Paul Cronin

What kind of “game” is bridge?

There are many kinds of “games”, so a good starting point is to distinguish between “popular” games and “unpopular” games. “Popular” games tend to be those with a few easily stated and quickly understood rules. Baseball, football,  hockey, and poker are popular. “Unpopular” games tend to be those with many not easily stated rules which are difficult to understand. Chess and bridge are “unpopular”. These categories can also change over time – bridge was once very  popular, but is now very unpopular. My parents and their friends played bridge socially on a very frequent basis without ever having read a bridge book or taken a bridge lesson. Fifty years ago bridge was cool! But in the last twenty years I can’t think of a single occasion where anyone I know played bridge socially. Why is that? People will have many  answers to that question, most of which will say that it really isn’t bridge’s fault for its decline in popularity. But I think it is – bridge is simply no longer what the average person would call a “game”. Its rules are many, they seem to be constantly under revision, and they often require a committee hearing to clarify. If non-bridge players wandered into a tournament site and saw the incredible number of bridge books on sale it would not be unreasonable for them to conclude that the possession of a staggering amount of knowledge is necessary in order to “play” bridge. If they then wandered about the playing area, they would probably further conclude that not many of the participants were enjoying themselves very much. How has bridge come to this point? Part of the answer may be – money. Maybe too many people are making too much money from teaching, authouring, playing, directing, etc. to want to allow the gravy train to stop. But the way the age demographics of the ACBL membership are going the gravy train will stop – there just won’t be enough players left to make a game anymore. What can we do to try to prevent the disappearance of the game? Try this one on for size: hold a tournament where the number of masterpoints awarded in each masterpoint stratum is proportional only  to the table count. Then set friendly masterpoint stratum ranges. maybe 0-499, 500-999, 1000-2499, 2500-4999, and 5000+. If it then turns out that the table count for the 500-999 range exceeds that of any other range, then the winners in that range get the largest masterpoint award. The next largest table count gets the next largest masterpoint award, and so on. There will be screams from many that we should never give the “lesser” players in the 0-499 range the largest award of our sacred masterpoints, but on the other hand wouldn’t it be great to see the bridge population pyramid expanding at the bottom once again. But what to do with the eight players who show up who have 5000+ masterpoints. Well, they could play in a two table section and get .16 masterpoints for winning same, or they could look elsewhere for major events for them to play in – the Spingold, Red Ribbon Pairs, Cavendish, etc, or, perhaps their stratum would turn out to be the largest of all when it is inundated by all the players who say  they want to play up against the best. If we don’t do something, the rich may keep getting richer for a while, but the game we love will not survive.


Judy Kay-WolffJuly 22nd, 2010 at 1:40 pm


Yours is indeed a thought provoking blog — and one which I would like to address, encompassing many of your statements and/or comments:

As to the difference between “popular” and “unpopular” games — you base their status on ease of understandability. You classify baseball, football, hockey and poker as popular as opposed to chess and bridge. Perhaps, you don’t have to press your gray matter into action with the first group — just moving your eyes to see if the ball goes into the designated spot or the winner swoops up all the chips. Chess and bridge are demanding on your intelligence, concentration and desire to strengthen your understanding by trial and error, getting mightily bruised or having your ego heavily wounded in the process — but assuming the strength and determination to stand up and fight to improve.

You speak of the past generation enjoying the popularity of bridge because they never had to learn a rule or read a book. You say fifty years ago bridge was cool. Perhaps that is why people refer to it as a game played by their grandparents. True — but playing kitchen bridge was not an accomplishment. It was just passing the time of day (or night) before the age of television and computers came of age. They didn’t have many alternatives and bridge emerged and survived by default.

You talk about rules. Surely no one likes to be burdened by the imposition of strictures and the need to keep up with the quickly changing methods. However, that is the only way I consider this once-majestic game can keep improving and providing an unparalleled challenge to those who choose to rise to the occasion. And, I beg to differ about the reaction of bridge players arriving at a tournament and seeing an inordinate number of books on the subject. It should not frighten them off but excite the prospect of learning the subject and getting better and better each day as the sun comes up. “A staggering amount of knowledge.” to me would be an incentive — not a deterrent. And, as far as enjoyment — just ask them. No one has made them buy their entry at gun point. They love it. It is amazing to me, that despite the many modern day opportunities provided for relaxation and enjoyment, so many (especially the older ones who have seen the game grow and change) are still hanging in there.

