Could bridge be popular?

January 3, 2015 at 5:47 am 5 comments

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.


Entry filed under: history, humour, politics, thoughts on bridge.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Khokan  |  January 3, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    I saw “White” and thought how cool it was to see a bridge professional in a major movie. It would be good to see a bridge professional figure more prominently in a movie, though. I reckon that a dramatization of Alan Sontag’s “The Bridge Bum” would make for great viewing. Paul Giamatti as Sontag would be perfect.

    Cathy, I know you’ve got a romantic attachment to rubber bridge and I loved the game, too. However, I reckon the bridge world has moved on, to the point where hardly any one really understands or cares about this form of the game. I remember the televising of a rubber bridge match on a cruise, which featured Forrester, Mari, Hamman and Zia. I thought it was riveting viewing, not the least for seeing the frayed tempers and huge egos, but I doubt that many others did. If that failed to arouse the interest of rank and file bridge players, I doubt that many watchers would be very interested in seeing Gates and Buffett plod their way at the table – you might get a lot of curious non-bridge players watching at the beginning, but I doubt that there would be an enduring impact. Pessimistic, I know.

    I think that if the demand for rubber bridge is there, bridge clubs would cater to it. I don’t think that players stopped playing rubber in Sydney because the clubs didn’t support it.

    • 2. cathyc  |  January 3, 2015 at 9:53 pm


      You are quite right that bridge has moved on. I’m merely pointing out that moving on is what has killed it. The ordinary people who played bridge at home in the 1930s, if they still existed, would be thrilled to watch the battle of Gates and Buffett. We precisely have a world that is probably what you describe: watch the battle of Gates and Buffett then forget it, because we have stopped people playing at home.

      I brought rubber bridge into the equation, because you have to play for something. In clubs it is ‘honour’ or ‘titles’ or ‘masterpoints’. At home the thing you keep tally with is money. Just as poker at home is still a big thing – or has become a big thing again. You can’t play poker or backgammon or bridge without a stake. That is why I brought rubber into the equation in my blog. The beautiful thing about it is just like poker, the amount you play for can be anything!

      But bridge administrations around the world have misguidedly seen it as being to their advantage to discourage people from playing at home, and giving them the impression that bridge has to be played in clubs, that it needs lots of lessons, that you have to pay for masterpoints. They’ve viewed it all in the most short term way possible of how to get most money now.

      This is just plain wrong. Bridge should be like chess: a small competitive group resting on a gigantic multi-multi million population of people who know how to play, who can and do play at home, who can watch interesting matches online and get something out of it.

      In short, bridge administrations first and most important duty should be to get people to play at home. That will inevitably mean playing rubber bridge. It isn’t romantic, Khokan, it is practical. But bridge administrations are scared of the consequences of making bridge popular again even though, in my opinion, they should not be.

  • 3. gregquittner  |  January 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Hi Cathy, comments in red.

    cathyc posted: “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 “

  • 4. mannyrayner  |  January 3, 2015 at 5:56 am

    So, uh, first thought that comes into my head: a series of rubber bridge matches, sent live on the internet every week, Bill Gates + professional partner versus Warren Buffett + professional partner, $100 a point.

    I mean, they love bridge and it’s peanuts to them. Within a month, everyone would be talking about it.

    • 5. cathyc  |  January 3, 2015 at 6:11 am

      Great idea!


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