Part of the series: Culture-Games

On Culture-Games

Every so often, someone who knows I’m avid card-player says, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to learn bridge!” I generally feel that I’ve got to dissuade them, or at least prepare them for what’s ahead: bridge, despite its prominence in English-speaking culture, is a weird game, with an awful lot of its meat located in an odd information-theoretic metagame played out in the auction, with players making increasingly fine estimations of the cards everyone else is holding according to the often elaborate and often entirely artificial sequence of bids for the contract that will hold back on the actual field of play. And bridge culture is sometimes monomaniacally focused on this single facet of the game, going to great lengths to ensure that no information about one’s holdings can possibly leak into the auction except by the bids, and bridge players can be a bit persnickety about just this point. Not that any of this is necessarily to its detriment, but it’s not really what many of us have in mind after we’ve seen a few civilized games played over cocktails in the room next to the one with the murder in it on Poirot.1

I take it as given that these people aren’t necessarily interested in bridge as a card game, set against all other card games. That is, I don’t think they’re telling me, “I’ve always meant to pick up a 4-hander Whist derivative with fixed partnerships and a granular auction!” So what I’d like to do is say: you don’t want to learn bridge. You want to learn Slovenian Tarok (or Vira, or Scopone, or Skat). I’d like to tell them about a game that will hold their interest and reward skill and deep, strategic thinking just as much as bridge will, but that is more fun, and whose players are friendlier.

We know: that’s not how things work. I’m guessing that my friends have conceived an interest in bridge in this manner:

As native English speakers, born and raised in the United States, Canada, or United Kingdom, they played no card games growing up, or relatively simple ones. They might have played chess, but chess is extremely hard to play casually, and few of us got in at the right angle to get devoted to it. In the US we have a handful of relatively weak or localized cards traditions: Euchre, Spades, and gin might be the biggest ones. If they grew up in a few specific subcultures they might have played one of these games with their friends and family, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that made it outside the bubble. Otherwise they might have played something with a grandparent—a tradition that might even persist within the family—but again, it wasn’t a practice that translated to their larger community. By young adulthood, it’s quite likely that my friends encountered poker and had at least a few late, fun nights with it. To this day poker is by far the most prominent card game in America (though its ubiquity in the mid-aughts now seems like a fever dream), but it doesn’t really work in the same way. When you play poker you’re making a series of wagers against your opponents, with the cards as a series of randomized outcomes to bet on. It’s hard (not impossible, but hard) to have a good time unless there’s actual money at stake, and that means that it can never be a pastime in the same way that other games can be.

So: my friends probably don’t have a deep, intellectually rewarding, civilized-seeming way to recreate in a social, domestic setting. They probably don’t play Go, backgammon, or chess (an alternate version of this story ends with them being interested in playing Go, backgammon, or chess, instead of bridge). It’s much more likely they play or have played video games, but video games are a vivid sensory experience that requires its participants to all turn their attention towards it; they’re like TV and movies in this sense. While they might not make it impossible to interact socially, they’re not an easy fit for interacting through. My friends don’t own billiards tables, and they might not have enough outdoor space to allow a game of pétanque or croquet.

It’s quite possible that my friends have just reached the age that getting drunk and talking about music or movies isn’t as compelling as it used to be.

Bridge is far from the cultural titan that it was in the days of Ely Culbertson, but it’s still probably the biggest thing we’ve got in the world of card games. Qv the aforesaid Poirot. No longer, of course; but for many years, anglophone depictions of domestic recreation featured, by default, bridge. It’s what people did, apparently. It’s worth noting that bridge—and really, any other card game of sufficient refinement—is apparently plastic enough, too, that it can afford all kinds of plot-advancing conversations and intrigues and murders. It’s an effective social medium, in other words, in addition to a recreation. If my friends were French, or simply avid readers of the Maigret books, they might conceive an interest in Belote; if they set their cultural sights farther back in history, maybe whist, Quadrille, or piquet. But for the last hundred years, insofar as English speakers have any card game available to us that seems designed for fun and socialization, bridge is it.

One thing that bridge does share in common with poker, and something like Euchre lacks2, is a body of thought and literature about the game. The English-speaker has access not only to novels and movies which feature people playing bridge, but to books and websites, and even a documentary or two, about the game itself. Its history and personalities, yes, but also its strategy. It’s deep enough to afford this kind of consideration. The bridge novice can study oceans of material, and the bridge expert can make a living writing books and playing at the highest level (this latter part is certainly less true than it was! The money dries up first, of course). And students at any level can discuss the finer points together. The game itself, in other words, is worthy of consideration and discussion.

Closely related: you can even watch people playing bridge. It seems that for this to obtain for any game, you need a certain group of people who can play it at a sufficiently high level, and you need a certain, larger group of people who understand the game well enough to understand and be interested in the first group. And the game itself needs to have enough of a spectrum of skillful play that there’s an appreciable distance between the two groups.

