Bridge To Nowhere

Trying to understand why bridge is an influential enough game that the BBC felt it was deserving of its own dedicated video game console in the ’80s.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: As you probably know about me, I used to spend years working in newspapers. But of the many things that were in newspapers, one of the things I never understood was why most newspapers had a dedicated bridge column, next to the funnies and the crosswords. It was just a card game! But somehow this game had earned its place in the newspaper over something … say, more generally appealing. But, apparently that column is no joke to bridge players—when The New York Times dropped its bridge column in 2015, it led to hundreds of complaints. What about bridge makes it so appealing? And why did that appeal lead to a straight-up video game console licensed by the BBC? Today’s Tedium tries to figure it out. — Ernie @ Tedium

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“Any young person who doesn’t take up bridge is making a real mistake. One bridge game is worth 20 cocktail parties. The reason for this match is to publicize bridge and try to get young people into it. I always say I wouldn’t mind going to jail if I had three cellmates who played bridge.”

— Warren Buffett, discussing his affinity for bridge during a tournament that he took part in with other major business leaders and members of Congress in 1990—fittingly called the “Corporate America versus United States Congress Bridge Match,” according to The New York Times. Buffett is probably the most famous living bridge enthusiast, though there are other big fans of the game throughout history, most notably Dwight Eisenhower.

Warren Buffett Bill Gates bridge

Noted bridge players Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. (via Greater NY Bridge Association)

Explaining what makes bridge so appealing to certain types of people … and what limits that appeal to everyone else

Now, bridge—in its most common form, contract bridge—has been around for about a century, with an evolution that goes back centuries further. Like games you may be more familiar with, such as spades, hearts, or euchre, it relies on a “trick-taking” approach, which effectively means that the people with the highest card values win the hand.

But games like spades, hearts, or euchre are relatively easy to understand. What about bridge? Well, the thing that makes it more complicated is the use of a bidding system, in which two of the four players playing (you absolutely need four players) make a series of agreements, or bids, based on the quality of your hand of 13 cards. The cards are ranked aces high, while suits are ranked spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs.

Together, the two teams, teammates across from one another, try to make clear the value of their competing bids during an “auction” process. This is where the complications come in—the bidding process makes the game hugely challenging for new players to understand right off the top and requires a degree of skill, similar but not directly comparable to Texas hold ’em poker.

To give you an idea of how indecipherable this can be for someone who doesn’t already know how to play bridge, I’d like to share with you an episode from the first television series about the game, Championship Bridge, which aired during the late ’50s and early ’60s and was hosted by star bridge columnist Charles Goren. (Chico Marx of the Marx Bros. was one of the contestants, which is about as bright as the star power gets on this show.)

If you don’t know anything about bridge, you may find the bidding process to be completely indecipherable, much in the same way that you might find a column about bridge to be full of jargon. Even in a television format, where everything is being explained slowly by Goren and his cohost, Aliex Dreier, you can feel completely lost.

But if you are familiar with bridge, you might find this to be the very thing that appeals to you, because of the level of strategy involved.

That Warren Buffett would get into a game like bridge (he apparently plays eight hours a week, which he can do because he’s Warren Buffett) very much reflects the kind of person that would get into a game like it—one that can see the depth of the strategy it encourages and how it flexes some strategic muscles, the kind that someone like Buffett, known for his business deals, might excel at.

A good way to think about this in terms of video games. Lots of different types of video games exist—from simple-to-understand card games like solitaire, to side-scrolling games, to first-person shooters, and everything in-between. In many ways, bridge is the real-time strategy version of a card game, in which the rules actually turn out to be really important to manage and understand what’s happening inside of the universe and you have to react on the fly.

Another comparison point is board games that come with their own complex sets of rules. It’s not the format that attracts players. It’s the depth when everything is executed properly.

Charles Goren Time Magazine

Charles Goren, on the cover of Time Magazine in 1958.

But why did bridge become enough of a phenomenon to show up in newspapers? Ask Charles Goren

This seems like a strangely complex game to have become a phenomenon, but it very much was one during the 1940s and 1950s. And a big reflection of that comes in the role that it carried in newspapers.

Bridge columns effectively tend to have an unusual shape: They’re written essentially to teach existing bridge players strategies with which they can use in future bridge games. Short and quippy—generally starting with a story, then laying out an explanation of how a specific bridge hand was played, these columns are essentially useful as teaching tools for bridge enthusiasts.

