Comedian George Burns played bridge until the age of 100, so Newton brothers Adam and Zach Grossack have some catching up to do.
But only in longevity.
Adam, 20, a Brandeis University junior, is the reigning World Youth Bridge Under 21 champion and a Gold Life Master. Zach, 15, a sophomore at Newton South High School, won the Bruce Life Master Pairs national championship this year with partner Don Caplin of Waltham and is a Silver Life Master.
The Grossacks played as partners this summer to help lead Team USA to a second-place finish at the World Junior Championships in China. Their next competition is at the New England Master’s Regional Nov. 7 through Nov. 11 in Mansfield.
Their mother, Jori, an accomplished player and teacher, called her boys “mind athletes,” and offered a baseball analogy to describe their approach to the card game.
“Adam is intense and quiet and can pick opponents apart before they realize what hit them, like Wade Boggs hitting to the opposite field to score another run. Zach will destroy you in spectacular fashion, like David Ortiz hitting a walkoff homer,” she said.
“While their respective approaches are very different, they always root for each other and there is no jealousy between them.”
Brent Manley, editor of the American Contract Bridge League’s newsletter, put their rapid rise in perspective.
“What Adam and Zach have achieved in such a short time is fantastic,” said Manley. “We have 166,000 members in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda. The vast majority are a lot older than them, but Adam and Zach’s master points each rank in the top 8 percent of our membership.”
Adam, founder of the Brandeis Bridge Club his freshman year and a highly regarded teacher of the game, took his first lessons from Caplin as an 8-year-old with his older brother, Sam, who now attends the New England School of Law.
Six years later, Adam became New England’s youngest Life Master by reaching the 300 point plateau at a Rhode Island Sectional. While a student at Newton South, he was named “King of Bridge” by the ACBL and awarded a $1,000 college scholarship.
“The game was overwhelming at first. But there comes a point where you feel more at ease,” said Adam, who along with his brothers, also competes in a fantasy football league. “The fascination for me is that every hand presents a different challenge. Do you hedge your bets or play more boldly?”
Their mother’s advice: “Don’t fight, stay calm at the table when things go bad, and always be respectful,” said Adam.
“Because I know Zach so well and we analyze the game so much together, we avoid a lot of misunderstandings which can be detrimental to your score. We’re both very competitive and sometimes have strong differences of opinion. But we’ve learned to put those differences aside to keep a strong partnership.”
The intricacies and strategies of bridge fill books written by Grand Life Masters and newspaper columns penned by experts offering advice to the bridge-lorn.
The most widely played form, contract bridge, has four basic phases: dealing all 52 cards to the four players in two competing partnerships; bidding to arrive at a “contract”; playing the 13 cards, then scoring the results. The highest bidding team sets its goal in “tricks” it believes it can win, and there are 35 possible basic contracts. If one side says it can win 9 tricks, the goal of the other is to win at least 5.
Add up the 13 tricks and the standard 24 hands played in tournament bridge and it can become a mental survival of the fittest.
Adam’s resiliency was tested when he played for 10 days in Philadelphia and then flew to Toronto and China with Team USA for another 10 days of competition.
His philosophy is to shake off a bad result and move on.
“If you can’t, there’s a tendency to overcompensate and possibly get another bad result which can erode partnership trust,” he said.
Opening bids send a message to one’s partner about the strength of your hand and your strong suit. Subsequent bids offer further details for the partnership to reach the optimal contract.
“It’s the language of bridge, and Adam and Zach have a great feel for it and do it with tremendous grace,” said David Metcalf, a veteran player who runs the Newton Bridge Club — which attracts 400 players weekly of all levels — and is a regional tournament director. “I’ve been partners with both of them and they are two of the most talented players I know.”
Zach, the third Grossack sibling to put on the football pads at Newton South, used to tease his brother and mother in the car because of all the bridge talk, but their special bond also piqued his interest.
“I had no idea I’d be any good at it,” he said. “Mom taught me the basics and Adam took over from there. I always had card sense, but at first I was a serial overbidder. I still bid aggressively, but now it’s more refined and I can back it up with my play.
“Watching my brother and playing with him has been awesome as was our trip to China. He’s made me a better player technically and taught me how to trust my partner. For brothers, we get along very well at the card table.”
Caplin said that when he was looking for a new Grand National-caliber partner two years ago, Zach was his choice.
“He’s naturally aggressive, I’m conservative, and that worked out because after 39 years of playing bridge, I have my first national championship,” said Caplin. “Asking Zach to play with me was the second-best bridge decision I ever made. The first was asking my future wife, Sondra, to play.”
Both brothers have accumulated Platinum Life Master points in open competition that includes national and world champions. The Platinum level ranks second only to bridge’s crowning achievement, Grand Life Master, which requires 10,000 sanctioned tournament points.
“The fact they’re succeeding at both the junior and open levels at such a young age is very rare,” said Metcalf. “I expect the bridge community will be hearing their names for many years to come.”