In other words: there’s an entire culture around bridge. It’s far from ubiquitous in today’s fallen age (otherwise the inciting conversations to this blog post would never have happened; my friends would already play, or already know they didn’t like it), but, having perceived in themselves a desire for a particular kind of recreation that they didn’t immediately have at hand, their cultural conditioning and set of references suggested this particular game to them, which they knew of, and had certain associations with, even if they didn’t know exactly how it worked—even if, as I say, my own suspicion is that had they had more detailed knowledge of it, they might not actually want to learn any more about it at all.

By the way: I should make it clear at this point that everything I’ve generalized about my friends goes for me—absolutely (maybe you guessed). I would love to be a part of the culture of bridge! I remember, with what I imagine they call saudade, when they had bridge columns in the Times. I am utterly romanced by the stories of high society’s sharpest minds, in dinner jackets, at bridge until morning. It’s only because I decided to learn it—have decided, multiple times—and found its auction; the holdings messages encoded into it; the multiple conventions thereof; the seriousness and bureaucratic professionalism with which its adherents apply themselves to those conventions to be so charmless that I have bounced off its surface, despite the abundance of literature, the ability to stream matches online even now, and the actual possibility of meeting another player in my life.

It’s probably obvious to everybody except for enthusiasts like myself, who have a tendency to collapse non-formal distinctions and talk about the most popular game in America in the same terms as one whose rules were copied out of a Czech games manual from 1900, that all of the above has just as much to do with the culture and the society in which the game is played, as it does to do with the game itself. To suggest that my friends simply learn Skat, with its voluminous body of German literature, and its German iOS app, and the possibility of a Wednesday-night tournament match shown on German TV, doesn’t cut it. The value of these recreations to the individual is not, in the general case, purely in the play. It is in the matrix of human interaction, accessible through the medium of a shared language, in which the game is embedded.

And yet there is the game itself. We love the games for the elegance of their rules, the flavor of their play, and the dramatic tone that their specifics give to an evening. We card-players are passionate about games that play well, played well; and we have seen above that so much of the cultural dimensions of a game depend on its formal characteristics. A game needs to be good enough to hang a culture on.

Like it or not, then, if such a thing exists, bridge is an example of what we can call a culture-game. As are poker, Go, backgammon, chess, basketball, tennis, wrestling. Just as games themselves are culture, and insofar as they are culture are distinctly beautiful and fascinating expressions both of humanity in its universality and of the times and places in which they’re played: games, these games anyway, give rise to their own cultures. They catalyze art and discussion and study. They give rise to ways of speaking and cultural archetypes; their implements, whatever form they take, become loci of ornamentation and fashion. The player, through the game, feeds the culture and the culture feeds the player.

The evangelist, who has a game they want to see succeed on the market, would ignore the cultural aspect of the thing at their peril. I would even go further; I would say that some of us might want to see our culture of recreation change and deepen. Human beings have always played, but there are games that provide deep channels for interrelation and those that don’t. I’ll go on the record and say that the most popular avenues for recreation available to us right now don’t do a very good job at it, and I’d like to see things otherwise. The romance of stories of dinner jackets is one thing; but also today, to living people, there is the question of how to spend leisure time in a way that’s engaging, satisfying, deepens human connection, leaves the senses perhaps a little refreshed.

A culture-game gives rise to a culture but it’s also embedded in its culture. Baseball stories don’t remain the exclusive domain of baseball fans (this is partially because to be a baseball fan doesn’t have to be a distinct and exclusive identity!); sometimes baseball movies are movies about baseball, but just as often baseball movies are movies about other things that take baseball as their setting. Skat is not embedded in my culture, regrettably, for reasons I’ve outlined above; but neither is Settlers of Catan or Dark Souls. We should closely observe why not.

Take me, now; I’m an evangelist for the games I like. I don’t like poker, I don’t like bridge, and I want more people to play better games, for their sake and mine. What am I to do to provide a credible alternative to my inquiring friends?

It’s hard to escape the thought of trying to work a little on my culture: to influence the games it plays.

  1. I hasten here to acknowledge that sometimes my friends ignore my warnings, and go ahead and learn bridge, and have a very fine time. Sometimes they quite like the information-theoretic angle, and sometimes they find that it isn’t nearly as central to their experience of the game as I’ve made out, and have a lovely time at the card play itself. In any case, I’m not writing this essay to argue that bridge isn’t a very good game; I’m taking it as given that I don’t particularly like it, and wondering what is to be done.

  2. No doubt passionate players of other games that have less prestige in the Anglophone world will bristle at their exclusion from the category of games worth thinking deeply about. To them I say: if there is a book in you on Euchre or Spades, by god, write it! I will read it and I will be your most passionate pitchman.