OAKLAND -- Local bridge buffs now have a home to call their own, thanks to the efforts of longtime bridge players Betty and Barry Kael, who own the 3,000-square-foot, former schoolhouse on Mountain Boulevard where the East Bay Community Bridge Center is located.

"Betty and Barry invested more than two years to remodel and renovate a former schoolhouse into a sparkling new facility dedicated to the teaching, playing and promotion of contract bridge," said Bridge Center member Joyce Hart.

Before the opening of the center last fall, bridge play was scattered at different venues around town, including Mosswood and Redwood Heights recreation centers and Dimond library. Now, members of East Bay Unit 502 (the local chapter of the American Contract Bridge League) have a place to gather and play seven days a week.

The Kaels' connection to the building at 9520 Mountain Blvd. in Oakland's Sequoyah neighborhood dates back 30 years.

"The building was built in 1969 and was originally designed as a duplex," Betty Kael said. "One half was a residence and the other half was a preschool called Horizon School."

In 1981, Kael decided to retire from her teaching job in Fremont and bought the building and the business with her then-business partner Carol Brearey. Kael ran the preschool for 10 years, expanding into primary grades when the house next door went up for sale.

In 1999, the Kaels sold the business and leased the property with an option for the new owner to buy the property.

"Due in part to the economy, the school closed and the property went into foreclosure in 2008, so we found ourselves once again the owners of 9520 Mountain Blvd.," Barry Kael said. "Knowing the limited space available to the local bridge community, we decided to rehabilitate the building and make it a bridge center."

It was a long labor of love, first unraveling the foreclosure, obtaining a conditional use permit for the predominantly residential neighborhood, bringing the building up to code per ADA, replacing the roof -- and practically gutting the interior.

"Once you touch an old building like this, you almost have to build it from the ground up," Betty Kael said. "We just finished the last project -- putting in a parking lot."

Kael said she'd always wanted to open a bridge center and had been looking around for a property for many years.

"I've been playing bridge since high school," she said. "Both Barry and my parents played bridge. I remember people coming over to our house to play 'party' bridge."

Twenty-four square tables are set up in the airy, open-plan, 1,500-square-foot bridge room. There's an adjacent sunny kitchen where members take turns preparing light refreshments. Players' artwork decorates the walls and oak trees provide a backdrop to the panoramic rear windows.

"The new bridge center is a lovely building," said Shirley Rodenborn, who was at Bridge Center on a recent Sunday. "It's nice to be able to go to a place where you don't have to always set up and break down the tables."

Rodenborn played bridge in college and decided to take up the game again when she retired.

"I miss the camaraderie of work, but bridge fills that void," said Rodenborn, who has been on bridge cruises and plays in tournaments around the country.

While the center is open to people of all ages -- and every level of expertise (classes are offered) -- many players are seniors. Unit 502 president Tom Pajak said that not only is bridge a great social outlet for seniors, it keeps them sharp, too.

"Scientific studies have shown that playing bridge stimulates mental activity and prevents mental deterioration in the form of Alzheimer's disease or social dementia," Pajak said. "It also provides a remarkable social outlet for people to meet others and share ideas and opinions."

Betty Kael said the game is always challenging.

"Bridge is like chess -- there are so many aspects to the game that you're always learning," she said. "It's what makes you keep coming back."

Bridge Center has nonprofit status, which allows the center to offer games at below-average prices.

"We charge $7 a game, which includes snacks and coffee, and $15 for classes," Betty Kael said. "It's the best bridge deal in town -- in fact, in the whole East Bay."

Booker Smith and his wife Roseanne come all the way from Richmond to play cards at the center.

"I've been playing for 45 years; I'm a competitive sort -- and it keeps your mind sharp," said Smith.

FYI
What: East Bay Community Bridge Center
Where: 9520 Mountain Blvd., Oakland
Information: http://eastbaycommunitybridge.com or 510-839-8896