Thursday, January 28, 2021

A hand of cards


Michael – Thursday

For those who don’t know, Bridge is a card game that four people play in partnerships of two who sit opposite each other. Since I’ve always been attracted to collaboration, and have worked with other people in many areas of my life, a game that involves that as well as an intellectual and tactical challenge has a natural appeal for me. It’s not a question of how well you do, but of how well the partnership does. That’s what collaboration is all about whatever its context.

18th century playing cards

Card games with pretty much the current 52 cards go back a long way – at least to the 15th century. (Although that makes it a lot more modern than chess whose origins are probably 1,000 years older than that.) The modern enthusiasm for card games for adults started with Whist, a game with a variety of rules and variants. The variant that led to Bridge started life as Biritch in the 19th century. The name is thought to be the English spelling of a Russian word meaning an occupation of a diplomatic clerk or an announcer. (While Bridge players will recognise the connection, it does suggest that the Russian civil service wasn’t doing all that much at the time.) In Biritch, each player is dealt 13 cards with the dealer or his partner choosing the trump suit. Then each player contributes a card to each trick, following suit if they can, with the player playing the highest card (or trumping) winning the trick for the partnership.

The old way of playing Bridge

This led to Auction Bridge in 1904 where the first part of a given hand is an auction for a partnership to make a specific number of tricks in the nominated trump suit, or in so-called “no trumps” where all the suits have the same rank. It took an important tweak of scoring that targeted a certain number of tricks in each suit to get a significant bonus to make Bridge a bidder’s game and a true partnership game. It added intrigue and extra difficulty. That was developed in 1925, and after that Bridge was on the road to being one of the most popular adult card games ever. In the 40s nearly half of US households hosted Bridge players, and the top American players - the Culbertsons, Vanderbilt, and others - were treated like sports heroes. That was until television made its appearance. But even today, it’s estimated there are 25 million players in the US alone.

A tense match with Eli Culbertson on the left and a crowd of spectators

Bridge collaboration sometimes has fraught moments, especially when spouses play together. I remember many years ago playing a match at a couple’s house. The wife was the better player by quite a way. Halfway through the match, the couple and their team mates were ahead and all was pleasant. But in the second half, things started to go awry for them. As in all games and sports, temperament is critical. The wife started pointing out her husband’s mistakes - politely at first, as in “Darl, wouldn’t it have been better to… What do you think?” But it got more fractious as the match swung in our favour.

Eventually after a particularly disastrous hand, the wife said sharply, “That time the only thing you did wrong was—”

“The only thing I did wrong,” he furiously interrupted, “was marrying you!”

The rest of the match was icy. We won by a big margin.

On the other hand, the cut and thrust of the game can be the most enjoyable part. It's satisfying to make a good hand by careful analysis and careful play, but it's often even more fun to persuade the opponents to make a mistake that allows you to win. Victor Mollo, who was an international player, had a wonderful sense of humor, and his books featuring a suite of characters from the menagerie are as funny as they are instructive. The Hideous Hog (HH to his friends) is the most enjoyable character anywhere that one loves to hate and secretly admire at the same time. If you like Bridge, you'll love the Menagerie.

Bridge competitions take various forms, but before last year they all involved sitting with other people and handling cards other people had recently handled. Pretty early in the covid piece it was clear that was not a very healthy way to behave during the pandemic. Fortunately, there were already a number of different internet systems around. Stan, who only started playing the game a few years ago, knew all about them because he was in South Africa playing with Mette in Denmark as his partner and with another couple in England as opponents. I had amused myself with Bridge solitaire on occasion – where the computer plays for your partner and the two opponents – but I hadn’t discovered the platforms that enable multiple people to play at once and, as is required in competitions, play the same hands essentially at the same time. After a pause in Bridge games during the height of the first lockdowns, players rapidly became accustomed to using the computer. Not only was it a distraction while housebound, but you could keep in touch with the game. The internet Bridge platforms initially took a lot of strain...

The new way of playing Bridge

As with everything that moves online, there have been some gains and some losses. One of the attractions of playing Bridge socially (as opposed to a competition) is that you can chat a bit between the hands (some players chat continuously all the time!), break for tea and snacks and socialise, even have a meal together before or afterwards. The social aspect is much reduced online. The hands are computer dealt and you can type messages to the table, but that’s not real interaction. On the plus side, you never have to scratch around to find a fourth person to “make up a game”, and you can play, as Stan and I now do, with people scattered around the world. And cheating is harder. As the joke goes, ankle injuries are more common in Bridge than in Football…

I suspect this is how it will be in the future – at least for competitive games. We’ve made the change, we’re used to it, why would we go back? It’s just another small way in which the post-covid world – when we eventually get there – will be different from 2019.


  1. I played Internet Hearts for three months, then switched to Spades at the end of May. I got bored. Then I discovered Lichess, which has free chess games, played against the computer at 8 levels. I've been involved in chess games since at any hour. More challenging.

    1. Indeed, and computers play chess much better than Bridge generally!

  2. When I was in college I became addicted to bridge, so much so that my second year was more scheduled around tournaments and amassing master points than anything else. After about a year of that, I realized I might never graduate if I didn't cut down on bridge. But it was so much a part of my life that all I could do was quit cold turkey. The same as I did smoking. I dare not even attempt to pick up on the game again, less I never write another word...though I do still treasure the phrase, NO TRUMP.

    1. Jeff, I relate completely! Tried Bridge in my first year, saw it taking over my life and my friends, know I become compulsive once hooked! Lectures meant nothing, we only stopped for meals! As for No Trump... let's stick with the plural!

  3. As somebody who gets confused playing snap, I admire those who play bridge but I don't trust them. I read Agatha Christie's Cards On The Table at a young age. That book is about how a person would commit murder based on how they play bridge.