By Alex J. Coyne
Contract bridge history isn’t the same anymore. When we tell the story of bridge to new players, the whole story has become a different account. Timelines have evolved. Bridge has changed much since its early players, like Vanderbilt and Culbertson.
It’s about time for a rewrite of its history, wouldn’t you say? Modern bridge has many new faces, smarter artificial intelligence, and a whole new reputation as a sexy and engaging thinker’s game.
An Early History of Contract Bridge
Bridge is descended from bid whist, as the most common fact about its origins told most of us when we got here. Auction bridge transcended to contract, thanks to Vanderbilt’s contributions in 1925. Soon bridge was a household game and a party favourite.
Popular history omits the interesting fact that occultist Aleister Crowley came up with his own pirate bridge in 1917, a variation of auction bridge which would change partners each round. Despite its publication in Vanity Fair, contract bridge is the version which found a wider audience.
Bridge makes United States headlines in 1929, when Myrtle Bennett from Kansas City fatally shoots her husband John during a game after an argument peaks. After a public trial, the game is a hot headline – and the Bennett murder hangs the dark truth of partnership abuse in the spotlight forever.
Culbertson-Lenz hold what’s called the Bridge Battle of the Century at the very turn of 1931. News of the game is widely broadcast, with radio and newspaper coverage putting the game into the public eye.
Bridge grows as a household distraction during the Great Depression, and several texts (including the Blue Book) introduce bridge as a great group activity. Seances, shows, and tabletop games are at their height wherever people gather.
A more formal approach appears in the 30s, with the founding of the American Bridge Association (1932), the English Bridge Union (1936), and the American Contract Bridge League (1937).
Bridge appears in a family-friendly board game format as AutoBridge in 1938, underwritten by some of bridge’s best teachers.
A Modern Evolution of the Game
It almost goes without saying that contract bridge has survived many world events.
Criticisms of the game, including its complex nature, have less of a sting when the rules of modern games like Dungeons & Dragons continue to evolve into extensive rulebooks and compendiums.
Youth takes to bridge, and well enough that the current youngest ACBL Life Master (Andrew Chen) is aged only eight. Programs, often started by bridge enthusiasts, continue to promote the game under younger, teen, and youth players.
A big change comes in the 90s, when contract bridge comes to the Personal Computer. Simple games like Contract Bridge for DOS introduce household bridge once more, with the addition of AI.
Bridge becomes playable in a couple of keystrokes and clicks, easier to access outside inner circles and bridge clubs. Evolution of online bridge continues, and still today, well alongside face-to-face (or F2F) games.
Matthew L Ginsberg writes his important thesis on GIB in 1999, cementing the idea of a competent artificial intelligence which can keep up playing with humans. True to its title, the thesis takes important “steps toward an expert-level bridge playing program” forever.
Contract bridge grows online, and the World Bridge Federation releases the first Online Bridge Rules in 2001.
Other versions of bridge emerge, including HOOL and Bumblepuppy Bridge, both intended to teach simpler forms as an introduction to the game.
The Pandemic’s Impact
Bridge would be business as usual for a while.
There are tournaments, donations, and new projects. There’s a 2019 TED Talk by Sunil Varghese, which calls it the Ultimate Mind Game.
For a while, bridge almost gets comfortable.
The 44th World Bridge Team Championships host gets announced for 2019. Games are to take place in the Chinese province of Wuhan.
After the game, Wuhan makes world news for reasons other than bridge accolades: the epicenter of COVID. Lockdown rules limit meetings and public appearances, and it’s the least tragic summary of a several-year period that takes a lot of time – and unfortunately, many great people with it.
The NY Times (2020) reveals the true impact. A bridge player in their eighties is believed to be the first diagnosed case of COVID in the United States. The chain reaction begins, and no industry in the world is left untouched from its effects.
Bridge continues with caution. Internationally, bridge clubs embrace online games in lieu of face-to-face games for the safety of their members – and for the future of the game. Online games, for a while, become the norm.
While the world is caught in the chaos of a dangerous pandemic, bridge survives thanks to the innovation and contribution of its many players.
Tables and clubs begin to compete in face-to-face games again from 2021, and soon the excitement of face-to-face bridge comes back for many active players. Famous players and familiar sights return, whilst new players – as always – find their way into the game.
Online bridge games remain a powerful force even after face-to-face bridge games have come back. No longer a mere distraction or hobby for players, but a way to compete. Online games are worth Masterpoints and real skills.
Online bridge takes off its training wheels, and becomes seen as a game that can be played alongside face-to-face bridge games. Where in the past online bridge might have been underestimated, the sheer force of online player collaboration can’t be denied.
After the worst of the COVID pandemic, the postmortem shows the world a game that can survive almost anything. Several wars have happened, and people are still playing bridge at an increasing rate than they might congregate to play games like Egyptian Senet.
Bridge’s Golden Dawn
Contract bridge looks like it’s going to have an exciting future from where anyone is standing.
There’s a lot to include in the contract history books from now – and darlings, we’ll have to start from the very beginning.
Most of them are things that you never would have seen in any contract bridge book of the past.
“Bridge hackathons” have become regular events since 2020, where innovative bridge playing programmers come together to find solutions – and sometimes, problems nobody knew were there before someone mentioned it.
Cheating is put into the spotlight as the 2021 documentary “Dirty Tricks” throws the sins of Lotan Fisher on a silver screen. Doping wasn’t the biggest issue in competitive contract bridge, but cheating could prove to be.
A handful of players get called out for suspicious hands. Bridge experts look more carefully at tournament and club hands, and online algorithms learn to adapt. Other games aren’t immune to the same scandal, as similar allegations ripple through the chess world.
Contract bridge has arrived at a new golden dawn, where the height of bridge discussions are no longer the average age of its players, but back to important strategic questions like “Who takes the blame for this terrible bid?”
Bridge references are everywhere for those who know where to look: Family Guy (Season 21, Episode 2) features Lois reading the Griffins the rules of Eucre while they look on in horror.
When Peter puts a gun to his head and fires, he wakes up in Hell – to the image of Satan reading the rules of Eucre. The scene pans out with a voice-over, saying more people should play contract bridge, easier and better than Eucre.
As inappropriate as only Family Guy would ever bet on, it explains why we’re all here for bridge in less than four minutes, doesn’t it? The skit succeeds in making its point.
Bridge is at an exciting time, right here and right now.
Let’s take some time and talk about what’s going to happen next.