On one point, I certainly agree and that is the ugly green element that influences so many bridge participants. It is not the teaching, authoring, playing, directing, etc. to which you allude that offends me. It is the “gravy train” that now bubbles in the pot — encouraging lesser players to pay their way onto a team because they have more loot than their less fortunate counterparts (and could not make it to the top partnered or teamed up with their own peers).

And heavens, I certainly do not approve of many of the actions of the ACBL, but you have to hand it to them. Despite our present economic fiasco here in the States, thousands of people play duplicate every day (and even nights) seven days a week — when a game is available. Bridge has become an ‘old person’s game’ for the most part because the encouragement and education of the youth (at least here in the states) came too little, too late. Maybe if there were optional (or even mandatory) bridge classes in the Zone 2 schools (like many Asian and European learning institutions) bridge would be on the rise — not decline.

Your masterpoint assessment doesn’t float my boat. Although I definitely don’t agree with some of the rules and interpretations
and the handling of many issues by the ACBL, they must be credited with steadily captivating their audience and improving a stimulating, interesting, intriguing social setting for a vast majority of the nation’s couch potatoes who would be bored to death, sitting and watching television all day.

I do not for one moment believe that it is the increasing ‘difficulty’ of the game that causes you to assess it as ‘unpopular’ by
comparison to other sources of enjoyment. I think those who share your view are taking the lazy way out and refuse to accept the challenge to ascend to a higher level.

As for me, regardless of how difficult the task, I am a firm believer in “hitch your wagon to a star.”

Bobby WolffJuly 22nd, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Your blog is very interesting to me and deserves further study. The beginning theme has to do with popular versus unpopular games stating that bridge, like chess, has gotten much too complicated to maintain its former popularity.

“Baseball, football, hockey and poker are popular” because they have simple rules to understand although bridge, while once being VERY popular, has become unpopular because of complications which have since set in, basically running potential players away. Perhaps so, but if so, it is in a sense a tribute (though somewhat veiled) to the game itself, by suggesting that as the game of bridge has matured, like so many other real competitions, it has demanded that the game itself, in order to increase the expertise involved, rise to a much loftier level, which in turn, entices players to seek a higher ground to compete with their skills.

Since I believe the preceding paragraph is basically right on, I am proud of what bridge has accomplished up to now and expect at approximately the same future time schedule will continue to expand bridge bidding (the code language used) so that one day our creative mentors will eventually raise it to perhaps the highest level possible.

At least to me, walking into a room where a bridge tournament is being played and seeing a book store with a huge collection waiting to be purchased, is an altogether very positive sight which suggests to me what bridge really is — a game which will never be mastered by any human being, but one which will interest many, and undoubtedly thrill some of its most dedicated admirers.

Also the stiff intensity shown by the players in competition, rather than friendly, though frivolous conversation heard, might appeal to a serious minded would-be devotee rather than to be instead viewing a TV soap opera or even just being another spectator at even a high-level sports attraction.

Yes, our present world certainly verifies that money talks and with it comes the keeping up with the Jones’, which breeds waste, jealousy, anxiety, and usually lack of positive creativity. In bridge, professionalism is now running rampant with wealthy average+ playing sponsors paying our top level and sometimes not-so-top level players much money to theoretically learn the game, but in conjunction with winning masterpoints, championships and even (in too many instances) the right to represent the USA in International competition (IC)

The learning and the resultant higher level play, plus, of course, the masterpoints and the local, sectional, regional and national championships which are all within logical reach are just awards for the quid pro quo relationship which is established. But for the life of me, it is nothing short of impossible for me to accept that our bridge administrators would allow lesser playing sponsors to represent our country in IC.

Aside from the obvious fact that in no other forms of IC, especially Olympic Competition (OC), but even in less than OC such as the Davis Cup, Ryder Cup, or America’s Cup would the organizers choose less than their best to represent the country, if only for the sake of National pride. Why then, are we so lax when it becomes to naming our bridge teams? Yes, money talks, but we must learn when that talking must stop, and, at least for me, it stops when our country’s pride comes into challenge.

