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Why Play Bridge?

(Text as at 10/04/2017 23:38:24)

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I’m writing this paper because I’m a philosopher – of sorts – and a bridge-player – of sorts. I ought to be mindful of why I do what I do.

  1. Introduction
    • Bridge can be a very time-consuming activity and preoccupies some highly-intelligent people. Should they spend any of their time on it, and, if so, how much?
    • Of course, there are no real facts of the matter here – it’s up to individuals how they live their lives and not the job of others to rant at them. Any life that doesn’t harm others over-much and is predominantly within the law of the land is “allowable”. But some lives are no-doubt better spent than others, for any particular individual in a particular situation with particular acquired or acquirable talents. Doing what you do well to the best of your ability is usually a good thing provided what is done is intrinsically worth doing and doesn’t take you away from other things that are more worth-while – whether this be viewed selfishly or selflessly1.
    • I do not deny that there are lots of cognitive and social benefits to playing bridge – particularly for the elderly2 – these were publicly rehearsed3 when the case was put (and rejected) for Bridge to be classified as a sport for tax purposes. However, the case is often put one-sidedly, and it is worth insiders like myself taking a step back and asking themselves why they play – and in particular why they play as often as they do and in the clubs and competitions they do.
    • Tolstoy’s short novella "Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich" has some negative allusions to card-playing. Tolstoy naturally believes that bridge4 is part of the inconsequential social life that he inveighs against in the novella. Indeed, it seems to be a compulsion of the social class to which Ivan belongs – so much so that when he becomes ill, people resent having to visit him5 because it takes them away from the game.
    • In what follows, I want to consider three questions:-
      1. What’s good about bridge?
      2. What are the shortcomings of bridge that might make a (large part of a) life lived in its pursuit not one well-lived?
      3. What is the motivation behind competitive bridge?
  2. What’s good about bridge?
    • The benefits of bridge-playing are largely rehearsed in the Bridge World article Why Play Bridge?.
    • To be honest, the main reason is enjoyment, and this is also a reason to resist the compulsion, or at least keep it in check. There is nothing wrong with pleasure – indeed, hedonists or even utilitarians would say it’s the only good – but “lower” pleasures may need to be kept in check in order to make room for “higher” pleasures. The question is where bridge fits in the scale of pleasures6.
    • So, this covers Adventure, Challenge, Entertainment, Fascination, Inexhaustibility, Longevity, Mental Challenge, Multiplicity of Rewards, Pleasure, Universality and Variety. See the article for the explanation of these benefits, which I don’t dispute.
    • Some of the above may not be pleasures in themselves, but explain why bridge is as pleasurable and compulsive as it is. Non-bridge-players may not be fully aware of this. Any serious player will agree that bridge is a very rich multi-dimensional game, while outsiders may think of it as “snap writ large”. Admittedly, social players who don’t continue to study the game will not get as much out of it as more serious players.
    • Longevity is important – not only in the sense that the variability of bridge means that its interest doesn’t wane – but in the sense of activities for older people.
      1. Ability (or even competence) in the vast majority of pursuits declines badly with increasing age, but this is not so much the case with bridge (except maybe at the elite level or at the very end of life). There’s a marked contrast with chess in this regard.
      2. The physical demands of bridge are minimal, and immobile players can usually be accommodated.
      3. The alternative pursuits are increasingly ruled out with increasing age.
    • Other advantages suggested:
      1. Preparation: for other mental struggles. Maybe, but I’m not convinced.
      2. Teamwork: the citation is obscure to those unfamiliar with American sports, but one of the most important, satisfying and frustrating aspects of bridge is that it’s a partnership game. It can also be a team game, but teamwork isn’t so much to the fore, even at “teams”, as in team sports properly so-called. The partnership aspect adds an extra dimension, both insofar as social skills are concerned, but also as far as developing recursive “theory of mind” skills. Both in the bidding and the play, whereas positive actions can be quite formulaic, “inaction” – why did partner (or the opponents) not do what he or they might have done – requires a more subtle modelling of mind to evaluate.
      3. Skills Development: correlation is noted between bridge-playing ability and success in various technical careers – eg. computer programming. While the correlation is real in some cases, it is round the other way. Good computer programmers are likely to be good bridge-players, if they take the game up. However, bridge combines so many skills that successful players can be quite unexceptional in other areas.
      4. Prestige: there is alleged to be a correlation between professional prestige and success at bridge. This must be US trait, as I’ve not noticed it in the UK. It is not a benefit as far as I’m concerned.
      5. Mental Exercise: Yes – but bridge is only one of many ways of exercising one’s brain. In my experience, this is not a major benefit. Several factors conspire to encourage mental laziness.
        1. Firstly, the element of luck – diligence is not always rewarded.
        2. Secondly, certain techniques are cognitively very intensive, but not always essential, so if you play bridge for relaxation, you might well skip these aspects without thereby playing incompetently.
