Monday, March 22, 2010

Charles Goren and the Bridge to the Future

Without looking up his name, how many of us have ever heard of Charles H. Goren, the man depicted on the cover of the September 28, 1958 issue of Time accompanying this post? Not many, I'd imagine and, if you're one of the few people who had heard of him before now, it's likely because you play or knew someone who played the card game Bridge.

A professional Bridge player, Goren was also an international celebrity during the 1950s. He wrote several books on Bridge, selling millions of copies. He also wrote a daily column devoted to the game that was syndicated in nearly 200 newspapers across the United States, in addition to columns on the same topic in McCall's and -- if you can believe it -- Sports Illustrated. And from 1959 to 1964, he hosted a TV show devoted to Bridge.

What's even more remarkable is that Goren wasn't unique in deriving his fame from being very good at a very difficult card game; during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, there were many popularly celebrated Bridge players, such as Ely Culbertson and Harold Vanderbilt. Tournaments in which they competed were covered in the newspapers and attracted crowds of spectators. During the years immediately before and after World War II, Bridge was a favored pastime throughout the Western world (and beyond). According to various histories of the game I've read, anywhere between 40 and 50% of American homes hosted Bridge games regularly during the late 1950s. Movie stars like Omar Sharif openly spoke of their passion for the game, as did President Dwight Eisenhower, who often played while at the White House. Fictional characters such as James Bond and Hercule Poirot were both noted Bridge aficionados too, as was Woodstock from Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip.

By the late 1960s, though, the bloom had come off the rose and Bridge ceased to be the broad popular entertainment it had been for several decades prior. No one knows precisely why this happened. There are a lot of theories, ranging from the difficulty in learning (let alone mastering) the game, the growing complexity of the bidding systems used in play, or the eternal claim that people no longer have the patience their ancestors once did. Whatever the reason, Bridge soon became, in the popular imagination, if not in reality, an "old person's game." Nowadays, if discussion of Bridge comes up at all, it's usually in the context of someone's grandparents playing it, despite the best attempts of avid players like billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill Gates to promote the game among young people by noting that
Unlike other games that you master and eventually quit playing because they no longer challenge you, Bridge is a game that offers continuous challenges, new situations to be analyzed every time you play and a complex and intriguing language to be learned and mastered.
There are likewise claims that Bridge playing helps develop better memories and stave off dementia in the elderly.

Millions of people still play Bridge today, but its glory days are long gone and, barring some unforeseen circumstance, it's not likely to ever again be the fad it once was. That doesn't prevent lovers of the game from continuing to enjoy it and to share their love with other players. Neither does it prevent their teaching the game to newcomers who've decided to participate in a hobby whose complexity (there are 635,013,559,600 possible hands in the game, plus a vast number of stratagems for using those hands) and subtlety make it difficult for computers to win against human opponents, as they regularly do in chess.

In short, Bridge is alive and well in 2010, played by millions across the globe and from all walks of life. Sure, it's faded from popular consciousness and is often ridiculed by people who don't understand it, but so what? The point of any hobby is personal satisfaction and enjoyment. So long as people continue to find the game fun, what difference does it make if it's played by just 4 people or 4 million?


  1. And let us not forget the controversy that erupted around Charles Stagley's monthly column, "Playing Bridge with Blue Film Co-eds".

  2. I played my way through University on Bridge (if not monetarily, at least significantly emotionally). Not only do I know who Goren was, but I also have read his classic treatise "Bridge Complete" (might have been the revised "New Bridge Complete" which Amazon tells me was published in '85).

    I don't get to play Bridge much with live players any more (perhaps once or twice a year), but I still get least a dozen hands in every few days thanks to my copy of Bridge Baron for the Mac.

    It's easily my most commonly played computer game.

  3. That column was like ruffing a diamond to get to partner's clubs! Nicely played - I think you make slam.

    - Ignatius

  4. I can't wait to roll into the RV park in 2020, find myself some geeky geezers and break out the dice.

  5. My wife and I once tried to teach ourselves the game using instructions found online. I likened the complexity to a group of kids with no prior knowledge of RPGs trying to teach themselves AD&D using only the 1e DMG.