When you refer to the evils of money in bridge, you might be speaking to the incongruity of sponsors being able to buy their way onto our best bridge teams for the purpose of satisfying their egos?

Also addressing your tongue in cheek (I hope) suggestion of this new system of awarding masterpoints based on numbers rather than expertise — Abraham Lincoln’s great quote “… but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” comes into play and no method like this new system could be as obvious as the suggestion of trying to disprove Honest Abe’s admonition.

This is not to say that you may not be right. It is only to say that if you are right, tournament bridge and, of course, the ACBL just flunked out of school, not to mention existence.

A thank you is certainly due you, for getting this sometimes sad, but nevertheless important, subject on the table.

Paul CroninJuly 22nd, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Dear Bobby & Judy,

Many thanks for your insightful comments on my recent blog. It appears that I did not put some of my points clearly, and I therefore add the following:
(i) I didn’t mean that past generations enjoyed playing (kitchen) bridge only because they didn’t have to read a bridge book or take a lesson – I was simply observing that they did play a lot and they didn’t (in general) take bridge lessons or read bridge books

(ii) Kitchen bridge may not have been much of an accomplishment, but out of it came the tremendous wave of sons and daughters of those players who later took up duplicate bridge seriously, and remain the foundation of the game today.

(iii) I didn’t say anything about bridge players arriving at a tournament site and seeing the vast array of books, but specifically referred to “non-bridge players”. And I didn’t mean to imply that tournament bridge were not enjoying themselves, but only that it might appear that way to non-bridge players watching them play. Newcomers to the game are intimidated by the large amount of knowledge it seems they have to absorb before they play, and then put off by seeing players who have absorbed that knowledge not seeming to enjoy themselves.

(iv) Additionally, I believe that newcomers to the game, and many current bridge players as well, have been hoodwinked into thinking that if they play such and such a system, or adopt some given list of conventions, they will be able to play bridge at a high level. In my opinion, this is not true – those who play and succeed at high levels do so because they eat, drink, sleep, talk, study, practice and play bridge 24/7/365. If others are not willing to make that commitment, they are not going to succeed at high levels. It would be far better, in my opinion, to try to analyze what strengths and character traits that each newcomer brings to the game, and to develop something that will work well for them based on those strengths and characteristics. To try to make one bridge shoe fit all is much akin to trying to teach me now to play golf “properly” – at my age, I can’t.

Judy Kay-WolffJuly 23rd, 2010 at 2:12 am

Eloquently put, Paul!

Believe me, I was not knocking kitchen bridge because that is where I got my nightly training and rarely missed an evening. Then, I eventually discovered duplicate and K.B. was gone forever. I learned the rules, the protocol and eventually added daring new conventions to my repertoire — becoming much more sophisticated about the entire concept. But, like most, though I have done fairly well, my enthusiasm exceeded my talent. Fifty years later, I am still a student of the game — but aren’t we all?

The point I was trying to make was that few are born with that innate ability. For most of us, it takes weeks, months and years of study and concentration — and the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. Perhaps that is the enchantment and beauty of bridge — and makes it so totally different than poker.

What a bridge hopeful must understand (regardless of his or her intelligence and successes in other arenas), is that it takes total commitment to acquire a firm foundation and move forward.

My late husband Norman (during his acceptance speech at his ACBL Hall of Fame Induction) directed a question to his high school buddy in the audience. Norman recounted the story how he was recruited (against his will) one evening to fill in for the fourth who had suddenly taken ill. My husband protested vehemently he didn’t know how to play, but his friend (now retired Judge Burrell Humphries) assured him, “Just come over 15 minutes early and I’ll teach you,” then added, “It’s an easy game.” Norman teased Burrell that night (forty years later) in Philadelphia, “Burrell, do you still think it is an easy game?”



AronDecember 2nd, 2015 at 8:45 am

I know. It’s really weird. But as reuglar as clockwork. Huh. We usually get this in the form of what if you were stuck on a desert island .Good thing we can show them.

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