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The development of Bridge – a brief history

Bridge first seems to have appeared in the 1860s among Greek, Armenian, and Russian communities of traders and diplomatic officials in Turkey and other regions of the Eastern Mediterranean.  It combined features of the traditional game of English whist and other related games, particularly the Russian yeralash.

The game was at first called Biritch (an old Russian word for announcer).  The first known description of the game, entitled “Biritch, or Russian Whist” was printed in London in 1886.  However, by 1886, and possibly earlier, in the clubs of Constantinople where it had become the main game, the name had already been shortened to ‘brich’ or ‘britch’ and then anglicised to ‘bridge’[i].

The game began attracting significant interest in the card playing and gentlemen’s clubs of Paris, London and New York between 1892 and 1894[ii].  By 1898 it had become something of a craze in broader upper and upper middle class society.  Women, in particular, took up the game in large numbers.

At this stage, the main differences between bridge and standard whist were that the dealer (or his or her partner) chose trumps, there was a dummy[iii], no-trumps could be bid,  the suits were given different values and there was doubling and redoubling.  But there was no bidding, which was already a feature of some of the European whist games.

The move to include bidding in bridge began at the end of the nineteenth century, at the same time as the original game was achieving broader popularity.  It took root very quickly.  By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century bridge with bidding – known as auction bridge – had almost completely supplanted the original game.

Auction bridge was the dominant form of the game for around 25 years.   During this time there were significant changes in the bidding and scoring which remain features of modern bridge but there was one more stage yet to come – contract bridge.

The contract principle – missing from auction bridge –  is that you only get the bonus for the game if you actually bid it.  Just as auction bridge developed early in the history of original bridge, contract bridge was not long in appearing.  As with its predecessors, it is not clear who started it.  It is likely that there were experiments in different places that gradually coalesced.[iv]  The first use of the term in print, by the French player, Pierre Bellanger, appeared in 1914. It began attracting serious attention during the first world war – to the point where efforts were made in 1917 to establish standard laws.

The laws though did not eventuate with the result that through the 1920s there were a number of different scoring systems in use.  At the national level, the main systems were the French, the Canadian and, after 1925, the American put together by Harold Vanderbilt.

At first, contract was dominant only in France, where it became known as bridge plafond (‘ceiling’).  In the UK until the late 1920s it was a niche activity confined to a few clubs.  In the USA it took off largely after 1927 thanks initially to the social imprimatur of Harold Vanderbilt, the appeal of his variant of the scoring system and the marketing genius of Ely Culbertson, who took the game well beyond the elite to the broader American and European middle classes.

The beginning of the end of different scoring systems came in 1929 when the British custodian of the laws, the Portland Club, adopted the Vanderbilt scoring, amid much controversy.  Plafond continued as a separate game for some time but eventually most French players also moved to the by-now standard ‘American scoring’.

Auction bridge proved very resilient.  It remained a popular variant, played largely in social settings for many decades after the introduction of contract.  However, in the world of bridge clubs, it lacked the appeal of contract – and contract had the marketing of Culbertson. In most places, by the mid-1930s auction had ceased to be the game played in competition.

There was, as the development of bridge, has shown, room for only one game at the top and this was contract – a position, which it has kept until now.

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[i] Many other explanations have been given for the origin of the name but it is difficult to find any reason to support them in the light of the evidence about biritch and its abbreviation.

[ii] Many accounts credit Lord Brougham with introducing bridge to England.  In the light of other accounts of the game being played or talked about, this is highly unlikely to be the case.  He did though certainly introduce it to the Portland Club.  As this was the most influential club in England in the world of cards, he would definitely have played a very significant ‘tipping point’ role that led to the game’s wider adoption.

[iii] Whist – known as ‘dummy whist’ had been played with a dummy and was popular in France in the 19th century.  However, in England it tended to be played only when a fourth player was not available.

[iv] Contrary to many published accounts, Harold Vanderbilt did not invent contract bridge in 1925, unless one takes the view that his variant of the scoring constituted invention of an entirely new game.  There is evidence to suggest that the concept of vulnerability (but not the name) had previously been adopted and then discarded in France.  Regardless, it is certain that, like Lord Brougham earlier, Vanderbilt played a very significant ‘tipping point” role and that the scoring system he popularised had a major impact on how contract is played.