Life is a game, but bridge is serious (Part II)

April 24, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY TONYA BRAMLAGE – Bridge part II explores the rumors, intrigue, and little known nuances of game play here in Boca Grande.

In the 1940s, bridge was played in 44 percent of American homes according to the Association of American Playing Card manufacturers. In 1970, ACBL membership stood at 170,000. Today, that figure remains around the same. Peak age for a bridge player used to be the 40s and 50s; now it’s the 30s. Although, statistics show the average age for a member of the American Contract Bridge League, the games sanctioning body, is 67.

The analytical thinking required of bridge is unique to the human brain. Computers can beat the world’s best chess players, but not so in bridge. Bridge Base Online is played on a laptop or iPad and talking during game play is strictly forbidden. Online chat is enabled through the BBO site only. Cheating is a serious violation in the world of bridge. Bridge is played for no stakes other than “masterpoints,” a running tally of points that ranks players similarly to chess ratings. In the past, it took decades to play enough hands to encounter a myriad  of situations to become a Master player. But now, because of the convenience of playing on the Internet, amassing enough experiences takes only a fraction of the time it used to.

Masterpoints have been won and collected by some very noteworthy island bridge players. When Henry Francis du pont was not playing bridge in his private Chinese Chippendale parlor in Winterthur, he was playing at The Gasparilla Inn. Often, bridge is a featured activity at private social clubs, but in 1912 when The Gasparilla Inn opened high tea and afternoon bridge, both became established daily rituals there. Bridge is not just a time passing card game for the idle and aging, but rather a serious competitive pursuit for people whose experiences in life have them accustomed to winning. In fact, Florida is renowned for being one of the best places in the country to make a career of it.

With few exceptions, top players play with sponsors. Top teams at American tournaments consist of three pairs, or six players per team. Top sponsors pay upwards of $1 million dollars to field their own hand selected teams. Two of the best known, highest-paying sponsors are Frank T. Nickell, CEO of Kelso & Company and Jimmy Cayne former CEO of Bear Stearns. The tradition of sponsors in bridge dates back to the 1960s, when businessman Ira Corn grew intolerant of American bridge teams losing to Italian teams. Corn set up a practice regimen, hired coaches, and commissioned the best players money could buy to play with him. America’s tradition of sponsor-backed bridge now distinguishes itself from other top bridge countries like Italy, Poland and the Netherlands.

Bridge is a competitive and limitlessly complex game, involving an endless series of rapid short-and long-term calculations. Playing bridge with a partner who is better than you promotes learning how to keep up your end, and it makes the game more exciting.

One island club, founded by the late Anne Birgbauer, is called the Boca Grande Duplicate Bridge Club. They have met every Monday and Wednesday, from October through May, at 1 p.m. each week prior to the pandemic.

One thing is for certain, and that is the continual intrigue and allure playing a game of bridge in Boca Grande offers players both beginners and experts. Mostly, though, the nature of bridge presents an enduring intellectual challenge for players whose successes in life leave them seeking further and greater challenges.

Two of the games most famous devotees, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, are invested in efforts to cultivate and insure future generations of bridge players. But online bridge took on a new significance in 2020 as players suddenly had no place to play and clubs lost their income sources. Uday Ivatury’s nonstop work on the Bridge Base Online platform created an infrastructure for clubs to hold their regular games online. Nineteen years in the making, the virtual club program launched on March 25, 2020. Former Boca Grande Duplicate Bridge Club director Jay Whipple III worked as a collaborator on the project with Ivatury. Because of the virtual option, some clubs that were on the brink of collapse are now thriving again. 

For the uninitiated, bridge is just a four person trick game. In order to excel at the game, strong math skills, spatial relations skills, creativity, and stamina, are all necessary.

There are many bridge players who do not like online play for the lack of social contact, social contact is a serious and non-negotiable component of playing bridge for them. Some players maintain that online games have personal benefits and significantly impact the club’s viability, insisting that online play offers teaching and learning tools that do not exist in live play. They are serious about insuring the future of bridge by attracting new players to the game. Great bridge players are tenacious competitors and they are serious about the competition. Every bridge player lives to play and that is precisely why life is game and bridge is serious.

As a side note, rumor has it that Lana Turner once traveled to Boca Grande by way of her private yacht in search of an exclusive bridge venue. Whether or not she was able to play with her other famed colleagues before she managed to get her yacht stuck at the L dock still seems to be up for debate.