Why Modern Players Would Have Beat the Contract Bridge Greats

The Contract Bridge Greats

The American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) Museum is located in Horn Lake, MS, USA. While I’ve never been to the museum myself, I have been lucky enough to see inside bridge’s own Cabinet of Curiosities via the wonder of YouTube.

It’s a wonderful collection of bridge culture and weird artefacts, that would not have looked out of place in a horror novel.

Go deep enough down this particular bridge-related rabbit hole, and you’ll find a painting of Culbertson that might include his ghost. There’s also a wax sculpture, displaying an eerie tribute to one of history’s best bridge players.

But was he really that good of a bridge player, when you compare Culbertson to modern standards?

The original bridge “greats” like Culbertson or S.J. Simon would likely have lost against today’s players.

Here’s why.

Today’s Bridge is Accessible

In 1930s bridge, the game was still making its way into households as a casual pastime. If you wanted to know something, you had to ask a bridge player [or seek an appropriate library book].

Professor Samantha Punch [BAMSA] says, ‘I don’t think card play technique has changed that much, but players know a lot more about it as the internet has made knowledge more accessible.’

Welcome to the internet, a luxury that players of the past didn’t have. The world-wide-web contains more reading material than the Library of Alexandria could ever have hoped for.

Typing the words ‘contract bridge’ into Google will provide 366 million search results. Interested players can learn bridge through initiatives like Wikibooks. Online bridge games [and offline ones] are played every single second.

If you believe that practice makes you better at something, modern card players have an advantage above games in the 30s. Games today are faster, and easier to initiate.

Today’s bridge is accessible.

Bridge Bidding Has Changed

‘Bidding systems have changed a lot – [they’re] much more efficient, accurate, descriptive and comprehensive. There are many more tools to aid judgement and limit guesswork.’ says Professor Samantha Punch.

Stayman is just one example, which isn’t used the same in today’s play as by comparison.

Earlier definitions of the Stayman Convention accepted 16 to 18 points.

From No Fear Bridge [available in PDF], the boundaries of Stayman specify more than an 11-pointer hand.

Other conventions are subject to the same evolution. Bridge bidding has changed. Modern players, realistically speaking, would have the upper hand.

We’re Building on Their Techniques

‘Good players have been fiddling with the bidding forever and building on the work that went before.’ says bridge teacher Kitty Cooper.

We’ve all encountered resources written by long gone bridge players. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand what I mean with this; these resources are still good ones, but we have also evolved to understand more than they had to teach.

We build on techniques.

We create new methods.

We evolve.

We still know about DOS and BASIC, but today more programmers are fluent in languages like Python.

When we build on their techniques, the student can become the teacher.

We Went Online Too

The first chatbot was created in 1966, and the creators called it ELIZA: made to be an alternative form of therapy where humans could interact with a talking computer, she didn’t quite pass the Turing test just yet.

But in the 1930s, even this wasn’t a thought yet. Early players couldn’t have imagined today’s bridge world, or probably most parts of the regular world.

Come on: if we woke up Ely and Josephine Culbertson and gave them a smartphone to play IntoBridge, they would be so amazed that they’d forget – at least for a minute – how to bid.

Bridge went online, where it’s no longer restricted to a small household party game between a handful of friends. Gone are the days where it took hours to set up the cards, or where you had to ‘know someone’ to get to a bridge game.

Now you can just go to a bridge website, or find a face-to-face game by using the internet.

They Had Mail, We Have Mailing Lists

There are some readers here who might still remember the excitement of getting things in the mail. For me, it was receiving issues of PC Format – and then, first, checking out the available software on the CD you could get with it.

That’s nostalgia talking.

Mail was exciting, but it was also much slower than most things are today.

Bridge software via mail order was popular in the 1990s and 2000s. You would order, fill in the form, and your bridge lessons or software would be on the way to you in… Well, days or weeks.

This delay is almost impossible to imagine, when you can download the entire works of Shakespeare [or get hundreds of bridge mailing lists from all over the world straight to your inbox].

It’s not just bridge games that have become faster: everything else in the bridge world is moving faster than anyone could have imagined almost a century ago.

Players are Different

Speaking from a sociology perspective, Professor Punch raised another important point about today’s players. ‘Signaling methods are also more advanced and sophisticated. There’s more emphasis on being an all round top player now rather than over-relying on your declarer play to get you through.’

She adds, ‘Bidding is much more aggressive now, people didn’t used to compete so much. Now there is more consideration of the risk/reward ratio and disrupting your opponents’ constructive bidding.’

Modern bridge players have changed, and it’s mostly for the better.

Posted ByAlex J Coyne

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