      6. Socialisation: This is very important, especially for those without “small talk”. Bridge always gives endless subject matter to talk about, and you do get to know a very large number of people. The drawback is that the subject matter is often either narrowly technical, or is gossip about other players. Also, any relationships formed – even between bridge-partners – tend to be quite superficial and related to the game. Not that this is unusual – it’s the same in working relationships and those formed around other pursuits, even philosophy!
      7. Therapy: the Bridge World article cites bridge as an absorbing escape from the stresses of modern life. This is certainly true,
    • I would add the following further advantages:-
      1. Systematisation: bridge bidding systems are analogous to languages, and constructing one – admittedly constrained by what is bridge-legal – is quite a creative business.
      2. Relaxation: This is a needle-point for me. Bridge has to fulfil this function for me, but if played “expertly” it cannot do so – for me at any rate. I’m told that some people can play chess for relaxation, but I can’t see it, in that it involves too much calculation of variations, and calculation is hard work, which is not relaxation7.
      3. Competition: You could play bridge just for the fun, but – despite most players (including myself) not achieving much in the game – the competitive aspect is crucial for most players. I will discuss this in more detail in a later section.
      4. Egalitarian Luck: Despite bridge being a game of skill, so that the better players win out in the long run – luck plays a part in the short term, so that any partnership – however incompetent – can win a session on their day, even against strong opposition. This isn’t the case in chess, where the stronger player wins with depressing regularity. The importance of this point is that there’s always hope for all players, especially for the weaker ones, whose enthusiasm continues unabated.
  3. Shortcomings of Bridge:
    • The main shortcoming of bridge is that it is a game. What’s wrong with games?
      1. My main contention would be that all their supposed ancillary benefits are better achieved by activities that connect with the “real world”. This is true even of the “purely pleasurable” aspects. It is more pleasurable to discover “natural truths” rather than purely logical ones hidden within a human invention.
      2. So, taking my own other interests as examples, any spin-off benefits in mathematics and computing are better served by focusing on these disciplines themselves. The same goes for bidding systems as pseudo-languages: why not spend more time studying natural languages and linguistics? Bridge asks no deep questions about the world. Wouldn’t the time be better spent studying science or philosophy, and keeping the social aspect by joining societies that support those interested in such questions?
      3. Can’t we counter some of this by saying that the visual, auditory and literary arts are also human inventions? True – they are – yet they connect more directly and more widely with the human condition and the natural world. Music may be an exception here.
      4. As such, time spent on bridge – other than as a relaxation – is rather a guilty pleasure.
    • Therefore, most of the shortcomings are down to the opportunity costs of playing bridge. It takes a long time, and while you’re playing bridge you can’t be doing anything else. Picking up on the first list of advantages – the pleasures – not even the most committed bridge-player would claim that it is the most Adventurous, (mentally) Challenging, Multiply-Rewarding or “Various” of activities, though maybe some of the alternative and more extreme pleasures can’t be enjoyed as often or as easily, or have even more regrettable consequences.
    • The partnership aspect, while rewarding, is also frustrating. This may be the real reason why there are (allegedly) “no bridge prodigies”, unlike in other spheres such as music or chess. Music and chess only require one of you, whereas bridge requires two, and finding two such individuals geographically close enough8 to form a regular partnership is exceedingly unlikely, outside the elite schools and universities.
    • I found it impossible to play during the bulk of my working life in the City, as my job was demanding, so it was difficult to get away in time, and then there were the commitments of a young family. This seems to be a general problem – there seem to be few bridge players of working age – at least around here in Essex.
    • The Bridge World article mentions the occasional cruelty of bridge-players, especially to inexperienced players. While true, “best behaviour” rules have improved matters markedly so that gamesmanship9 can now be punished.
  4. Competitive Bridge:
    • This is where things get difficult. As noted above, bridge can be played simply because it is fun. But it can also be played competitively, where it is important – either over individual sessions, or over a period of time – to do better – and be seen to do better – than one’s rivals and one’s earlier self.
    • It is necessary to make a brief diversion into the ranking systems of English bridge:-
      1. Master Points: See the EBU account (Link). The trouble with this scheme is that it is cumulative, so you can rise through the ranks by playing long and often. Those (like me) who had a 30-year intermission in their bridge career – and now only want to play a couple of times a week – are at a considerable disadvantage10. So, the new system below is to be welcomed! Before mentioning the NGS, though, it’s worth mentioning “Gold Points”. These are an excellent idea – to earn them, you have to do very well in a national tournament, and they “age off” over time, so represent current strength better than the traditional master point scheme. But they are only available for highly successful tournament payers; the vast majority of bridge-players
