Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
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Are young people starting to swap nightclubs for bridge clubs? The English Bridge Union has excitedly reported this week that the number of under-25s playing has more than tripled over the past three years. Can it be that granny's favourite card game is suddenly becoming cool?

It might be considered misleading if we don't mention that these figures are not exactly threatening the business of more hedonistic establishments just yet; whereas the Union had 106 younger members in 2012, as of this year, it boasts 344. Still, it's an upswing.

Until now probably the raciest thing about the game was Mae West's quip that good bridge is like good sex: "If you don't have a good partner, you'd better have a good hand." But after that you're really grasping for cultural relevance outside of an Agatha Christie novel.

This isn't poker, with its big cash prizes and flashy televised Las Vegas roundtables. Poker has Leonardo DiCaprio and Rafael Nadal. Bridge has Warren Buffett and Martina Navratilova. So why are (a few) more young people suddenly electing to spend their Saturdays dealing, bidding, playing and scoring?

 

Alan Shillitoe, the 39-year-old coach of the England Under-25s, believes that people have the wrong idea about the game.

"I know bridge has this reputation for being about old ladies eating cake in a kitchen, but in reality that's as close to the international game as kids kicking a ball around is to the World Cup," he says. "It's incredibly exciting; chess is a game of spatial reasoning and logic, and poker is a game of psychology and bluff. Bridge sits somewhere between the two."

The benefits to the elderly are well publicised: bridge stimulates the brain and helps keep the memory active. So I ask Shillitoe what young people might get out of it.

"It involves lateral thinking, psychology and mathematics. Every element of your mental skills will be tested," he says.

I'm not convinced that Shillitoe is quite in tune with what young people consider a good time. If I was to hazard a guess, it would be that the recent return to twee hobbies such as crocheting, boules and badminton has also been good news for bridge.

When she's not studying for a degree in chemistry, 19-year-old Laura Covill plays bridge for the England Under-20s. She is well aware that the game still has something of an image problem. After starting to play with her father when she was eight, she joined her secondary school's bridge club.

"There were just eight of us. I wouldn't say that it was viewed negatively but it certainly was never popular. It was seen as a slightly quirky thing to be doing," she offers.

Covill suggests that the rise of online bridge might help explain the resurgence among the young. She plays with friends on the internet every day.

"You can teach yourself to an extent online, although that does ruin the social aspect of the game," she points out.

Learning the rules, it seems, has previously been one of the main barriers for younger people. Beginner courses tend to be between six and eight weeks long and cost roughly a couple of hundred pounds. It's not quite the same as a PS4, but it's close enough. Now, though, they can find plenty of tuition online for free.

Shillitoe has also been an advocate of a new, stripped-down version of the game that the EBU introduced a few years ago in the hope of attracting some younger players.

"It can be an intimidating game and there is a lot to pick up straight away that puts people off," he says. "This easier version means you can get involved with playing much quicker."

So it would appear that the considerable rule book that accompanies bridge is the very thing hampering its further growth. But perhaps the clubs should look to poker for guidance and swap the Victoria sponge for Havanas, the Tetley for a bottle of Makers Mark, and who knows what might happen? At least young people would stick around to learn the game.

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