team placed second, and Ben was on a team that placed 11th out of 18. At the Philadelphia tournament that same year, he played for the first time with Kevin Rosenberg of Cupertino, Calif., as his partner.
“We thought it would be fun if we tried playing together,” Ben said. “And then it worked out, so we played together after that. There’s kind of a chemistry between bridge players, I think.”
Rosenberg, 17, and Kristensen have blossomed as partners. At the Las Vegas tournament in July, they went to the director and asked to be placed in a higher bracket, Carr said.
“They played against the pros,” Steinmeier said.
“And they ended up coming in second,” Carr added. “They have no fear.”
Ben does much of his bridge-playing online. During the past couple of years, he and his dad haven’t typically been partners.
“I don’t really offer him much other than transportation to and from tournaments, paying his entry fees and encouraging him,” Curt Kristensen said. “From a technical level, since 2012 I haven’t really provided him that much.”
Although he already has an enviable collection of trophies and medals, Ben hasn’t let the acclaim go to his head. He enjoys the national youth championships in the summer, he said, but otherwise likes playing closer to home, in Minneapolis or Hayward.
“Those are fun to go to, and you know the people,” Ben said.
Whether Ben plays nearby or far away, there could be more trophies and medals to come.
“He knows what he’s doing, and he knows he knows what he’s doing,” Steinmeier said.