Play Your Cards Right

Stuffy and middle-aged? Not any longer - bridge has come out of the suburbs and into the homes of the hip. And once they've tried it they're hooked. Kate Mulvey explains why
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The Independent Culture
The small club in West London is buzzing and a smattering of smart young things are knocking back Jack Daniels. A young trader sitting at a green felt table stubs out his tenth Marlboro Light and looks intently at the cards in his hand. "One heart", he says then his opponent comes in with two spades. Tense silence. He lights another cigarette, agrees the spade suit and raises her to four.

Bridge, it seems, is groovy. Just as golf was synonymous with middle- aged men in nasty Pringle jumpers until the Beastie Boys made it hip, this home counties card game is undergoing a similar image change. Blur, apparently, while away those post-gig hours bidding and bluffing. Angus Deyton, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Paxman and Clive Anderson are also fond of a game.

Like golf, bridge has come out of the suburbs and into the homes of trendy young urbanites. At the Harbour Club - favoured haunt of Princess Diana and Will Carling - many bankers and media types prefer to swap spades with total strangers than frequent the luxury gym. Enthusiasts talk about the "bridge high", and the "mental buzz". "Bridge is not a sex substitute, sex is bridge substitute," says Helen Knott, a 30-year-old researcher who learnt to play a year ago and has since become addicted.

Partly, she finds the game so compelling because of the personal dynamics. How well you get on with your bridge partner makes or breaks your game. "The partnership is as intimate as marriage. A mutual empathy is essential, even if they make mistakes you have to be sympathetic." Not always easy. "There have been shootings across the bridge table before," says Helen, who recounts the famous case of a wife shooting her husband during one game because he played so badly. In the end she was let off for manslaughter. The judge was sympathetic - he played bridge too.

For such an overtly cerebral game, players describe the game's "highs" in very physical, often extreme, terms. Julius Allcot, a 31-year-old interior designer, describes his hobby as a, "cerebral sex fest". He started to learn bridge a few months ago and now prefers to sit down to a few hours of Duplicate (a variety of a bridge game) than a night out getting drunk. "It's a great memory game but there is also a competitive aspect you have with your opponents. The combination of the two things make it quite addictive. But I think they should introduce a singles night for an added high."

Andrew Robson, 35, who runs a club for 20-something devotees and has also graced Harpers & Queen's most wanted list, explains: "A lot of people, especially in high-powered jobs are socialised out, and are looking for something different. Bridge challenges the brain, raises the heart beat and gives a big adrenaline high without the hangover."

Bridge has been played in its present form since the 19th century and really took off as a leisure pursuit in the 1920s. It was still viewed as a society game in the Fifties. By the Seventies, it had fallen from grace in fashionable circles even though the actor, Omar Sharif, also a professional player, tried to popularise it. Omar still plays seriously and today he's in London playing in the Macallan International Bridge Pairs Championship. As Bridge isn't a gambling game, it has never shared the same environment as poker, roulette or black jack and has seemed rather stuffy and unglamorous in comparison. But that is deceiving because bridge is just as cut-throat and competitive. International bridge players can win thousands of pounds in tournaments - several players have made multimillion pound fortunes from high-stake side games.

In terms of popularity, the game has also suffered because people fear it is too complex and inaccessible. The game is based on whist where one hand (the dummy) is exposed and the trump suit decided by bidding players. To make it more complicated there are four different types of bridge; contract, duplicate, rubber or auction. Robson insists it isn't as difficult as it sounds. "Sure you have to learn the rules but once you begin to get the hang of it, you realise it's a game of infinite possibilities. You're continually learning new things."

Robson, who started playing at the age of 12, opened his bridge club three years ago and now has over 1,000 members, most of whom are in their twenties and thirties. There are even classes for children. Next month he is moving to larger premises in Parsons Green to cater for the growing demand. "Instead of vegging out I invite a few friends around for a bottle of wine and a game of bridge. It's cheaper than a club and far more friendly", says Knott, who is convinced that playing Bridge is also the best way to date. "Instead of going through several disastrous dates to find out the guy is a total thicko, bridge weeds outs the brain deficients for you." Last year there were three marriages among the players at Robson's club. It's probably a better prospect for men since two thirds of Robson's club is female. "But women enjoy it because they work well in partnerships and are good at being intuitive about how the other plays," says Knott. Although it's becoming more fashionable, there is still the hardcore contingent, mainly men, who would probably scoff at the younger bridge dating set.

Down at the Chelsea Bridge Club in Earl's Court, the atmosphere is cut- throat and competitive. This is academic bridge, played by intense, pallid- looking men who rarely see the light of day because they play so much of it. This lot seem totally unaware of the bridge renaissance. Far from the bridge as sex kick, their sole desire is of becoming the next world bridge champion.

What they will most certainly be unaware of is the potential health benefits of this sedentary sport. According to American research, if the game is played regularly it prevents, or at least delays, the onset of memory loss and other symptoms of ageing. Which must be better news than going to the gym.

Andrew Robson Bridge Club, 333 Fulham Road. Tel: 0171-349 0512. For information on affiliated Bridge clubs call the English Bridge Union on 01296 394414