In recent weeks, some fans of Bernard Magee have taken an enormous leap of faith. They have signed up for a website with very little idea of what it will look like, at a 'founder member's' rate of £11.99 per month. The money will be taken from their accounts at midnight on Sunday, and on Monday afternoon they will get their first glimpse of the site behind the paywall. The more prudent customer who chooses to inspect what they buy before they pay will have to stump up £13.99 a month.
It's not clear that the bridge world needs yet another website. £11.99 is a lot of money — it is the price, for example, of the most expensive subscription to Netflix. There is no contract, as far as I can see, which specifies what the buyer is going to get. It's not at all clear what will continue to be free, or even whether the YouTube sessions previously broadcast will disappear behind the paywall. Disgruntled customers who resort to legal process are going to have to rely on the evidence of the commitments Bernard made in his YouTube videos before the launch, together with the blurb on the home page of the new website. (Yes, that page is accessible without a pre-payment.) But that blurb is not encouraging: the top bullet on "Why become a Founder Member?" is "Support Bernard Magee", which gives the impression that subscriptions are expected to be as much charitable as they are commercial.
By comparison, Andrew Robson's website charges £7.99 plus VAT per month — that's £9.59 in total — once you have chosen your bridge-playing level. Both teachers are highly personable fellows, and maybe some fans are sufficiently wealthy to subscribe to both. But if one is forced to make a choice, it is hard not be swayed by their own playing results: Andrew is one of England's top players, whereas Bernard's team can't even seem to win their casual Friday evening matches on BBO. And viewers need to know that there are almost religious differences at the core of the Acols that the two men are teaching: Andrew advocates bidding 1NT with a 5-3-3-2 shape even if the five-card suit is a major headed by A-K, whereas Bernard says that with such a hand you should open one of the major. Another key systemic difference: Andrew says you really should play the Jacoby 2NT convention, whereas Bernard still advocates the Delayed Game Raise.
With no sign on the horizon of when face-to-face bridge will return, there must be something more going on in this service than viewers simply trying to improve their skills for a social game which may never again be social. Even the most conservative estimate of the demographics of the audiences shown in Bernard's DVDs would put their composition at 70% female. When Bernard puts another bidding quiz up on the screen in his YouTube session, the storm of answers which suddenly hits the chat stream comes mostly from women. There is nothing wrong in having a retinue. The number of occasions in these sessions when Bernard has resorted to his expression "Partner, I'm excited" has been thankfully small. Bernard knows his core market, and there's nothing wrong in tweaking your product to that market's needs. But as a man, I feel I'm not in the target segment.
By providing a three-times weekly bridge interlude since the lockdown started, Bernard has provided an admirable free service for many of us. But that doesn't mean that when the service is taken behind the paywall, we will all gladly fork out £11.99 a month. The interactivity on Bernard's free service has been great, but the promise that one of his helpers, rather than Bernard himself, will be live to answer questions in the subscribers' forum for a period each day is, relatively speaking, not a great lure.
I suspect that, after Sunday midnight, when the monthly fee has climbed even higher to £13.99, very, very few people will subscribe. Many potential customers could be permanently lost, and that will be a great shame. I feel a re-think on strategy is needed.