London 2012: let the mind games begin

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The Independent Online

So, is bridge really sport? Most of the 1,700 players who gathered in Brighton last week, filling every hall, meeting room and overflowing on to the balconies at the Metropole Hotel in Europe's largest annual bridge festival, the 38th English Bridge Union summer congress, will argue that it is. Former judo international Terry Collier, recruited from the Amateur Boxing Association of England to fight bridge's corner as the chief executive of the governing body, confesses he had to become a convert to the cause. "When I first joined the EBU four years ago, in my mind there was no way bridge was a sport. But the more I got into it the more I became convinced that it is.

"If you accept the argument that sport is as much about thinking and using the brain, not merely running around and kicking a ball, then you can understand how mind games like bridge and chess require similar strategies. The brain can be just as important as the legs in any sporting activity, whether it is boxing or badminton."

Even so, the public image of bridge remains resolutely redolent of Earl Grey and cucumber sandwich soirées for the blue rinse and blazer brigade. "Yes, there's a great social side to bridge," says Collier, "as there is with many sports. But there are also intense levels of competition, from beginners to world championship level, and when you consider that a top international tournament can last for 10 days you can appreciate that as much mental and physical endurance is required as it would be for any athlete."

As far as Olympic recognition is concerned, bridge is already there - in theory, anyway. The World Bridge Federation are affiliated to the IOC, and bridge has already been an exhibition sport, in Salt Lake City.

This was at a time when the IOC were considering "beefing up" the Winter Games by including non-winter indoor sports, even moving boxing and basketball from the summer schedule. But this was resisted by the sports, and in any case to do so the IOC would have to change the Olympic Charter, which decrees that all winter activities must take place on snow or ice. So that idea has been shelved. But the prospect of a Mind Games Olympics run in conjunction with a Summer Games, like the Paralympics, is now on the table, so to speak. The IOC and the newly formed Mind Games Federation are together exploring the possibility, with London 2012 as the most likely target.

Bridge, chess, Go (the board-based "war game" evolved 3,000 years ago in China and now used in Japan as part of that country's judo training), Scrabble, billiards and dominoes could take the London stage after the running, jumping and throwing show is over. Should they include poker there would be an appropriate venue in the casino of the redeveloped Millennium Dome.

Yet while Sport England have fallen over themselves in the name of political correctness to recognise darts as a full-blown sport, they decline to build bridges with bridge. "For some reason they seem terrified of us," says Collier. "Many activities want to be recognised as sports to get Lottery funding, and obviously there is concern that there is not enough money to go round. But we are not asking for money, we are asking for recognition. Financially we are quite secure."

One argument against recognising bridge's sporting qualities has been that supposedly it does not offer anything in the way of promoting health. Wrong, insists Collier. "It has been proved to aid mental alertness and helps stave off Alzheimer's. We have people playing into their nineties, some even over 100. It keeps the mind razor sharp.

"But the people who become professional bridge champions are the same as any sport - prepared to put their time and dedication into training. Clearly it is an advantage if your mathematical skills are good, which is why it is now taught and played in around 350 schools, as well as many colleges and universities."

Down in Brighton, every table is taken at the Metropole until this evening, when the tournament finishes. In all some 30,000 computer-dealt games will have been played over 10 days, including a men's and women's international between England and Holland, warm-up matches for October's World Championships in Estoril.

Competitors range from the 80-year-old former world champion Tony Priday to 13-year-old Shivam Shah. Many believe that, given the chance, he could be the Amir Khan of bridge, a British superstar of the Mind Games Olympics in 2012. If he plays his cards right.