Archive for January, 2015

Could bridge be popular?

If you’ve seen the second of the Three Colour trilogy, you will know that ‘White’ has a notable bridge theme. Not surprisingly, it’s a Polish movie. Poland is one of the few? – the only? – country left in the world where bridge is popular. It’s normal to know how to play bridge. It’s normal to play. I have a picture taken on a trip to Poland of a large group of people sitting around a large indoor venue which always confuses me when I see it after a while, because the people are mostly young. Oh! It’s bridge players. It isn’t really possible for the rest of the world to see it as a bridge setting. So the theme is very believable, fits into the movie, because it’s Polish. Still, if one had never even heard of bridge, it wouldn’t make the least difference to your understanding of this film.

Compare ‘Grand Slam’. This is a movie I think every bridge player who asks the question ‘Why isn’t bridge popular’ should see. It was made in 1932, based on the novel of the same name with a good cast headed by Paul Lukas and Loretta Young. This is a hilarious movie, but it is a bridge movie. Unless you followed the politics, both professional and social of bridge, the systems, the absolute heady addiction that the world had for bridge at the time, one could not understand it or get anything out of it. Reading modern reviews makes this obvious. But equally obviously back then in the 1930s, it was normal and expected to play bridge and know the bridge scene. Should you watch it, it will be a shock to see a world where bridge is actually popular. I was going to give a youtube link, but it seems to have been taken down. You can find it on some downloading sites if you want to.

So, whenever people tell me why bridge can’t be popular, I find myself thinking back to this period when it was not only popular, but incredibly popular. If people played all the time, if they could hold bridge at Madison Square Garden, if they could broadcast bridge on the radio, if tinned food sales went up along with divorce rates because of bridge, clearly it is possible for it to be as popular as chess, if not more so. And yet, ever since, it has been dying. What gives?

It is obvious that the appearance of TV after WWII changed life for most people for ever. Instead of going out they watched TV. Instead of talking, playing games, singing, going to concerts, going for walks, playing sport, reading magazines, they watched TV. Instead of all the things that used to be life, now they watched TV, first in the US, with other countries following. But this could scarcely necessarily have spelled doom for bridge – if they had listened to bridge, could they not watch it? And now, as we find ourselves in an age where TV is moribund in favour of the Internet, surely capturing an audience for bridge online should be possible. And yet it hasn’t happened.

Having examined the history of the game and the period, it seems obvious to me that the problems are entirely in how the game is marketed. When it was popular, the form of bridge that reigned was rubber. Rubber bridge has huge advantages over tournament bridge. You can play when you like, for how long you like, with those you like, where you like. Not a bad start. You can play for whatever stake you find meaningful. Whereas the playing tournament bridge for nothing either means something to you or it doesn’t – or collecting masterpoints by playing more than other people – rubber bridge means exactly what you want it too.

For the last years that I played rubber bridge, I played in Double Bay with Seres and Richman, Borewicz and Reiner, Browne….I’d always have one or two of those sorts of players in my game – the Poles if they were in town – and we would play for $10 a hundred. That means a real beating, such as you would rarely experience in practice, 100 points, would be $1000 you’d hand over, manfully looking like that was just what you wanted to do with that money in your pocket. I recall that happening to me once. Playing was just playing, it was the stake, it was absolute joy to play. And it made tournament bridge so very easy.

But the first time I played rubber bridge was in Adelaide, I was a beginner and the stake was 10 cents a hundred. That’s 100 times a smaller stake. If things went almost impossibly badly I’d go home ten bucks poorer. Nonetheless, if you could have heard my heart pounding away. It was just as well we were using written bidding – I couldn’t have heard anything over the noise of the bo-boom, bo-boom going on in my chest. From recollection I parted with $2 and it was a long time before I was ready to do that again.

The point is that money is the perfect stake. Not only that, but if you think of how much tournament bridge costs you, rubber is cheap – at least to try. If you spend, which lots of players do, just two weeks of the year away in a hotel playing bridge, let’s suppose you spend $200 on airfares, $1400 on accommodation (that’s only $100 a night), $400 on entries. That’s two grand. That’s a huge kitty to try rubber bridge. When I first played seriously in Double Bay I started out in the $2 game. When I wanted to try my hand at the $5 tables, I won 250 points at $2 to be my stake. If/when I lost it at $5, I’d drop back to $2. That didn’t happen, I stayed at $5 and then moved up to $10.

Not that you can do this. Of the various unforgivable things bridge administrators the world over have done to kill bridge, the most criminal is its policy to destroy rather than enourage rubber bridge, or any bridge played outside the world of tournaments. It was so short-sighted and the results are there for us all to see. Imagine, to our humiliation, bridge players, we live in a world where poker for money is the big card game and it’s just another nail in the coffin for bridge. Playing bridge at home is dead. Playing rubber bridge is dead. The horrifying consequence for tournament bridge is that it is making it die faster not slower. The relationship between rubber and tournament bridge should be symbiotic, give and take from one to the other. Really, it is a case of woe is bridge that this hasn’t happened.