    And then my wife asked why I have to relate everything to D&D.

  6. Indeed my granddad had quite the taste for bridge... didn't do much to stave off dementia though...

  7. Nobody in my family ever played it. Probably because it was so boring.

  8. My mother was part of a bridge club until the early 80s. Bridge night regularly rotated among the members houses. I remember about once every night the card tables went up and the downstairs was packed.

    When I first got into D&D, wargaming, and all that, my mother noticed and questioned me about it. My mother is a smart lady and pretty tolerant but she rolled her eyes at the fantasy aspects. She found it rather silly especially for a teenager.

    One time we had a debate about it I pointed out her bridge club and like bridge it something that friends do together. She admitted that I had a point although she still found the fantasy stuff a bit silly.

  9. But how will the bridge industry continue to feed their families without a steady stream of supplements and new editions? And surely the hobby will suffer terribly if the industry suffers.


    (One of my RPG groups also played bridge regularly for a while.)

  10. My American grandmother loved bridge(and all card games) and she and my grandfather played different card games frequently while they were still alive.
    It seemed to keep them mentally alert in their later years. I don't think it's a guarantee that playing complicated card games will stave off Alzheimers or dementia, but the current research suggests it will help!

  11. I don't get to play Bridge much with live players any more (perhaps once or twice a year), but I still get least a dozen hands in every few days thanks to my copy of Bridge Baron for the Mac.

    Being a bridge player comes in handy when you want to crush Euchre or Spades players at their own game. My family still plays whenever we get together.

  12. And let us not forget the controversy that erupted around Charles Stagley's monthly column, "Playing Bridge with Blue Film Co-eds".

    To use the common idiom, I see what you did there.

  13. Great point James.

    And it ties into your point and my point about D&D being kiddified.

    I learned to play Bridge (including knowing who Goren is) because my parents and grandparents did it. It was what the grown-ups did while the kids were left to their own devices in the other other.

    D&D could have been in the same place as Bridge and I see in the OSR (due to its timing) a chance to do it again. While the recent TARGA brouhaha makes me wonder if we're going to blow it again for the same reasons I think we won't.

  14. Both my parents and my in-laws have mentioned in passing that they should teach my wife and me how to play Bridge. They never seem to get around to it. My parents have been part of the same Bridge club for over 25 years.

    I play Euchre all the time with my in-laws, and my family's card game of choice is a Canasta variant called Hand and Foot. Hearts is my favorite, but no one will play with me; everyone thinks it's a "mean" game.

  15. I believe Gygax was a huge fan of bridge.

    Based upon my parent's experiences playing against friends, Bridge might have declined in popularity as a result of all the arguments between spouses it caused.

    wv - consing - the art of surreptitiously sending unspoken commands across the kitchen table to your bridge partner.

  16. I remember that my grandmother had a computer (an old PCjr that one of her sons no longer needed) and used it only for the bridge game she enjoyed.

    I played it a little when I was younger and was hanging around her apartment at times - I don't remember the details, but it was fun.

  17. Technically, Bridge isn't "new". The fad was taking an obscure game and making it popular. Variations of bridge started as early as the 1700s.

    The problem is RPGs are a different animal. You can't really compare them to Bridge or Chess or other rather simplistic games. All you need is a set of cards or a chess board to play bridge or chess.

    The wide variety of rules and settings preclude this. People want more. Heck, the OSR wants more. The RPG is more of a published entity rather than a simple game.

    So, just making some statements about the glory days of bridge being gone will not likely be the same thing that happens to D&D or the RPG in general. If anything the OSR is more akin to a bridge culture that will only play on a certain type of table with a certain type of cards that are no longer being manufactured, and it is likely the "Renaissance" part of the OSR is just the interest from some die hards and some people nostalgic for their teenage days. Otherwise, the OSR fans would not be so widely trying to promote the "old ways". We'll have to get to 2020 to see if it stays as potent as it is.

    To be honest, if you truly think the game should be like bridge, what will happen is, like bridge, the game will mutate, evolve, devolve, permutate, etc. Bridge game from Wist and other games. So in this sense, the mainstream RPG market is probably what will happen to D&D or RPGs in general. I have a feeling that the better analogy for the OSR is that they are doomed to be similar to the people who rejected the newer forms of bridge for the older.

