The real secret of the expert is to make logic seem like flair
February 19, 2015 4:15 PM   Subscribe

Bridge: the greatest card game.

Want great web sites from the nineties? Welcome to the wonderful world of contract bridge! With tactics that make great band names, instill murderous rage, involve complicated game theory and are slowly dying.

There are places to play online, along with a forerunner of twitch, and ways to learn the game.
posted by The Ted (63 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
When I was in high school I worked winters at a country club which would sometimes host bridge tournaments. I'd bus tables and remember being struck by how utterly *serious* everyone was; there didn't seem to be any friendly banter or small talk. There was at least one duo with team jackets.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:27 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I knew some people in college who would drop LSD and play bridge. But they too stayed fairly serious.
posted by thelonius at 4:38 PM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

I always wanted to learn how to play bridge, if only to better understand detective novels from the 1920s. I have no idea where to find a friendly game, though.
posted by Iridic at 4:49 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I grew up with Bridge- I can remember my Grandmother Ruth teaching me to count points when I was 5 or 6. That led to me occasionally sitting in on her bridge club games when someone had to visit the restroom when I was in my teens.

Later on, I played a lot of bridge when I lived in Berlin- in fact, playing bridge led me to my job driving tour buses (among other activities!) in and out of East Berlin.
posted by pjern at 4:53 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Bridge was the game of math camp. I was a filthy casual but there were some srs bzness players. Got called a fucking idiot by one for not drawing trumps properly...
posted by kmz at 4:54 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've always found the bizarre legalism around bridge systems to be offputting. Seriously, browse that PDF: it's insane.
posted by Pyry at 4:55 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

I spent a weekend down the shore last summer and there were some older family members along. I'm not sure who was more confused, them when I tried to explain that card game with all the funny voices I was playing on my laptop or me listening to them playing bridge.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:02 PM on February 19, 2015

I used to play bridge at an collective restaurant back in the early 90s. Truly, it is the gem in the crown of card games, a game for adults. Unlike, say, poker.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:11 PM on February 19, 2015

I've known how to play bridge my entire life (and many other card games...euchre anyone?), but I rarely get to play. When I was young, bridge was an "old people's game." My take was that older couples would invite some other older couple to each other's houses and play for a few hours...I didn't know anyone in my age group/cohort who knew how to play.

Now I'm old, and I still don't know anyone who plays. So I don't even get to the "find a fourth" level.

Anecdote: There was one guy in my dorm who disappeared one week, and when I asked where he'd been, he said he was back east playing bridge and our school team had won the national championship! Yikes! I didn't even know our school had a team!
posted by CrowGoat at 5:17 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah you try playing when you use jacoby and your partner, who says he would too, doesn't.


Also this happened in 1996. And then he had the nerve to throw off his clubs.

posted by disclaimer at 5:25 PM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

Bridge seems to have a problem with what I would call a "learning wall" rather than a learning curve. I mean, there's no realistic way to learn other than to play, but virtually no-one wants to play with someone who doesn't know how and makes silly errors. It does not surprise me that the ranks are not swelling with new players.

On the other hand, it will also not surprise me when I go back one day in late 2065 and find that the single last remaining thing that my old hometown newspaper is printing is a column about bridge.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:28 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Also if I could get those LOSERS from the bar to quit fucking up my bridge game by always needing a fourth for euchre, THAT WOULD BE GREAT.
posted by disclaimer at 5:30 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

bridge players are boring

what you really need for a little party involving two couples is euchre

if you want coldblooded strategy and spite, you want hearts, which is just as hard a game as bridge and a lot more cutthroat, especially when one guy is winning and everyone else is doing their damnedest to screw him over - and then there's the decision to be made with a fairly strong hand - figure out a good way to dump the cards on someone else - try to shoot the moon, while figuring out an escape hatch if someone grabs a heart

or if you think someone else is trying to shoot the moon and the black maria comes up, do you take it if you can and screw them and yourself - or take the risk of letting it go

what do you pass? who do you dump the hearts on? how do you avoid taking them? - and remember that everyone else is thinking the same thing

and euchre? - well, euchre and beer (or the alcoholic beverage of your choice) were made for each other
posted by pyramid termite at 5:31 PM on February 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

I will shut up soon. But, there are people and places out there who will teach bridge less seriously, i.e. not everything has to be so damn serious. I was taught bridge by a guy who had been playing it for 22 years or something. You'd make one bid and he'd tell you how many hearts you had, how many high card points, and force you to game with the second bid. And then come around the table and stand behind you during play and tell you what to do, and why, and then everyone would chime in about their particular reason for playing their hands the way they did. Followed by everyone throwing down their hands (or putting their hands back together) to go through the whole thing, cards up. It was a lot of fun.

