Bridge History

Chris HasneyHistory icon

Originally published: 2008-11-03

This is an excerpt adapted from my unfinished work Simplicity Bridge.

The card game of Bridge traces its roots to Whist, which was popular in Europe as early as the 1500s. Card play itself goes back even farther, to the 10th century in China. Decks of cards containing kings, queens, and jacks came to Europe from the Moslem world in the late 1300s. Suits such as spades, hearts, etc. were added by the French about a century or so later. Bridge whist evolved in the 1800s, and this allowed the dealer to choose the trump suit or permit his partner to do so. The concept of having no trump suit was added at this time. Dealer’s partner placed his hand on the table for dealer to play, thus becoming “dummy”. All of this was in place by 1886.

Bridge Whist morphed into Auction Bridge around 1904, when the idea of having a competitive auction to decide the contract and the declarer was added. The object of the game was still to take as many tricks as possible, but penalties were added for failure to make the contract. Game and slam bonuses could be earned even if they were not bid. Thus, buying the auction at the lowest level possible was a good idea.

On a cruise through the Panama Canal in 1925 Harold Stirling Vanderbilt set forth the rules for the modern game of Contract Bridge, borrowing concepts from a French version of the game. Vanderbilt’s version mandated that only tricks that a side agreed to take during the auction count toward game and slam bonuses. Additional tricks which were not part of the contract count only their normal value. The “Commodore” also added the vulnerability component, and made some changes to the scoring system. As a result of these changes Contract Bridge was popularized to the extent that it swept the country, and the word “Bridge” became synonymous with the contract rather than auction version. From high society to steelworkers to actors and grips, virtually everyone played bridge. Some even played it well. Names you might recognize would include President Dwight Eisenhower, Playboy Enterprises founder Hugh Hefner, comedian George Burns, actor Omar Sharif, and basketball star Wilt Chamberlain.

© 2008 Chris Hasney