    Not that I want to start a flame war with OSR fans, but I do think there's a little too much talk akin to "the industry should die in a fire so we can get back to promoting the old ways". Many of the most popular board games exist because there is at least a minimal industry to provide games like Monopoly, Risk, etc.

  18. Growing up in 60s/70s suburbia, my parents and their friends were crazy for bridge... and high balls. They were too Catholic to take it up a notch and go all key party though.

    My grandparents, on the other hand, were huge Mahjong fans, which was very Brooklyn.

    I think I prefer Mahjong.

  19. Great article!!! I knew immediately who Goren was - I learned to play Bridge from my parents, and both they (Boomers) and my grandparents (Greatest) were avid bridge players in their day. I don't get to play as often as I'd like (what with kids and all), but I enjoy it when I do. Often when I attend a Bridge club or tourney I am, at age 38, amongst the youngest players there. I used to worry that when I was older, with the kids out of the house and finally time to play, there would be no one left to play with. This is a concern which has been shared by the Bridge community at large for a time. However, what their demographic studies have shown is that, while the average age of bridge players is somewhere around 63 years of age, a large influx of older Americans (Bridge is actually still very popular among the younger set in places like China) keeps the game going. Right now, folks like my dad who practically majored in Bridge in college, but who gave up the game upon graduation, are once again returning to the game. I think this model could be very instructive for the OSR. In my social circle I know many people who used to RPG 'back in the day', some of whom still have their tattered copies of AD&D or share roleplaying 'war' stories. A lot of these folks have kids who are or soon will be of the proper age to teach gaming to. This demographic is ripe for picking for the OSR - it's the system they grew up on, one they can still enjoy once the kids are older or out, and some of them even have the necessary equipment, picking up right where they left off 20-odd years ago, and without a large capital outlay or learning a whole new system. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see a legion of 40/50 somethings coming back into the game with their teenage kids.

  20. I think the key to teaching RPGs to the younger crowd is fine for the OSR, but I think there are a few things to keep in mind.

    1) By the time kids get to be the RPG age, assuming teen, they will have a usual natural desire to reject the parent. This means the parents stuff is not likely to be seen as "cool" to the kids. Anybody who's a parent definitely understands this.

    2) The key thing is to first and foremost get them to like tabletop gaming. I have a feeling that whole hobby could end up having a hard time competing with computer games.

    3) The key thing is to make sure the kids have fun, rather than whether or not they play your style of game or not. The last thing I'd ever want is for the OS fans to seem like those parents who want the kids to play because of the parent's desire, and not the kids.

  21. I've never actually tried Bridge, and don't know anyone who cares about the game. I haven't learned Backgammon yet either though. (I may have played them on that DS boardgame collection but never actually "understood" them enough to say I played em.)

    I do love the HELL out of Spades with full bidding rules in effect though. I think the only XBox 360 game I spent any time at all playing online was Spades.

    But Bridge in its heyday is just Texas Hold Em now. A game that somehow gets into the popular mindset and for a while everyone is gaga for it. Except Hold Em is pretty simple and IMHO one of the worst Poker variants.

    Also its a gambling game and wasting money in the dreams of making money doesn't ever go out of style to the point some cultures could be considered to have gambling problems.

    (I work at a casino. I see it all first hand. Also Hold Em is nowhere near as popular as it used to be. A prime example of fad in action.)

    Are RPGs in that fad thing? Yes, and no.

    Obviously the 80s probably can't be repeated. Times have changed and there are too many other diversions, most of which kick dealing with RPGs in the pants.

    I may be tooting my own horn, but I have gotten "Best Roleplayer" awards at convention games, have had multiple people tell me I am their favorite GM.


    I haven't actually had an RPG session of any kind in 9 months, and its been well over a year since I had anything resembling a campaign or a game group for a campaign.

    I don't want to play D&D 4th edition PERIOD, and my experiences with White Wolf LARPing have soured me to even playing their games sit down.

    I just can't find a damned group of gamers. Doesn't matter if its pickup type hobby games, RPG campaigns, or whatever.

