Bridge Tender

By gsmadmin May 1, 2013

For Sarasota's Michelle Golden, success was in the cards.

By David Ball

Photography by Lori Sax

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Michelle Golden admits she had absolutely no business experience when she started. She was a history major and career waitress who simply saw a niche. Now, six days a week, Golden watches close to 300 paying customers pack her 5,300-square-foot facility, and they eagerly seek what she’s selling. Her in-demand product, which has made her one of the most successful entrepreneurs in her industry, is a simple card game. Well, actually, not so simple if you’ve ever played a hand of bridge.

Golden’s In-Between Bridge Club, located in the Town and Country Plaza at 501 N. Beneva Road in Sarasota, is known by players and game experts as one of the best-run, most enjoyable and most successful bridge clubs in the country. How did she rise to the top of some 3,000 bridge clubs nationally? It took a bit of luck, but also a firm belief in staying organized, embracing technology and building a self-replenishing customer base.

“Really, I’m just a game player,” Golden, 58, says. “I was about the youngest bridge player in town when I started directing games. At first I wasn’t sure I could do it, but once I got going I was confident it could develop into something successful.”

Golden’s success is easy to measure. The American Contract Bridge League, which runs tournaments, keeps player statistics and supports bridge clubs across North America, reports that Golden directed more than 13,600 bridge game tables in 2011, which equates to 54,400 players. That makes her the second-largest club in the U.S. (not counting a few large Internet-only clubs). She recruited 776 new ACBL members in the past 10 years, earning her $3,500 in ACBL incentives. Her annual revenues have been consistently near $400,000—rare in the bridge industry.

Being located in Sarasota with its constant influx of new retirees has helped her succeed, but it’s not the key reason.

“What she’s doing isn’t necessarily unique, but she’s doing it better than just about anyone,” says Sue Munday, associate editor for the ACBL magazine Bridge Bulletin, which profiled Golden in a recent issue. “She treats her club like a business.”

Golden, a New Jersey native, arrived in Sarasota in 1978 with a history degree from Penn State University, but no desire to teach. She was “coasting along waitressing” when, out of boredom, she started playing bridge, a game she had learned in college.

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Competitive bridge requires a director—someone to start the game on time, make sure everyone has a partner, keep track of points and handle any problems during the course of play. Golden reluctantly volunteered to direct a few local games, but soon developed a knack for it and started her own weekly game in 1987. Players paid a few dollars per game, and Golden’s club grew from about 10 tables to more than 30 in a year. Ironically, it was her skill as a teacher that fueled her growth.

“My focus initially was a little marketing niche. I focused on non-life masters, who are less experienced players,” says Golden, referring to the point-tracking system for competitive bridge players worldwide known as life masters. “I knew they would benefit from a teaching program, so I offered lessons.”

Those lessons drove Golden’s success. As bridge clubs across the nation were slowly shrinking because members were dying off, Golden continually repopulated her club with new members hooked on bridge by her lessons.

“That’s how people get into the club and stay in the club,” says Munday. “There are competing clubs in Sarasota; a lot of them. But she has a program that takes you from the beginning and inches you along. I have not seen anything like that.”

The club grew quickly in the beginning, with Golden and her husband traveling to community centers, veterans’ halls and other venues every night setting up games. In 1992, Golden moved into her current location and has expanded once. She now accommodates up to 80 tables during season and about half that during the summer. She charges $8 per game and up to $15 for lessons, most of which she teaches herself. Seven part-time employees help direct games, set up refreshments, keep points and run errands.

The club dwarfs other Sarasota clubs, but it’s not a monopoly. Golden made it a point to never poach players from competing local clubs. In fact, many Sarasota bridge players learn to play or sharpen their skills at the In-Between Club even if they join other clubs later. But In-Between is still Sarasota’s “bridge mecca,” says longtime player Ron Zuersher.

“Michelle is the best director I have ever seen,” says Zuersher, who’s played bridge since 1952 across the country and in Hong Kong. “It’s not just a matter of knowing the rules and settling disputes. She has a way with people, and she brings them back to Sarasota from all over.”

An example of Golden’s management is how she enforces the ACBL’s Zero Tolerance Policy, which forbids arguments, disruptions or other rude behavior during games. Golden has banned a few players for as long as six months, but she never expresses any hard feelings. In almost every instance, those banished players are the first back in the door once their ban is over.

“She runs a tight ship, which all players appreciate,” says longtime player Fran Mann. “Most clubs lag behind and can’t keep the tempo up. But at In-Between, the second you get behind she is there to get you moving or penalize you if you don’t.”

To that end, Golden organizes her games into sections based on the skill level of different players, so experienced players don’t get frustrated playing with newbies and vice versa. She also has embraced a new electronic point-tracking systems during games—a move some clubs are reluctant to make—and has built a website where players can track their scores and even see tips on how they could’ve played hands better.

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“I’ve played in some of the best clubs in the country, but none have all of the courtesies that Michelle provides,” Mann says.

Golden has considered expanding again and purchasing her own building, but she hasn’t found anything with nearly enough parking. At this point, she’s content to keep doing what she’s doing and even find time to play a little bridge herself beyond the one game a week she fits into her schedule.

“I still love to play bridge. It’s how I exercise my mind,” says Golden, who also stays physically fit with regular exercise. “It’s the chess of card games—very intellectually challenging. I can get players started, but it’s the intellectual part that keeps them hooked.”

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