On bridge and basketball

       Originally published in the June 2005 ACBL Bridge Bulletin


This past winter was an unusual one at my local bridge club. With one exception, our games met as usual, but the atmosphere was a bit livelier. Our players were caught up in the excitement of another game, and nothing -- blizzards, bad bids, 35-percent scores -- seemed to affect their pervasive good mood.

For four months, our hometown had been the putative Center of the Basketball Universe. Our university's team was ranked number one in the nation and played a near-perfect season. Their successes lit up the gray Midwest winter and transformed our small city into a happy, orange-clad mass of fanatics.

Our local bridge players were some of the team's most ardent supporters. Table conversation revolved as much around basketball as bridge, and we spoke of the athletes as if they were personal friends. Bridge players of all backgrounds -- college students, businessmen, grandmothers -- joined in spirited discussions about Dee's shooting percentage, Deron's assist-to-turnover ratio, Luther's hamstring injury.

Interest was so high that for the first time in 25 years, we canceled our Monday-night club game on April 4. Our basketball team was playing in the national championship that night, and even our most diehard members were going to be glued to their TV sets. A lucky few even had tickets to the big game, only 175 miles away.

Although the basketball talk was more fervent this year, our bridge group has always included a good number of sports nuts. They've followed their favorite teams for years, even through losing seasons, and many can offer quite sophisticated analysis to anyone who's willing to listen.

You can probably identify their counterparts at your local club. As a group, bridge players seem to share an enthusiasm for sports. That's why tournament schedulers try to avoid Superbowl weekend and why club attendance is down on nights of Final Four and World Series games. It's why the organizers of the Pittsburgh NABC set up a television outside the playing area during the first weekend of March Madness.

Do we develop these dual interests because we're just natural game players? Is it because we have a competitive spirit that carries over to contests of all kinds? Perhaps, but it may also come from the fact that bridge players -- more so than many other spectators -- are responding to the similarities between athletic competitions and our own game.

Bridge is a sport where we're participants, not just spectators. It doesn't matter that our game doesn't get the media coverage of athletic events or that our champions don't achieve rock-star status. When we enter a bridge game, the outcome depends on how well we perform, and although the stakes aren't as high, we experience the same highs and lows as athletes do during their games.

Some would call it a stretch to compare bridge with athletic sports, or even to call bridge a sport at all, but there are many parallels. The ancient Greeks justified their participation in sports with the theory that a fit body would enhance the workings of a fit mind. In modern times, that idea has given way to an obsession with a fit body, but whatever the goal, all forms of competition have an important mental element.

As Danny Ozark, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, so eloquently said of baseball: "Half this game is 90-percent mental."

"Playing smart" was what captivated us about our basketball team. They communicated well, shared the scoring opportunities and made intelligent decisions under pressure - and there wasn't a big ego among them. Those are qualities that any fan can admire, and that bridge players aspire to in our own partnerships.

Our basketball team didn't win the championship. They played hard, but ended a few points short. Some fans were personally grieved, lamenting that this was supposed to be "our year." Ask our local bridge players, though, and they'll say they were disappointed not for themselves as fans, but for the athletes. As competitors ourselves, we can empathize with the team's desire to win and their pain in losing.

All of us have come up a few points short in a bridge event that was important to us. Maybe that's why bridge players are drawn to sports, and what makes us a little different than the average fan. Like those basketball players, we enjoy testing ourselves, and win or lose, we know the feeling of pride that comes from putting forth our best effort.

That's the competitive spirit that keeps us coming back to the bridge table and leaving between rounds to check basketball scores.

   2005 Karen Walker