    Players Wanted posters, using player locators, Facebook, Yahoo Groups, game specific REGIONAL PLAYERS HERE boards.

    No gaming go.

    So.. I have mostly quit buying RPGs, and am dropping tabletop purchases to well under a third of what I usually spend in a year. (Im guessing I was dropping close to 2000 a year on hobby games. I am limiting myself to a G, and trying for 750 or even 500 by counting up every purchase.)

    I look at new games and think "I will NEVER EVER get to play this. So why even bother? I can save money or buy something that WILL be utilized like a video game or a book or a movie. "

    Gaming requires people. People who all WANT to find other people to game with, who get along, who all have the same available schedule, and who are all willing to play the same game with the same style of play.

    Gaming requires too much out of people to the point I am sure many just gave up bothering like I am close to.

    Why spend all this time and effort to play a game, much less learn it and spend money on it when its probably going nowhere anyhow?

    I can just drive 10 minutes to Target, Wal Mart, or Gamestop, grab a 10-30 dollar budget game and get dozens of hours of fun without having to hope other people are social, available, and interested enough to play?

  22. Great article, James, and great comments.

    I think that Peanuts panel was used a couple of times as a punch line. The one I can remember off the top of my head, more or less: "Here's the WWI Flying Ace returning to the aerodrome. His flight crew will be anxiously awaiting his arrival."

  23. I'm a passionate devotee of card games. Although most specifically poker, that still allows me to say that, yes: I know about Goren. And probably have for some time longer than you, J.M. :)

    That being said, I agree with the conclusions you drew here. 100%.

  24. Bridge used to be a stupid game. You could get hosed through no fault of your own just because you got a bad hand. Letting players pick their hands makes much more sense.

  25. The computer version is probably the main way that people play Freecell these days...

  26. JRT: “The problem is RPGs are a different animal. You can't really compare them to Bridge or Chess or other rather simplistic games. All you need is a set of cards or a chess board to play bridge or chess.

    The wide variety of rules and settings preclude this. People want more. Heck, the OSR wants more. The RPG is more of a published entity rather than a simple game.

    See, that is exactly one of the things I keep trying to say. For some of us, RPGs are simple games. 128 pages of rules or 64 pages of rules or 6 pages of rules or—sometime—as few as 1 page of rules + dice.

    Just because a few people want to keep buying rule add-ons and settings and adventures—even within the OSR—doesn’t mean that defines the hobby. One end of the continuum naturally has a lot of squeaky wheels. I, for one, occasionally try to be a squeaky wheel for the other—naturally quieter—end.

    JRT: “I have a feeling that whole hobby could end up having a hard time competing with computer games.

    I’ve had that feeling myself, but I have to bow to my experience. (Anecdotal evidence ain’t as good as real evidence, but it’s all I have to go on.) Every month I see things that tell me that this “can’t compete with computer/console games” thought doesn’t hold water.

    Captain Rufus: “Gaming requires people. People who all WANT to find other people to game with, who get along, who all have the same available schedule, and who are all willing to play the same game with the same style of play.

    That first sentence implies: Gaming requires compromises. The people in both my groups make compromises in order to make the game happen. They alter their schedules when possible. They play a game that may not be their favorite and get the opportunity to play their favorite in return. They adjust their styles. (And frankly, I think my groups are richer for having people with different preferences coming together.)

    Other people make even bigger compromises: They play via IM or e-mail because they don’t currently have other options.

    One of my groups is all newbies except me. (And all World of Warcraft players no less.) ((And they’re enjoying classic D&D.)) You don’t always have to depend upon finding veterans looking for a group.

    Captian Rufus: “Why spend all this time and effort to play a game, much less learn it and spend money on it when its probably going nowhere anyhow?

    Don’t spend money. You don’t have to spend a lot to get enough material to play for a good long while. Heck, these days you could get into the hobby without spending any money except for the Internet connection most people already have.

    And no need to buy stuff when you don’t have an immediate use for it either.

    I’ve been through a couple of gaming droughts myself. Maybe—for you—it is time to give up on the hobby. I’d like to encourage you, however, that your current situation isn’t endemic for the hobby, and—if you don’t give up hope—things will probably turn around for you eventually.

