By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Lynn Deas is a professional at learning from mistakes.
The 62-year-old professional bridge player travels the world winning a game she learned on a whim when she was in high school.
It wasn’t the life she dreamed of when she was a kid. In fact, from her elementary school years, Deas longed to be an orthopedic surgeon.
She was headed straight for her goal as a first-year student in medical school when she was involved in a devastating traffic accident. Her recovery set her back in her studies, and she decided to drop out.
Her parents were baffled by the choice. In the mid-1970s, when Deas made the decision, there were even fewer professional bridge players than there are now.
“They hated it,” she said. “They didn’t speak to me for a couple of years.”
Truthfully, though, Deas said she knew after just a few months of medical school that it wasn’t the path for her.
“I suspect I would’ve dropped out even if I hadn’t had the accident,” she said.
Deas said it wasn’t that medical school was too tough; it was just that she wanted to put her intellectual power to a different use. She wanted to play bridge.
It would be the first of many changes in course for Deas, who views life as she views bridge: to succeed, players have to see obstacles as opportunities for improvement.
The Virginia native and longtime Niskayuna resident said she first became enamored with the game of bridge during a two-week elective course in high school. She loved the give and take of figuring out which teammate had the best hand through the complicated process of bidding. She compares learning the rules of bridge to absorbing a foreign language.
Deas said she quickly discovered that the game combined intellectual and social engagement. When she and her husband, Rich, were dating, they would play games of bridge together and then go out to bars afterward.
Paid for expertise
The same things that made bridge a pleasant pastime made it an exciting career for Deas, too. Playing professionally is just like playing socially, except someone else pays for the whole experience, from travel to meals and lodging.
Professional bridge players are hired by wealthy clients who want a team of talented teammates to help them win tournaments. Some even pay bonuses when their teams win first place.
The professionals are there to provide a competitive edge and, often, coaching during downtime. The clients are just there to have a good time.
Deas contrasts the arrangement with hiring a high-level athlete as a coach.
In tennis or skiing, anyone can hire a professional as a teacher, but it’s unlikely they’ll get to compete with the best at Wimbledon or in the Olympics. In bridge, things are different. A novice can play with experts on the world stage — and they’ll pay well for the opportunity.
Even Deas’ favorite trip of all time was crystallized in her memory because of plans that fell apart. One visit to New Zealand and Australia went awry when her team’s flight out of Perth, Australia, where they had just competed, was grounded indefinitely.
The group had intended to see other parts of the country, but instead had to stay and make the most of the situation. It was on an island off the coast of Perth that Deas met an animal that is found almost nowhere else in the world: the quokka. It’s a sort of cross between a cat and a squirrel, and the ones Deas encountered were friendly with humans.
“We would’ve never done any of this if we’d left Perth,” she said, fondly recalling the memory.
Because of experiences like meeting the quokkas, Deas said she has no regrets about the career path she chose.
“I’ve got a lot of frequent flier miles,” she said. If she were a surgeon, she doubts she would’ve traveled as much.
After making the decision to drop out of medical school, Deas became skilled at dealing with criticism for her choice. Even into her 30s, neighbors in her hometown of Newport News, Virginia, would ask her when she planned to go back to school. She reacted by growing even more confident in her unusual career choice.
But later in life, she faced a bigger obstacle — one she couldn’t ignore.
About 20 years ago, Deas came down with a neuromuscular disorder that disabled and depressed her. She visited doctor after doctor, but no one could reach a diagnosis for the condition that had halted Deas’ travel and her health.
Deas said she finally became so frustrated that she vowed never to visit another doctor. Loved ones convinced her to try just one more, and finally she learned she had an autoimmune disease called myasthenia gravis, which paralyzed her lungs and part of her diaphragm.
She spent seven months in the hospital for treatment. During that time, she played at least one bridge hand every day, and she even devised a new way to test bridge players. She’s used it dozens of times since, and has evaluated everyone from her youngest novices to Bill Gates, who is an avid bridge player.
Looking back, Deas is grateful she was convinced to seek out just one more diagnosis. “It’s a good thing,” she said. “I would’ve died.”
Instead, she’s preparing for her second trip to China within the span of four weeks. Deas placed highly in the World Bridge Federation Red Bull World Series Tournament in Sanya, China, at the end of October. At the beginning of December, she’ll take on the Sportaccord World Mind Games in Beijing.
But in the meantime, she’s relaxing at home with her husband and her dogs. She’s a small-time breeder, so she also has some brand-new puppies to play with in her few weeks of downtime.
“I’m always happy to be home, and always happy to be on the road,” Deas said.
Whether she’s in Niskayuna or New Zealand, her philosophy is as much a life lesson as it is a bridge lesson.
“Bridge is a game of mistakes,” she said. “You have to be able to make a mistake and put it out of your mind.
“If you play, well you’re going to win most of the time,” she added.