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AT 11 YEARS, 166 days old, Joel Wooldridge of Snyder has accomplished what wizened bridge players bid for all their lives.

Joel became the youngest person to earn the coveted rank of Life Master. He reached the required 300 points at the fall North American Bridge Championships in San Francisco.

By beating the record held by Sam Hirschman of Southfield, Mich. -- who was 11 years, 279 days old when he became a Life Master in 1988 -- Joel will earn a place in "The Guinness Book of Records 1992."

"It usually takes an adult 12 to 14 years to become a Life Master," said Ed Goldfarb, president of the American Contract Bridge League, sponsor of the event.

"What Joel has done in 1 1/2 years is simply astonishing."

Of some 20 million bridge players in the United States, 49,000 are Life Masters, Goldfarb said.

"Joel knows how to do some things that other people have never learned even after a lifetime of playing," said Brent Manley, editor of the Contract Bridge Bulletin.

"You have to have technical expertise and have a table feel, the ability to sense things that are going on. And you have to be daring, but not foolhardy."

Joel, a sixth-grader at Amherst Middle School, is the
son of Powhatan Wooldridge, who teaches research methods and statistics at the University at Buffalo, and Jill Wooldridge, who has an MBA in accounting. Both are Life Masters.

While at tournaments he attended with his parents, Joel often stayed in his hotel room and played video games, his father said. But during the 1989 Summer North American Bridge Championships in Chicago, he decided to play a few games of bridge and became hooked.

"My parents talked about bridge a whole lot before," said Joel. "When I was about 8 years old they started teaching me some stuff, but I didn't get interested until much later when I was 9. They started teaching me about play and defense."

Now, Joel spends countless hours playing hands, planning strategy, reading bridge books, competing with computer bridge and playing with his parents and others.

Wooldridge said that when he started teaching Joel, he didn't simplify the game for him.

"My own pet theory is that you don't teach people to be novices," said Wooldridge. "You teach them to be experts . . . so they don't have to unlearn things later."

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