  27. Nice post. I'm a young'n but I grew up knowing Goren's name and his books (at least their covers!).

    My wife's family is hardcore about bridge - her dad was maybe a ranked player in Poland, back in the day? - and it's anything but boring. Indeed it's the rare game that's immensely complicated, complex in an interesting way, and straightforward enough for n00bs to enjoy it all at once.

    Capt. Rufus sez: "I've never actually tried Bridge, and don't know anyone who cares about the game." I knew many, many, many people who played it in college - but then it was a Tech school, full of math-y folks who liked structured interactions.

    None of my casual acquaintances play D&D; this is not evidence that no one plays it. ('Duh.')

  28. It is very easy to state that the game of bridge is the most fiendish, Machiavellian evil ever created by the human mind.

    A deck of 52 playing cards is divided into 4 suits of 13 cards each, named spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs. If you take the number 10 and enlarge it by placing 28 zeroes after it, you will know how many ways cards can be dealt into hands of 13 cards each at the table. The first named player, the dealer, can receive any one of 635 billion different hands.

    Bridge is a partnership game; it is absolutely verboten to lye to your partner, but of excellent form to lye to your opponents within the rules of the game; regardless, situations can prevail that you must resort to lying to your partner. Bridge is a fun game.

    Bridge demands that you become skilled in the art of 'inference and deduction'; you must become expert at the Boolean logic of asking and answering the "what ifs".

    When you have retrained your mind to the discipline of the foregoing, you will have found that a 3 hour session of bridge has caused a complete removal from your mind of all your other worldly cares, aches and pains. For many, bridge is a very refreshing pastime.

    Churchill and Eisenhower played bridge together quite frequently; it was their counter-balance and escape from the burdens thrust upon them in World War II.

    Bridge teaches you to think and, for this reason, has been a subject of compulsory study in the school systems in China for at least 30 years. We have fallen far behind. It should be compulsory in our schools too.

    Auction was a very simple form of the game up to about 1915 when a much more interesting and challenging form called "contract" bridge was introduced. Vanderbilt became an immediate aficionado of contract and was one of the best of all players. The natives were restless as they were using auction bridge rules for the contract game and they weren't happy.

    In 1925, Vanderbilt, on a sea cruise in the middle of the Panama Canal, had a new idea and the scoring rules that we use today for our modern game of contract bridge were created. Auction bridge was swept into utter oblivion. VANDERBILT DID NOT INVENT CONTRACT BRIDGE AS SOME WOULD HAVE YOU THINK.

    Vanderbilt was a creator and a thinker. He knew that many bridge hands were very difficult to bid, and in 1928 he offered us a new way of bidding and describing our hands to our partners, the Vanderbilt Club. It was the worlds first forcing club bidding system, and has been with us in one form or another ever since.

    Prior to WW II there were no open style world championship competitions. Since WW II the world championships have been perennially dominated by forcing club bidding systems.

    Goren was one of a 4 or 6 man team that won the championship i year only. He was educated as a lawyer at McGill University and became a professional bridge player. The point count tactic of hand evaluation that he popularized was created by Bryant McCampbell of St. Louis, Mo. in 1915.

    There is no desire to digress at length, but it can easily be shown that Gorens propaganda set the world of bridge players back many years. Even today, new students become mis-educated on the game due to the hang over from his preachments. Gorens opinions are not used in the bidding systems of expert players. Goren died as a penniless alcoholic.

    By the end of WW II, it has been estimated there were more than 10 million bridge players in the U.S., and there has been a great reduction in the games population. However, except in large areas of the western states, it is almost difficult to be as much as an hour away from a bridge club, where a very enjoyable 3 hours of fun and social interaction await you. No thought is ever given to the color of your skin or religion; do you play bridge is the only thing that counts.

  29. I am about your age, James, perhaps just a bit older. While my mother enjoyed the new video and computer games that were coming out when I was a child, my stepfather just found them baffling. He didn't see why people found playing them fun.
    Until my mother found the perfect game for him: a cartridge for the Atari (later called the Atari 2600, but at that point Atari had only one product) that would play Bridge.
    Freed from the need to find three other people to play with, he spent hours entranced in front of the TV.