Liam Downer-Sanderson is a graduate of Georgetown University and a former local council candidate.
In July, the Prime Minister announced a new £500,000 fund to support the England chess teams and the teaching of chess in state schools. This is an excellent initiative that will provide a needed boost to English chess by improving accessibility to the game, particularly among children in the state education system.
In an environment where younger generations are spending excessive time endlessly scrolling through social media, the Government is right to support games like chess which offer young people a more intellectually stimulating alternative to TikTok. But why stop at chess, particularly when bridge has more to offer its players?
Similar to chess, bridge is a game of logic, probability, and memory. However, a defining characteristic of bridge is that it is always played in partnership. Given the complex social and emotional interactions between each player and their partner, and between players and their opponents, bridge offers the opportunity to develop cooperative skills and build emotional intelligence.
Professor Samantha Punch at Sterling University explores the benefits of bridge in ‘Bridge: A Mindsport for All’, a research-led project. In an interview with 52 elite players, “a frequently reported benefit was the personal enrichment that results from the multi-faceted and challenging nature of the game.” Furthermore, “the players described how their everyday interactions and life skills were improved and refined through the strategic interactions required to play well.”
Bridge, like chess, is not recognised as a sport by Sport England which means it does not receive government funding. In 2015, the English Bridge Union (EBU) lost an expensive court case against Sport England which aimed to overturn this. Ever since English bridge teams have struggled to raise the necessary funds to effectively support a junior training program and finance representative teams at European and World Championships.
Arguably, this has led to the country underperforming at World Championships over the years. The last time England won a youth World Championship in any category was 1995. This year, the U26 team finished a disappointing 18th out of 24 teams.
With funding for our international teams and a program to support bridge in state schools, more children from a variety of backgrounds would have the opportunity to take up bridge and potentially represent their country at the game. This would surely improve our performance at international tournaments too.
Other European countries such as the Netherlands, France and Poland do fund school programs and international teams. These countries consistently win medals at international level and outperform England despite often having significantly smaller populations than us.
One of the few opportunities to participate in competitive bridge for younger people is the annual Schools’ Cup. Until the 1990s, this was sponsored by The Daily Mail. It was a fiercely contested competition, with schools from all over the country competing in several qualifying rounds leading up to a national final.
In March 2023, there were no regional qualifying rounds and only nine schools contested the one-day Schools’ Cup. Moreover, in contrast to the 1980s when numerous grammar and comprehensive schools competed, most of the teams competing in recent years have been elite private schools like Westminster and Eton.
This reinforces an unfortunate image that bridge is an old game for the wealthy and elite in society as opposed to being a game to be enjoyed by all regardless of background. David Bakshi, one of England’s preeminent players, grew up in very modest circumstances in North-West London. He attended his local comprehensive school, where he was introduced to the game by a maths teacher.
Through his own determination and hard work and the critical support of the England junior training programme, he was able to conceive and achieve his aspirations of representing England abroad at the junior and open levels and ultimately earning a living through bridge. Children from similarly poor and working-class backgrounds today do not have the same opportunities to learn bridge much less achieve a world class level.
We should also take national pride from our role in bridge’s creation. In common with many sports and games, the origins of bridge can be traced back to England at several points throughout history. The first game of duplicate whist (similar to modern tournament bridge) was played in London in 1857 which demonstrated it was primarily a game of skill rather than chance when a team of ‘strong’ players easily beat a team of ‘poor’ players.
Britain also holds a claim to the origin of the modern game called ‘bridge’. Purportedly, a group of British soldiers invented bridge during the Crimean War and the game got its name from the Galata Bridge, a bridge they crossed every day to visit a coffeehouse to play cards. Despite playing a significant part in creating a game, England finds itself losing to its European neighbours and beyond.
A grant from the Government for bridge in state schools and the development of junior international players has tremendous potential to benefit young people intellectually and socially, and provide the opportunity to bring together those from a variety of diverse backgrounds at relatively little cost.