An interview with the Stockens

Founded by brother and sister Zeb and Claudia Stocken in 2007, StockenBridge Breaks has family at its heart. We talk to the globetrotting duo and their parents Peter, 76, a renowned puzzle maker, and retired judge Dinah, 74, about their shared passions for bridge and travel.

We hear the Stocken family has a puzzling history…

Peter: We do indeed. We are a four generation family of jigsaw cutters. My mother, Enid, cut her first in 1915.  The Antiques Roadshow once described her as ‘one of the finest, if not the finest, jigsaw-cutters of the twentieth century’.  I took it up professionally myself in 1972, and devised my three-dimensional puzzles in 1973, which I’ve been cutting ever since. I run the business, Puzzleplex, from home in Yorkshire, while Claudia and her brother Simon took over cutting the jigsaws - they’ve achieved an international reputation for their skill.

Claudia: I do still cut wooden puzzles, though only on a small scale. Too much cutting equals visits to the osteopath!

Zeb: We’re like the Kennedys of bridge and jigsaws, minus the sex and intrigue.

Tell us how StockenBridge Breaks came about.

Zeb: Around 20 years ago I was working as director and teacher at the Andrew Robson Bridge Club, and set up its holiday arm, ARBH. After I left it seemed a logical progression to run our own trips – particularly with Claudia living in such a lovely part of the world, the French Alps, where we organised our first break.

Claudia: I live in Serre Chevalier and we ran our first holiday in a chalet there in 2007. I had been a resort manager for the tour operator Inghams so had experience. I was also a vet in France for many years, but gave it up to devote more time to running the holidays. I don't regret it for a minute and absolutely love the freedom of running my own business. I mainly work from home, meaning that I can be there for my children (now 11 and 12) and when it snows in the winter I can be on the ski slopes within a few minutes, knowing that I can catch up on work later.

When did the Stocken love affair with bridge begin?

Peter: I learnt at the age of seven, but only became really serious about the game when I met and married Dinah in 1965. We were undergraduates at Trinity College, Dublin and in our last year we reached the final of a major teams event, only to be beaten by the then Irish national team. Their captain subsequently wrote us up in Bridge magazine, commenting on my youthful over-enthusiasm and Dinah’s brilliant play, extracting us from the hole that I had dug for us.

Dinah: My flatmate met Peter through bridge and invited him to our flat party. There very quickly became a love affair - and a bridge partnership

Zeb:  Claudia and I are the youngest of four. By the time I was 6 we had played every card and board game known to man. Our father introduced us to bridge, the perfect way to while away holidays in rainy Yorkshire - when there were only three TV channels.

Claudia: I think he taught us bridge to stop us fighting and to give our mother a bit of peace.

Peter: All six of us subsequently joined the Doncaster Bridge Club in 1983.  In the years following we, as a family, played in every county and national competition in the calendar, either as pairs or as a team. ‘The family that plays together, stays together.’

What’s the secret to running a successful brother and sister business? Have you always been very close?

Claudia: As children we stuck together as the 'little ones' but grew apart during our teenage years as we were all away at boarding school. A summer spent working on a kibbutz in Israel really brought us closer and then we shared a flat in London in our twenties. The secret is that we both have our own roles and don't interfere too much in what the other one is doing. Zeb takes care of the bridge side and I am much more of an organiser.

What do you bicker about?

Claudia: Who gets the better bedroom when we are away on bridge holidays.

Zeb: Claudia generally wins!

What do you love most about playing bridge?

Claudia: The satisfaction of playing a hand really well.

Zeb: As a player, the challenge, the social element, the competition. As a teacher, bringing people together and earning a living from something we love.

Dinah: The mental challenge and endless fascination with how 52 cards can be combined between four hands, and the fact that it is a game that can be played at any level of ability.

Peter: The intellectual stimulus.

The million dollar question - which one of you is better at bridge?

Claudia: A tricky question without causing a huge family rift! We four siblings are all hugely competitive and each would have a different answer. Our mother is particularly good with beginners and those wanting to learn at a slower pace. Our father has an insatiable love of the game and has been known to play morning, noon and late into the night if he can find three kindred spirits. As long as he has 13 cards in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, he is in bridge heaven!

Zeb: Tough question! I’ve been immersed full-time in bridge all my life so have more experience I suppose. Claudia is an organisational whirlwind so we dovetail well.

What’s your favourite bridge memory?

Claudia: Winning a pair of silk cami knickers when I was 14 and playing in a bridge competition with my mother. They were enormous and the last thing a teenager could have wished for.

Zeb: Getting into the under-25 squad aged 15. And getting written up in the Daily Telegraph aged 12, having beaten Boris Schapiro, one of England’s most famous players.

What do you remember about playing bridge together as children?

Claudia: The satisfaction of beating older players in competitions who totally underestimated us.

Zeb: Arguing!

What’s your top bridge tip for a novice?

Claudia: Be nice to your partner.

Zeb: Ditto! It’s only a game.

Dinah: Find a good teacher, don't get despondent and make sure it’s fun for your partner as well.

Peter: When you have several alternative bids to choose from and one of them is pass, then pass.

Where do you head for on holiday when you’re not working?

Claudia: Cornwall. I love the coastline with its dramatic cliffs and harbours and sandy bays. It’s perfect for families.

Zeb: Cornwall and Ireland. I feel like I’m coming home; there must be an ancient Celt in me! And France for its food, wine and beauty.

Peter: Tuscany

And your dream holiday destination if money and time were no object?

Claudia: On safari in Africa

Zeb: Bhutan

Peter: Still Tuscany!

What are your five must-have items when packing for a holiday?

Claudia: A pillow, my laptop (I’m always working!), hair straighteners, endless lists, my phone

Zeb: My phone, laptop, camera, enough clean socks and my passport

Peter: A toothbrush, toothpaste, electric shaver, mobile charger and credit card.

Favourite book/holiday read?

Claudia: At the moment I’m reading Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, which I am really enjoying.

Zeb: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Peter: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky  - I’m on the eighth attempt. On my next holiday I might actually finish it.

What are your favourite and least favourite things about travelling?

Claudia: My favourite part of any holiday is eating new and different food and not having to cook. My least favourite is packing – I am so indecisive and end up bringing far too much!

Zeb: Meeting new people, seeing new places… but missing my wife and two little boys.

How do you look for new places to visit with your clients?

Claudia: The best way is following a recommendation from one of our guests, as they know exactly what we are looking for. We do very extensive research and we always visit a hotel before using it as a bridge destination. This is the only way we can really check it out, taste the food and meet the staff. It’s a real perk of the job and my friends - and mum! - queue up to be a co-tester. Of course we also need to test the pool, the spa, the massage service, the cocktails…

Zeb: Google. Plus recommendations. We’re still only scratching the surface.

What makes the perfect bridge holiday?

Claudia: A lovely hotel, delicious food and a great setting are key factors, but honestly the most important thing is a great group of people that mixes well together. We have so many returning guests that holidays for me really feel like meeting up with a group of old friends.

Zeb: Guests who get on. Sunshine - everyone’s happy. Great food.

Dinah: Good company, good location and good food, in that order.

Peter: Nice guests

Sum up StockenBridge Breaks in three words

Claudia: Friendly, fun, family

Zeb: Upbeat, inclusive, Inspired

Peter: Fun, fun, fun!

Zeb’s Zingers

Check out Zebs' latest Zinger - 'Risking partner's wrath'

Peter's Puzzlers

Check out Peters' latest Puzzler - 'A good gamble?'