I supplemented all that with this book and this book. And between them, I'm a decent player, who doesn't give a shit if we go down a couple of tricks or a contract falls to shit because of bad play. It's just a damn game.
posted by disclaimer at 5:43 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Euchre and hearts are almost trivial compared to bridge and spades.

I mean, don't ask me to back up that unsubstantiated allegation, but that's what I remember from all four.
posted by kiltedtaco at 5:45 PM on February 19, 2015

I don't know about the greatest card game. Bridge was pretty good up until around the Boats & Moats expansion cycle, but I feel like the new Ogres & Trolls! expansion really messes with the game balance. Although the new miniatures are cool.
posted by oulipian at 5:51 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Euchre is most fun when it's played with speed. I don't give a rip about your mom's colonoscopy, shut up and deal.

Bridge is a game of manners and communication, both of which lend each other their strengths. Bridge is also a game of responsibility: if you think you can take 13 tricks by not paying attention to the bidding, well, it's on you to make it right for your partner. And you will, because as declarer, you're playing both your hand and your partners hand. You'll have 26 cards to use to make it right. If it's badly bid, most of those cards are going into someone else's wins, which can be a bit humiliating.

So, players don't get mad when you misplay a hand, or throw off when you meant to trump or something. They get mad when a contract is set based on bad information, which is what happens when people don't pay attention to the bidding. That's why it's so serious looking - bidding takes deliberation and thought.

Every bid is a piece of information, whether about what you and your partner have, or about what the opposition has. By the time a contract is set, it really is possible to intuit who has what cards in their hands, and many times there's no reason to play the hand - two tricks taken? Throw em in, we know how the rest of the hand is going to play.

Maybe euchre is "simplified bridge" - it feels like it a lot of the time - or maybe bridge is euchre on steroids. I tend to believe the former. But if euchre ever gets too pedestrian for you, try a little bridge.
posted by disclaimer at 6:03 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

A correction - I said "by the time a contract is set" in my fourth paragraph up there. I meant to say "by the time a contract is declared".
posted by disclaimer at 6:09 PM on February 19, 2015

Euchre is most fun when it's played with speed.

try playing it with acid sometime
posted by pyramid termite at 6:13 PM on February 19, 2015

try playing it with acid sometime

My friends and I do that. Try playing euchre with no trump suit. :)

posted by disclaimer at 6:15 PM on February 19, 2015

On Beta Antares IV, they play a real game.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:16 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Try playing euchre with no trump suit. :)

our rule was on the 2nd round of bidding, you could do that, but it didn't happen very often
posted by pyramid termite at 6:26 PM on February 19, 2015

Bridge is how my dad ended up in Vietnam.
He was in college, and his friends had a Very Serious Bridge Game going. Twenty four hours a day. More serious than going to class, apparently. Dad spent all his time smoking* and playing bridge, and consequently was flunking out when he decided to join up rather than be drafted upon expulsion, on the theory that he would have more control over where he ended up.
Perhaps this is why I've always seen bridge as half game of elderly people, half shady backroom shenanigans.

* Smoking what, I do not ask.
posted by Adridne at 6:30 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Canasta is also a game.
posted by box at 6:47 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's a good thing there wasn't a draft during my college Counterstrike days.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:48 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I love playing pinochle, hearts and euchre, but they can't hold a candle to a game of bridge with players you know. the communication's the thing. i miss not having a game handy.
posted by OHenryPacey at 6:49 PM on February 19, 2015

Canasta is also a game.

my grandmother loved canasta when she wasn't reading the latest about desi and lucy in photoplay
posted by pyramid termite at 6:54 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

A filthy degradation of Whist, for which I will not stand!
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:00 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

My dear, departed grandma taught me bridge. Multi was a foul-mouthed, foul-living woman, so I have nothing but fond feelings for the game. She would make what we fondly termed "ciggy bids", which were bids that her partner got stuck with, so that she would have time to go out and smoke a cigarette. She would greet unfortunate, awkward hands with "Who dealt this mess?!?!" I'm pretty sure she is the reason we say that one side is "bonerable", instead of "vulnerable", for no other reason than it is dirty.