The other thing that happened to bridge after WWII is that systems started becoming complex. I have no issues with complex systems having played plenty of them, though my preference in the end was for 4 card major backroom. But of course you can no longer expect to keep people interested. You can only alienate them. Part of what made bridge hugely popular in the thirties was that it was every man for himself. You psyched as you pleased. You bluffed as you pleased – I mean method acting. You did what you liked. And everybody loved that. They loved it because it was fun, because it was drama, because it was skill divorced from technique. It made great copy. It made life.

There are lots of reasons why bridge might never have survived over the decades since the thirties, even if the administrators had got it right. But it continues to haunt me, when noting the position chess still maintains, was it really so impossible? Were the thirties just an aberration?

The thoughts of anybody reading this are, of course, welcome.

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January 3, 2015 at 5:47 am 5 comments

Does the venue matter to world bridge championships and when?

Khokan raised interesting points in his comments to my last post, which I thought deserve more than a comment reply back.

The first was: ‘I don’t think it’s such a big deal for the Bermuda Bowl to be held in less accessible areas, though, as these players are almost always funded, at least to some extent, by their country.’

It reminded me of my first world championship, to which I inadvertently found myself going. I was playing for Australia in the 1988 Olympiad. In theory we received our airfare and something towards accommodation. In practice, the amount we received for an airfare didn’t cover the sort of fare we needed and the accommodation situation was embarrassing to say the least. Some of the players wanted to stay in expensive hotels, others like me wanted to stay as cheaply as possible. The ABF insisted that we all had to stay at the same venue, which means, of course, people who had spent their lives in five star hotels found themselves discovering life at the bottom. It was really really horrible, quite the worst bridge experience I’ve ever had.

These days, I suspect that the team gets a better subsidy, but even if it does, that doesn’t appear out of nowhere. The Australian bridge playing public has footed the bill. When the world championships were held in Bali not so long ago, Americans and Europeans were complaining bitterly online about how much they had to pay to get there. It is about the only time in Australia’s history that airfares have been relatively cheap for them. I pointed out that there should always be a pot. The airfare costs of every country should be calculated and averaged across the field. Everybody should pay the same amount. I was so surprised they didn’t like that idea, in general it would have cost them more, but it would have been fair. It turns out what everybody in the US and Europe wants is for them to pay the least possible and the rest of us don’t matter.

Further, even if we decide to accept the notion that ‘the country’ of the players pays the expenses, not the players themselves, where does that leave the many poorer countries around the world? Even a country like Indonesia, which has been knocking at the door of a world championship win for a very long time finds these expenses all but intolerable. To repeat what I discussed here – the WBF is trying to force countries to play in the Olympiad by refusing entry into the BB unless they have played the Olympiad. This is a disgraceful way to try to get more teams to play in the Olympiad in any event, but the more so when it involves obvious financial burden.

The second point Khokan made that especially attracted my attention was ‘As for putting the sponsorship money in the hands of players, I’m not sure how that would work. It seems that the best use of this money is to promote the game, so as to encourage new players to the game, and to keep existing players in the game. The money would run out very quickly if all entrants at a Rosenblum were covered, or even partially covered, for their travel expenses and/or accommodation.’

This was in reply to my point that the Chess Olympiad in Norway paid for the accommodation and board of all participants and the travel expenses of some as well. Okay, but now we are back at the start of the whole chess vs bridge and why is chess popular and mainstream and sponsorship grabbing whereas bridge isn’t? The chess sponsorship paid for, in the Open, 172 countries’ accommodation and board. Five players and a captain/coach. The women’s had ‘only’ 132 nations playing, same size teams. By way of a comparison, the 2012 bridge Olympiad had 60 countries in the Open playing with, let’s say 6 players and a captain/coach. The contrast is that chess can still attract huge sponsorship, whilst bridge can’t. Bridge would only need sponsorship to cover 420 players in the Open compared with chess’s 1032. But it can’t do it.

I don’t think this is a point about where the money goes. It isn’t that the chess olympiad gets money instead of grass roots promotion. This is not an either or, it is a both. It is simply a condition of being permitted to hold the Olympiad that the host accepts these costs. Chess, as far as I can tell, has a far greater impact at introducing chess and, importantly, I guess, at a much earlier age. In earlier posts we discussed this. There are countries where millions of kids learn chess. Bridge simply has nothing we can compare with that.

What I don’t know, is how much the attendance at chess Olympiads would decline if host countries did not supply living expenses. It is likely that the payment of airfares to some countries increased the entry, since the 2012 chess olympiad saw 152 countries playing. But then again, the 2014 even was held at a much more attractive venue. It certainly hasn’t made a dramatic difference, since the Chess Olympiad is already a well-attended event.

For the Open the differences between the number of teams in chess and bridge Olympiad follow. In fact the chess is every two years and I’ve included under chess number of countries represented rather than teams, there are always several more teams than countries.

Year    Chess    Bridge
1988     106        56
1992     100        57
1996     111        71
2000     124        72
2004     125        72
2008     141        71
2012     152        60

As far as I can see, looking online, the WBF has actually abandoned the Olympiad. Is this true? If anybody reading this knows otherwise, please say!

January 2, 2015 at 5:08 am 6 comments


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