3 Surprising Things You Need to Know About Bridge — Yes, Bridge

When you think of bridge, do you think of: (a) the 1940s; (b) tennis-great Martina Navratilova; (c) Peanuts‘ Snoopy; (d) Bill Gates; (e) Mahatma Gandhi; (f) James Bond; and/or (g) the 21st century?

You’re not wrong. On any count.

The four-player, two-team strategy card game was a pop-culture phenomenon of the World War II era, when, per a statistic cited by the New York Times, nearly half of all U.S. households boasted a bridge player. Its fans include real-life notables, past and present, as well as literary figures such as Charlie Brown’s dog and super-spy 007. And, yes, it’s absolutely still a thing. The American Contract Bridge League, which bills itself as the largest bridge organization in the world, currently boasts more than 165,000 members. The number of total players worldwide has been pegged at 220 million.

Here are three things you should know about the game that doesn’t quit — and the enthusiasts who can’t quit the game.

1. It may be your shot at the Olympics.

Though bridge involves four people — yourself, your partner and your opposing duo — who shuffle playing cards while seated around a four-corner table, it’s been recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

According to the Swiss-based International Mind Sport Association, bridge, along with chess, draughts (Euro-speak for checkers), the ancient board-game Go and the Chinese chess-like game Xiangqi, are mind sports — games of competition that rely on skill, as opposed to luck, and do “not rely on equipment provided by a single supplier.” (Sorry, Scrabble and Risk.)

The International Mind Sport Association’s mission is to make bridge and its other member games medal events at the Olympics. (Both bridge and chess made plays for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games; they didn’t make the cut.) Bridge enjoyed a breakthrough this past summer when it made its debut as a sport at the IOC-recognized 2018 Asian Games.

In a piece for the British newspaper, the Independent, professional bridge player Heather Dhondy argued that bridge at the international level is an “extreme test of concentration, stamina and mental deduction,” and more than worthy of an Olympic moment.

“A player will typically be expected to maintain this level of concentration for up to nine hours a day for [up to two weeks]. In order to be able to achieve this, a certain amount of physical fitness is a prerequisite,” Dhondy wrote. “The days of competitive bridge players sitting in a smoke-filled room with a whisky by their side are gone, if ever they existed.”

2. It can be an enriching experience — literally.

Since peaking popularity-wise in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, bridge has had its comeback moments, including in the mid-2000s, not long after bridge was featured at an IOC event in the run-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. More durably, the game has carved out a niche among those in the financial community, from Wall Street bankers to world-famous billionaires.

At one point, according to a 2011 Business Insider report, the top three ranked U.S. bridge players were, in descending order: “a former options trader,” “a former commodities trader” and “an investment advisor.”

“Bridge is a complex card game that fits the analytic side of finance, as poker appeals to instincts,” Gus Lubin wrote for Business Insider.

A 2017 Washington Post column profiled two of bridge’s biggest enthusiasts in the United States, Microsoft founder Bill Gates (estimated worth: $97 billion) and investor Warren Buffett (estimated worth: $88.3 billion), as well as the bridge champion who tutors them. The tutor, Sharon Osberg, is (what else?) a former banking executive.

The banking-bridge link is not just a U.S. phenomenon: In August, 78-year-old Indonesian mogul Michael Bambang Hartono (estimated worth: $11.7 billion) helped his country score a bronze medal in bridge at the Asian Games.

Hartono has no doubt the game of bridge is a bridge to greater things — and greener pastures.

“If you want to be a good leader and a successful man, play bridge,” Hartono said, per the BBC.

3. It’s brain food.

While few like to be reminded to eat their broccoli, some of the health- and well-being-related research on bridge-playing is undeniably tasty.

A 2000 preliminary study by a renown University of California, Berkeley brain researcher, for instance, showed a link between bridge play and a boosted immune system. The scientist focused on bridge players because she believed the game, which involves keeping mental notes on cards in play, to be a prime brain-stimulator.

“Bridge players plan ahead, they use working memory, they deal with sequencing, initiation and numerous other higher order functions with which the dorsolateral cortex is involved,” the late biologist Marian Cleeves Diamond said at the time.

A University of California, Irvine, neurologist told the New York Times that bridge basically offers the two things that science has long shown we need to remain sharp as we age: a stimulating brain experience, and, owing to the game’s pairs-vs.-pairs set-up, social interaction.

And the science just isn’t on the side of mature bridge players. A study by a former board member of the American Contract Bridge League Educational Foundation showed students who played bridge scored higher on standardized tests than those who didn’t play bridge.

Warren Buffett may not be a scientist himself, but he’s offered his own conclusions on the game he loves: “It’s the best exercise there is for the brain.”