My cousins, my mother, her sisters, and myself will still get together, play bridge, and be foul together. And table-talk. Oh, the table-talk.
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:03 PM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

I learned to play bridge in college in 2004 or so. It was very fun. It was also a women's college, so we really didn't have anything else to do.
posted by Lycaste at 7:10 PM on February 19, 2015

Tichu or GTFO. I've never played bridge.
posted by exogenous at 7:13 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I played Bridge once with a girlfriend and her parents. They kept telling me what cards I was holding. It was uncanny.
posted by SPrintF at 7:26 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Both my granmothers and my father with uncle would play bridge on occasion.
The words, the apartei.
It scared the hell out of me.
posted by clavdivs at 7:27 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Speaking of the 90s, I remember this bit of silliness from Seattle's free weekly The Stranger, from way back in 1999. Anytime I hear "bridge" (the game) I think of this article. EXTREME BRIDGE!
posted by zardoz at 7:44 PM on February 19, 2015

My fathers usual response to whatever my mother was bidding at the time: JESUS CHRIST, JANIS. He didn't usually wait for the opponents to respond.
posted by disclaimer at 7:52 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

I am amazed that no bridge players have chimed in.
posted by notreally at 7:55 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I researched Contract Bridge for an article some time back and was left considerably impressed. Some people look down on it these days, though.
posted by JHarris at 8:08 PM on February 19, 2015

Drinky Die: "It's a good thing there wasn't a draft during my college Counterstrike days."

But it comes with so much more irony flunking out of college playing Counterstrike and ending up in Afghanistan.
posted by pwnguin at 8:40 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some people look down on it these days, though.

Why? I'd always thought of it as a game that had fallen out of fashion but was still well regarded as a game.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:52 PM on February 19, 2015

I'm also trying to find an online partner - please MeMail me if you are an intermediate SAYC player! (One of the really interesting things about bridge, going hand-in-hand with bridge bidding as a shared language, is the importance of great partnerships!)
posted by The Ted at 9:03 PM on February 19, 2015

I am amazed that no bridge players have chimed in.

They're all too busy running the world.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 9:14 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Bridge!? Euchre, harrumph. 500 or GTFO.
posted by digitalprimate at 12:34 AM on February 20, 2015

Bridge is great fun. Spades is bridge with training wheels. The challenge of communicating correctly while bidding and then actually playing out a hand is endlessly fascinating, with some hands requiring as much planning out as some chess moves.

Sadly, I never play anymore. It's impossible, as someone upthread suggested, to find a friendly game. And nobody I know plays. And it's really difficult to interest people in playing games that involve an Actual Deck Of Cards these days. (Unless it's some variation on Poker.) Which is a shame because knowing many games that can be played with a deck of cards is a good way to save the sanity of yourself and those around you in various situations.

The only Deck Of Cards game I've had any success with teaching anyone in the past 10 years is cribbage, because it's stupidly easy to learn and delightfully fun to play even during the learning phases. It is JUST CHALLENGING ENOUGH without requiring Deep Thought that it can be a great Thing You Do While You Hang Out With Friends without becoming the Defining Activity that stops the fun hanging out stuff.

I'd love to get back into bridge, or even just spades, because the playing out of the hands is such fun and the bidding is a fascinating curve of learning. Unlikely to happen, but I do keep my fingers crossed.
posted by hippybear at 1:20 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

as much planning out as some chess moves

Bridge used to be very popular among top Soviet chess players, and there have also been some promising American players who drifted over into it. Why would they do that? It's more social, for one thing, and, frankly, there are more women playing. In the 60's and 70's, too, there were some chess players who felt that there was no point in devoting themselves to a game that Fischer had shown them to be inferior in.
posted by thelonius at 3:26 AM on February 20, 2015

Man, I absolutely love bridge (although dislike playing it online - it has to be played live for me, partly as people tend to be nicer and more thoughtful about both the game and each other). I originally came across it when my mum began to play, and I found the idea quite baffling. I was very familiar with trick taking games, but the concept of a bidding system that could be coded but that it had to be a code decrypted for the opponents on demand weird as anything, so I didn't take it up.

A few years later I met the love of my life, and she is a pretty competent player (I'm reasonably rubbish), and she got me into it as well explaining where the joy of bidding, and the finer arts of card play came from. I love that it's a very intellectual game, but one of imperfect information and probability that appeals to the stats nerd in me.

We haven't played much for a few months due to ill health, but on good days she'll play as much as possible and I'll try to get in a 3 hour game or two a week. We have a lot of good friends from the game, aged 18 to 80, and at the right club it's very sociable and friendly, even if people take the game itself seriously. There's always a few bad apples in any group of people of course, but most people are great especially the stronger players. Almost from day 1 I was introduced to many lovely world class players (a benefit of the game's relative unpopularity) and I'd happily play (and lose) to most of them any day of the week, and most are happy to provide the odd tip as they execute you mercilessly too.

