‘The King of All Games’: Bridge
From kitchen tables to international tournaments, in the pantheon of table games, bridge still rules.
The huge parking lot in front of the Caledon East Community Complex is full to overflowing one morning in late September. So what’s going on? Is Wayne Gretzky signing autographs? Perhaps it’s a pop-up royal visit?
Nope. It’s a bridge tournament. Who knew that in this age of online gaming, a card game with centuries-old roots could draw such a crowd? Inside the building, tables crammed into the main hall overflow into the entrance corridor as organizers scurry to set up more in the basement.
That September day, more than 500 of the tens of millions of bridge players around the world had gathered in Caledon East to learn, socialize, and perhaps earn master points in a card game that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has called “the king of all games.”
Hillsburgh’s John McWhinnie, who captained the team that won the 2016 national team championship in their category, helped organize the annual Caledon East tournament along with Denise Donovan, Marilyn Rochford and other volunteers. John manages the Thistle Bridge Club, which operates out of St. James Anglican Church in Caledon East. Sanctioned by the American Contract Bridge League, the club is part of the Credit Valley Bridge Association.
Though bridge might be best learned at a young age, John says if someone has missed that window, nothing precludes picking it up later in life. “It can be played at many different levels, ranging from a social foursome, right up to local, national and international competitions,” he says. “At whatever level you play, you are guaranteed to make a new network of friends.”
Pause here to give the uninitiated a brief summary: Bridge is a game played by four people, two against two, as partners. A standard 52-card deck of playing cards is fully dealt around the table. Based on values assigned to the cards in their four private hands, opposing partners bid competitively to win a certain number of tricks (one card from each player; high card wins). In the process, players use bidding conventions in an attempt to communicate with their partners about the value of the cards in their hands. The highest bidder plays the game contract. If a trump suit is named at the bidding stage, a card in the trump suit defeats any cards from non-trump suits. Scoring is based on making, exceeding or losing the bid contract.
Today’s version of bridge evolved from the 18th-century game of whist (which will be familiar to fans of Jane Austen’s novels). American Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, scion of the wealthy Vanderbilt family, was passionate about the game and developed the contract bridge scoring system in 1925. Vanderbilt’s system, still used today, is credited with propelling the game to new heights of popularity over the following decades. One of the best-known fans of the game was actor Omar Sharif, who published several books on bridge and, with bridge guru Charles Goren, wrote a popular syndicated bridge column. Billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are also champions of the game.
For many players, the first brush with bridge came in a university common room or on rainy days at the cottage. John McWhinnie learned rubber bridge, also called contract bridge or kitchen bridge, from his in-laws when he was in his early 20s. He took a hiatus from the game during his child-rearing and career-focused years but went back to it when he retired.
Rubber bridge is the game most people play socially, but in Caledon East this past September, the focus was on duplicate bridge. Rubber bridge is about making the best of the cards you’ve been dealt, while duplicate bridge is about making the best of your cards in comparison with how others play the same hand. It’s called duplicate bridge because the same hand is played by other sets of four players, with scoring based on relative performance.
At the Caledon East event, Barbara Seagram gave a seminar to more than 200 enthusiastic bridge devotees, mostly of the silver-haired set. Attendees then settled in to apply their updated skills during a weekend of competitive activity.
Barbara owns and operates the Toronto School of Bridge, Canada’s largest bridge club. She teaches extensively, leads international bridge cruises and has published 28 books on the game, as well as detailed “cheat sheets.”
“Like all great games, the basic rules can be learned in a short amount of time, but players never stop improving their game,” says Barbara. “Unlike poker, the winnings are not necessarily monetary. Bridge players play the game for honour, fame, glory and master points.” (Master points are awarded by bridge organizations to individuals for success in sponsored competitive bridge tournaments.)
Not only is bridge a social lubricant, but it’s a great mental workout, says John McWhinnie. “It keeps your brain young, your mind alert. Recent research has suggested that it may even stave off degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”
But the bottom line for John is that the game of bridge is both fun and exciting: “Because every deal of the cards is different, success depends on a combination of technique, teamwork and tactics.”
With 635,013,559,600 possible bridge hands (yes, someone actually worked this out), bridge provides players with a lifetime of variables.
But for all the game’s social benefits, is it a good idea to sit down to play with your spouse? John chooses to evade the question, but he does stress that both patience and tolerance are excellent attributes for bridge players.