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Bridge to somewhere

Nearly every weekday morning, four men sit facing each other in the third car of a Metra train. It’s the same spot where they always sit. 

In one motion, they pull their briefcases onto their knees to fashion a makeshift card table and drape it with a piece of worn red felt. Then they whip out a deck of cards. By the time the train leaves the station, they’re already dealing the first hand of bridge.

Long daily commutes may be a way of life for many in greater Chicago. But these men have found a way to make their morning trip go faster, and have discovered a sense of community along the way.

Their card game, which they call train bridge, has been going on almost every morning on the ride from La Grange to Union Station for at least three decades.

But the players have changed quite a bit in recent years due to the recession. Don Veverka, a 78-year-old attorney who’s been playing the longest, can rattle off a list of the men who used to play train bridge, but stopped taking the train because they were laid off.

The current players include an IT specialist, a physics researcher and a court reporter. They range in age from their 30s through their 70s.

“It’s a very interesting mixture of all sorts of people from different professions. But when they sit together, everything is forgotten; it’s just a game,” said one of the players, mechanical engineering consultant Jogi Makhija.

The players have a system. One of the men brings the red felt for the briefcase table, but if he doesn’t show, another man always has a backup towel. If neither shows up, the men use a newspaper, but they don’t like it -- they say it’s too slippery.

In train bridge, they deal differently. Instead of getting one card at a time, they get a bunch all at once. That speeds up the game. But it results in some unusual hands and some unique terminology.

“You might end up with somebody with seven or eight cards in one suit and wind up with another guy with seven or eight cards of a different suit,” Veverka said. “ And that’s called  a goulash hand.”

The men even have assigned alternates. Makhija always sits nearby, reading the newspaper or talking to other commuters, while waiting his turn to join when one of the other players gets off at Halsted.

Makhija got involved the way every player has, by watching and eventually asking to join. But he wishes more of a friendship existed off the train.

“That means we get together in the evenings someday, have some drinks and play cards,” he said.

But that seems a bit unlikely. When pushed, none of the men would even admit to being friends.

Even though they’ve known each other for 10 to 20 years, they don’t know each other’s last names, Veverka said, adding that they don’t need to.

“If I know how they play bridge and their bridge conventions, and if I know how they feel about the Sox and the Cubs and the Bulls and the Bears, I mean, why would I want to know if they’re married or have kids?” he asked.

On the train, the group doesn’t say much outside of giving each other a hard time about their bridge skills, or lack thereof.

They don’t wrap up the game until the train pulls into the last stop.

And then they continue to talk about bridge as they walk through the noisy station, before they part ways and go to work.  

Katie Kather is an arts & culture freelance reporter. Follow her @ktkather.

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