We love refining bidding systems and thinking about the possibilities, even when some of them are not legal in most competition or likely to be illegal as soon as the technology is portable and practical enough, and it's great that the game is deep enough that there's always something new to learn about no matter what level you're at. I kind of enjoy it because I'm so bad at it in fact.

It's a marvellous game, and it's sad it seems to be on the decline.
posted by edd at 3:44 AM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I learnt to play bridge from my parents. Both of them, as well as my dad's side of the family, played pretty seriously before I was born. They stopped playing apparently, when I got to the age where I was extremely disruptive to card games, flinging their hands to the floor in a bid for attention.

Both my parents were/are in the Indian Administrative Service (the Indian equivalent of the British Civil Service) and have lots of great stories about playing bridge with their crusty superior officers, for some number of paisas per point. I think bridge fell out of fashion in India, as it did in the US, but I had been reading so much about it in novels set in the 20s that I bugged them into teaching me, and we had fairly regular family bridge sessions for a few years, though at a pretty casual level.

When my parents and I visited my uncle in New Zealand, we played bridge endlessly on our vacation, and ended up sparking an interest in at least one younger cousin. One night I was asked by my aunt to help get him to sleep, and instead of reading him a book, he wanted me to teach him bridge. I did, though I don't think that's quite what my aunt had in mind in terms of a bedtime routine.

I tried playing bridge with my husband's Belarussian grandmother. It's incredibly difficult to explain or play a game like bridge when you have no language in common.

Most recently in the US, I found a Boston-area bridge club that actually met regularly, and miracle of miracles, right near my apartment. I dragged my husband to one session. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, despite the president of the club instituting some rather strict rules about non-bridge related chatter, but my husband was turned off by the long list of bidding conventions they wanted us to memorize, so we never returned.

In short, bridge is great fun and I have lots of nostalgic family memories associated with it.
posted by peacheater at 3:53 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

My fathers usual response to whatever my mother was bidding at the time: JESUS CHRIST, JANIS. He didn't usually wait for the opponents to respond.

Your parents and my Mutti would have played well together. Did they also give each other the side eye when the other laid down, like, the two of trump, and defensively state, "Hey, this IS my highest card. I mean, I didn't bid them, you did!"

I would love to play bridge in person but everyone seems to take it SO SERIOUS. I want to play and crack jokes and get drunk at the same time, and I can't find an outlet for that except with my aunts. It's really all Mutti's fault, even as she would respond to our hijinks with an overly somber, "Look, no one will play with you if you don't shut up."

I miss Mutti. Big thanks to this thread for letting me indulge some grandma memories.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:52 AM on February 20, 2015

Bridge is how my dad ended up in Vietnam.
This is basically the plot of the title story in "Hearts in Atlantis" (except of course Hearts, not Bridge), a story so true that I thought I was there.

I was always told (by chess players) that I'd be good at bridge, but I think learning bridge is like learning a foreign language, which I'm not good at. I also have no card sense. I prefer games of perfect information.

My wife refused to try to learn, as bridge was associated with her parents' arguments and eventual divorce.
posted by MtDewd at 6:12 AM on February 20, 2015

Q: How is bridge like sex?

A: If you don't have a good partner, you'd better have a good hand.

(Yes, I have waited a very long time to have a relevant time to make that joke.)
posted by arcticwoman at 6:41 AM on February 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

Organized Bridge seems to have been "on the decline" for a long time. I haven't played in years and years, but I was an American Contract Bridge League Life Master when I left. I had an excellent partnership, but my partner moved away, and there wasn't anyone at the club that I really clicked with.

The legalism is also a very offputting thing. Everyone seems to think that everyone else is cheating, at least in the serious tournament environment. Some one accused us of cheating when my partner leaned back in his chair.
posted by Billiken at 6:42 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

But it comes with so much more irony flunking out of college playing Counterstrike and ending up in Afghanistan.

Remind me to tell you sometime about my roommate who flunked out of college playing X-COM.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:42 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think people are right about the difficulty of finding friendly games making it off-putting - at least, that's been true for me. For some reason, about 6 of my friends and I decided to teach ourselves bridge in high school, which made for great fun since we were all about equally as bad and we could almost always find 4 people willing.

Once one of those friends and I went to the nearby university to play in some kind of organized event/competition with their club, the kind where every table gets the same hand. My partner and I ended up declaring 2 spades, which we easily made, as all the surrounding tables declared and made 6. Whoops. People were kind about it, though.