      2. National Grading System (NGS): Again, see the EBU Account (Link). This is much more a measure of recent success, if not quite of current standard. The basic assumption is that the rating of a partnership is the average of the ratings of the partners, which is not always the case – it’ll usually be less with unfamiliar partnerships.
    • The trouble with competitiveness and ranking systems is that it can take over as the major motivation for playing the game, or at least interfere with the pleasure of playing.
      1. If your motivations is to improve your rating, you may be dissatisfied after a disappointing session even if you played well – as often happens in bridge – if it has depressed your rating. Similarly if you’ve played poorly, but been lucky – you may be elated if your rating has shot up. It’s true that this emotional response might be the case even if there were no ranking rewards, but – particularly with respect to the NGS ranking which is more volatile – may be exacerbated. Improving the ranking – rather than just enjoying the game – may become the main motivator for playing.
      2. While the NGS is supposed to take into account strong players playing with their weaker brethren, it doesn’t really. So, it may make some more reluctant to do so. Again, this reluctance was always so, but the NGS may exacerbate matters. Before, playing with a weaker partner would just mean there was less to be gained as far as climbing the greasy MP pole, but now it can result in a catastrophic slither down the NGS ladder.
    • Let’s take an example – playing in an unaffiliated club, one that is not, or is no longer, affiliated to the EBU. In that case, there are no master points at stake, and one’s NGS rating will be unaffected. Is it worth playing? Many keen players do play under such circumstances, and it is a litmus test of why one plays the game. Of course, one might not wish to play at such clubs because they are weak, the standard low, which is both not much of a challenge and bad for one’s game. There are, of course, instrumental reasons for playing at such clubs – for instance trying out a new system or a new partner without your NGS rating being ruined. But, thinking there is “no point” because there is no lucre in terms of MP/NGS kudos to be gained – as has been my opinion in the past (probably rightly, as bridge sessions have to be tightly rationed) probably indicates that the game is not always played for its own sake.
    • Another example is playing in tournaments – or against opponents – that are far too strong for you. You have no realistic chance of winning, or even doing well, and so will garner no MPs, though your NGS may rise even though you come below average. Someone who loves the game – or just wants to improve by encountering the strongest players and trying to learn from them (or at least using them as a yardstick with which to measure their own progress) – may relish such events, whereas someone who just plays for the results will think them a waste of time and money.
    • Note that very strong players on the hunt for bundles of MPs to progress their ranking will often turn up to SIMS events at weak clubs they seldom frequent for purely opportunistic reasons. The game cannot be that pleasurable for anyone concerned.
    • Another issue is the state in which you turn up for your bridge session. Some players are so desperate for a game that they play with the ‘flu which they share with everyone else. But, such occasions apart, bridge is in general played by prior arrangement and it is disappointing to be “let down” when your partner has to withdraw. Sometimes, however, one may be in normal health but too tired (or maybe too agitated by other concerns) to play to your normal standard. This is also letting your partner (and yourself) down. But it’s sometimes not possible to avoid such situations. I occasionally have a nap prior to sessions – but there’s an opportunity cost here, and is something not available to those at work (or on the golf course).
  5. Conclusion:
    • This paper has been written to help me as an individual think through why I play bridge. What I have to say will not apply to all – or indeed many – other bridge players.
    • So, for me it is just a game. It must not become a major focus of my efforts, must be relaxing, and must not be played for instrumental reasons of status.
    • That said, it’s best to do anything you do to the best of your ability within the constraints your other activities apply, and to seek advancement where this is an automatic consequence of performing that activity well.
    • As such, I will seek to turn up to bridge sessions in good condition, play against strong players to improve, not play against weaker players merely to gain MPs, and not play in tournaments merely to gain GPs.
    • I need to teach myself more about the game by personal study. Historically, I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to educate partners via post-mortems. This time can be better spent.

In-Page Footnotes:

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: See, for instance, this article from 2009 in the NYT – Link.

Footnote 3: Footnote 4: Or some form of proto-Bridge in late 19th century Russia.

Footnote 5: Footnote 6: Footnote 7: Footnote 8: Maybe things will change as on-line bridge becomes more popular.

Footnote 9: Footnote 10:

Table of the Previous 2 Versions of this Note:

Date Length Title
14/10/2016 22:14:53 13695 Why Play Bridge?
05/04/2016 23:19:41 3549 Why Play Bridge?

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10/04/2017 23:38:24 None available None

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References & Reading List

Author Title Medium Source Read?
Tolstoy (Leo) The Death of Ivan Ilyich Paper - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories Yes
Tolstoy (Leo) The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) Low Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied 30%

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