Column space was never infinite in newspapers, of course, but bridge maintained a place in some of the largest newspapers in the country years after its cultural peak.

And a great example of why this was is actually the career of Charles Goren. It’s one thing that he appeared on television, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a big enough deal that he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated—the latter reflecting the hard work Goren put in to convince the publishers of that magazine that bridge was in fact a sport.

(It’s a debate that’s still going on today.)

It wasn’t like Goren knew what the heck he was doing when he first discovered it, either. As a McGill University student in Montreal in the 1920s, he first became interested in becoming good at bridge after a hostess mocked how terrible he was at the game, leading him to put in lots of practice. After working in law during the early part of his career, this eventually led him to work closely with Milton Work, a key authority on contract bridge’s predecessor game, auction bridge.

Goren first ghostwrote for Work, and when Work died in 1934, he leveraged his own growing name in the bridge sphere to launch a syndicated newspaper column of his own with The Chicago Tribune; it was something he managed for decades. And at the same time, he became a star bridge player in his own right, winning numerous tournaments throughout his lifetime.

On top of all that, Goren invented new tactics of play that revolutionized the sport, including a card valuation system that made it easier for new players to get involved. (Not too easy, mind you; you still might find the process complex by today’s standards, in which video games commonly offer walkthrough levels as an onramp.)

This gave Goren a vantage point rare of any modern sports—he simultaneously was its biggest star, its most prominent chronicler, and arguably its biggest innovator. The closest you might get as far as a singular figure holding such deep influence over a single sport is Walter Camp, the father of American football, and you probably didn’t even know who that was!

He wasn’t alone, either: The New York Times maintained a bridge column of its own for nearly 80 years, and other bridge innovators followed in Goren’s footsteps. In fact, when Goren retired from his column, the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, best known for Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, took his place after spending years cowriting it with Goren. It wasn’t stunt casting, either: As he was making Oscar-winning movies, Sharif was also maintaining a career as one of the world’s highest-ranking bridge players, going so far as to fund his country’s play at international events.

(The late Sharif even lent his name to a computer game about bridge.)

Columns like these are not exactly easy for regular people to parse—it’s a surprisingly niche thing to take up column space in a mainstream newspaper—but bridge enthusiasts are a passionate bunch and are known to speak up when said column space is removed.

That said, it has gotten easier to push bridge off to the side in recent years, thanks to the fact that, at least in the U.S., the popularity of bridge has been on a steady decline for decades, most assuredly because of computers and the internet. Despite the deep success of poker seen over the past 20 years, bridge has never gotten quite that level of success in the modern day, likely in part because it’s not an easy game to explain to newbies. (Then again, try explaining a PS5 game to your parents and seeing how much time it takes. I’ll wait.)

But outside of the U.S., bridge has maintained more of a modern presence, and there is no better way to explain that point than the BBC Bridge Companion, what must assuredly be the most obscure video game console ever.

“Bridge has beneficially expanded my acquaintance with charming, intelligent widows in their seventies and eighties, but I selfishly wonder what I’ll do for partners when I’m the age they are now.”

— David Owen, a contributor to The New Yorker, explaining in a 2007 article how he had taken part in a regional tournament put on by the American Contract Bridge League and found that, despite being 52 years old at the time, he believes he was probably the youngest person that took part in the tournament. “There were separate games open only to players aged fifty-five and older—superfluously, since the vast majority of the tournament’s entrants were old enough to play in either division,” he wrote.

BBC bridge companion

A console dediated to bridge, and nothing else. (Wikimedia Commons)

Why the BBC once sold a bridge-specific video game console

So the thing that got me interested in this topic in the first place was, of course, a video game console.

Dating to the same period as the original NES, this console is effectively a tool for teaching players the ins and outs of bridge without needing three other people. And as you might imagine for a very specific console like this, it was developed by a bridge enthusiast who dabbled as a computer programmer—Andrew Kambites, a player who had found success in bridge tournaments before turning his energies to an incredibly specific console.

The Guardian described the device, with an extra-long headline, as “an expensive way of developing your talent, preserving your ego, and protecting your reputation.” Because bridge and reputation go together, obviously!

This device, while having a handful of cartridges, was only meant for one thing—playing different varieties of bridge. But despite that, the console came with a number of booklets for the cartridges that were themselves miles long.