I didn't play in another event, nor have I played since high school, because (perhaps unfairly) I'm either intimidated by the level of play in clubs, or get-togethers are explicitly for seniors (which I am not). Perhaps I should give the clubs another chance.
posted by scottcal at 7:19 AM on February 20, 2015

I wasted many delightful hours during grad school playing pinochle with a set of friends. We created our own rules for the game (no heteronormative pairings for us!) We decided we needed to level up to bridge and were in the process of learning it when 2 of our core members moved to New York (one of whom is an occasional mefite) and the effort sort of fell apart. I know the basics and enjoy the game but haven't had the time or social circle to play more.

I envision myself playing the hell out of it in my retirement years, though.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:50 AM on February 20, 2015

I played bridge a fair bit in the 1990s (I picked up a few master points, but never got close to Life Master). It can get obsessive, especially if you're playing in a tournament in which copies of the hands are made available right after the game is over. (There used to be a World-Wide Pairs tournament in early June, in which bridge clubs all over the world played the same hands - after the game, you got a printed booklet listing the hands and providing detailed analysis. Far freaking out.)

I stopped playing in tournaments because I didn't have the time or energy to learn bidding conventions in detail (which is what separates okay bridge players from really good bridge players) - in particular, I recall that I seemed to be neurologically incapable of learning the Lebensohl convention. Also, bridge players tended to be cranky, nitpicky, competitive type people who weren't much fun to hang out with. These days, I just play bridge on my iPad app (badly).

Even then, bridge was seen as dying out, as it was only played by older people. Unless there's been a lot of new blood lately, competitive bridge would be close to extinct by now.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 8:16 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

One more comment: some day, I want to try a variant of bridge that a friend told me about: it's the same as the regular game, except you are allowed a one-word description to go with each bid.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 8:22 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

RobotVoodooPower: "Remind me to tell you sometime about my roommate who flunked out of college playing X-COM."

I'm not sure you're allowed to reveal the location of Area 51.
posted by pwnguin at 8:40 AM on February 20, 2015

Bridge was huge with my parents and grandparents, and I really tried hard to learn. But you all aren't kidding that there's a learning wall. The game itself was easy enough - not so different from hearts, spades, and euchre.

But the bidding killed me. I never got the logic of bidding hearts to communicate to my partner that I had a moderate clubs hand which would be her trigger to bid spades ... or something like that. It just seemed to get so obtuse, like they all had a secret code that had slowly gotten so complicated that it made it impossible for new players to join.

I wonder if it had always been like that, or if the bidding had actually gotten more complex by the 1970s and '80s.

It did seem very social, though. Wednesday was Bridge night at our house, us kids would be in charge of cleaning up the ashtrays and restocking the bowls of mints and nuts, one grandmother would play and drink whiskey all weekend at the Women's Club, and the other grandparents wold play over martinis with their left wing cohorts. For me it's another marker of a lost world.
posted by kanewai at 9:40 AM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Now you're just making me feel old for no reason.

I grew up playing Bridge as the afternoon fourth for Mom, Grandma, and Great Aunt. I was like seven, they were chaining Carltons/drinking white wine like it was gonna be outlawed.

Aunty had zero patience for idiots, she'd been playing for decades at this point. Famous asides:

-"No Sphinx, you play this here."
-"What kind of bid is that? You have to have cards XYZ, if you don't you shouldn't bid anywhere near that."
-"Okay, what cards do I have now?"
- And my personal favorite, "You're nine now, you can remember which cards you've seen, don't fuck up like that again. Goddamit!"

Then she pinched my cheek.

Miss you, Dorothy.
posted by Sphinx at 7:30 PM on February 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

I played a bit for fun in university with the only other three people at the college who played, but dove in a little deeper when I turned 40, mostly to spend more time with my (divorced) parents so we could do things together besides the usual family gatherings. I get the way most players at tournaments focus on their master points, having gone through my share of obsessions in the past. But does anyone ever sit down and actually calculate the amount of money they have to shell out to earn each of those points? Conference-level hotels, air fare, restaurant meals. At that level bridge becomes a wealthy retiree's game. If there's no turnaround for Gens X or Y in the next 30 years or so, that alone will kill the game.
posted by morspin at 8:30 PM on February 20, 2015

I'm a librarian and people ask me where the bridge books are all the time. None of them are ever younger than, say, 65.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:47 PM on February 21, 2015

Although to be fair to bridge this is also true of most books at the library.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:50 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm also a librarian. I experimented with doing some bridge programs, and the average age of the attendees was at least 70. And, a lot of days, we were just, like, 'fuck it (okay, nobody said 'fuck it'), let's just play hearts (or spades, or gin, or etc.) instead.'
posted by box at 5:21 PM on February 21, 2015

I love bridge, though. Before Eurogames got big, I could've argued that bridge was the last table game to be both smart and very popular.
posted by box at 5:23 PM on February 21, 2015

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