But the conceit was noble—essentially, the console was sold as a way to help bad bridge players become good ones—even if, in the context of video games themselves, the general idea seems wasteful and might be better solved by offering a game that worked with an existing console. For people who were fans of bridge, as cited in The Guardian, it nonetheless was a huge leg up from what was available before.

“A remarkable innovation—a computer solely for bridge only accepting specific cartridges written in its own, high-level language: bridge Machine Code—the Companion affords the user the ability to learn or brush up on the basics and to progress, via new cartridges, to an advanced standard of play,” the unbylined article stated.

(In reality, the console was using relatively standard hardware for the era, a Z80 to be specific, giving it something in common with both the Colecovision and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.)

For video game standards, this was not a good machine. A couple of years ago, the small-scale British gaming YouTuber Tamaracade, teaming with the larger-scale British gaming YouTuber RMC, did a joint clip on the device—and neither of them were particularly kind.

Tamaracade, who called the device “the worst console ever made,” saw lots of issues with the fact that there seemed to be little in the way of sound output.

“Yes, I know it’s for a card game, which doesn’t really go ‘beep boop beep,’” she said. “But you still want some kind of audible feedback when you use this thing.”

RMC’s Neil Corbett, meanwhile, pointed out the simple math equation that made the device a bad purchase from a technology standpoint.

“This would have set you back £199 ($165) back in 1985,” Corbett explained. “And to put that in some kind of context, that’s £35 ($29) shy of the entry-level BBC Micro computer, on which you could have bought some bridge software and played bridge.”

BBC Bridge Companion

Corbett suggested that the device was intended for older audiences, specifically pensioners, which was supported by the fact that the manual actually quotes someone named “A Pensioner” in its marketing materials.

But despite all this, the Byron Parkin, the managing director of BBC Enterprises, made it clear that they felt strongly about it in comments to The Guardian: “The BBC only puts its name onto quality products.”

So to put it simply, this is not a good device by computing standards, but by bridge standards, it was arguably revolutionary. No longer did you have to embarrass yourself by practicing your skills with three other people. Now you could go through your teething period at home, using a television set.

Because you never know when you’re going to be competing against Warren Buffett.

$400

The list price of the Saitek Pro Bridge 500, a laptop-style bridge gaming device sold in the early ’90s, according to Popular Science. “It’s top of the line—the Cadillacs of bridge computers,” a manager at a technology store said at the time. (There’s one on eBay for $45, if you’re curious.)

Now, I’m not going to lie. I never understood bridge growing up, and I don’t really understand it much better now that I’ve actually written some history about it. Reading a bridge column still confuses me far more than reading whatever error log my Hackintosh spits out when I hotplug a Thunderbolt 3 cable.

And I’m sure the bridge community is going to find this piece, read it, and just be like, “This guy doesn’t understand bridge, how dare he write 2,500 words about our community?!?”

But the thing that makes me feel better about this is the reason why The New York Times got rid of its bridge column. As Margaret Sullivan wrote in a public editor column in 2015 after getting 2,500 (!) letters from bridge enthusiasts, the decision was made in part because the editor of the culture section, Danielle Mattoon, was told to cut 20 percent of its budget, and the complexity of the game meant that editing the column was a huge burden for a section of the paper facing cuts. As Sullivan explained:

Faced with having to cut close to half a million dollars from her annual budget, Ms. Mattoon also was dealing with another financial angle. In last year’s buyouts and layoffs of newsroom staff, she lost a number of staff positions—a net loss of four from a base of 56. (More than four left, and there have been a few hires.) This meant more pressure to rely on freelance staff, who are paid from the nonpersonnel budget.

“We have fewer culture writers and enormous demands on them,” particularly because of new digital efforts, she told me. In order to preserve as much of the freelance budget as possible to help generate the kind of criticism and coverage she finds most valuable, she decided to cut some features.

The bridge column, she said, wasn’t a huge expense but it is particularly time-consuming for the copy desk to edit, since “you have to play the game in order to check it and make sure it’s right.”

To put it another way, even a newspaper that had been publishing a bridge column for more than 80 years had a hard time wrapping its head around it. (Also not helping: Phillip Alder, the guy who wrote the column, didn’t actually read the newspaper and only bought it to save his clips.)

I totally understand that we live in a world where people will not be able to wrap their heads around things. But bridge is particularly confusing for people who have no idea how to play.

And given that context—no slight on the bridge community intended—it’s understandable why sudoku won.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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