Bridge is derived from the 17th century card game whist, which was in vogue among the English nobility of the time. In whist, four players (who comprise two partnerships) are each dealt 13 cards from a 52-card deck, with a partnership's objective being to win as many tricks* as possible. There was no auction to determine the trump suit** as there is in modern bridge, and the scoring was vastly simpler.

Though whist may seem crude in comparison to today's bridge game, its popularity spread to other parts of the world, most notably the Middle East. In Turkey, it is believed that whist evolved into one of the first forms of bridge in the late 19th century. The calls "double" and "redouble" were added to double and even quadruple any betting stakes, and the concept of a declarer opposite an exposed dummy also emerged at this time. By the turn of the century, the game evolved into plafond ("ceiling") in France and auction bridge elsewhere in the world. Plafond was an offshoot that required each partnership to state the number of tricks they were going to take, while auction bridge introduced the element of bidding to determine which suit, if any, would be trumps.

Another game with its roots in the 19th century was poker - again, a game which started with simple roots but grew to become a hugely popular game the world over. Both had somewhat humble beginnings and evolved into social, competitive and strategic games (more on the history of poker can be found here). Both games also ended up having people play them professionally.

In 1925, the game that we know today was derived from auction bridge and plafond. Contract bridge was invented by the American Harold Vanderbilt, who had some invaluable idle time on a steamship cruise. Vanderbilt's brainchild incorporated a number of new features, most notably a sophisticated scoring table and varying modes of vulnerability. "Contract" was so named because it required a partnership to commit to a contract of a certain number of tricks. Failure to fulfill a contract resulted in a scoring penalty; success, in an award. Contract bridge quickly gained popularity throughout the United States, where it experienced its Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s. During this time, famous expert matches were conducted, including the 1930 Anglo-American match and the 1931 Culbertson-Lenz match. The Anglo-American match featured a team headed by Col. Walter Buller of England against a squad captained by Ely Culbertson of the United States. Buller, who had vowed to beat the Americans "sky-high", lost - by a humiliating margin. The result of this event bolstered Culbertson's status as an authority on the game, and his Contract Bridge Blue Book of 1930 became a best-seller. The following year, Culbertson challenged fellow American expert Sidney Lenz to a 150-rubber team match, contending that the Culbertson method of bidding would be a cinch to triumph. The match did much to spark even more public interest in contract bridge, and by the time Culbertson claimed victory over Lenz, the game was vying with baseball to be America's national pastime.

In the following decades, bridge fever lessened, but interest in the game remained. Sports Illustrated included regular bridge columns and articles, and Time featured expert Charles Goren, "Mr. Bridge", on an issue cover. Bidding systems and conventions, which attached special meanings to certain bids, also continued to proliferate during this time. There is controversy over whether or not the increased complexity of bidding has hurt the game's appeal, but these advancements in theory have undoubtedly improved the accuracy with which players can bid to reach their best contracts. The point count system, a method of assessing the value of one's hand, was popularized during this time by Goren and is still the commonly accepted method of hand evaluation.

Duplicate (tournament) bridge also became a hot activity during the middle of the century. In duplicate bridge, players at a table are dealt hands that are subsequently passed on to another table, and then to another one, and so on. Consequently, a competing pair plays the same deals that any number of other pairs play, with the differences in results being the basis for each pair's final score. Duplicate began its rise in the '30s and continues to be popular worldwide.

World championships, which use a team variation of duplicate bridge, began in 1950 and saw the United States dominating until 1957. That year, Italy began its incredible streak of 10 consecutive Bermuda Bowl world championship victories. The Italian Blue Team included some of the greatest players ever; bridge writer Sally Brock notes, "When I was at university the ultimate compliment you could receive at the bridge table was 'you played it like Garozzo!'" Not until 1970 would the United States win the heralded Bermuda Bowl, and then only in a field that did not include Italy's best lineup.

But the story of the United States team that won in 1970 is itself worth telling. In 1964, multi-millionaire Ira Corn decided to form a team that would one day beat the fabled Blue Team. Bankrolling the project himself for years on end, Corn hired six well-known players to study and practice full-time at his Texas mansion. Known as the Dallas Aces, this team was the first of its kind; never before had players been paid as professionals to compete in bridge events.

The Aces won the Bermuda Bowl in 1970 and again in 1971, realizing the ultimate goal of their countless hours of hard work. Today, the United States is still a strong force in international competition. American professional players compete in tournaments as the paid partners or teammates of a sponsor. These players can therefore make bridge their full-time career, making them formidable opponents of players in other countries who cannot find sponsorship.

Contract bridge, though, remains popular around the world. It combines the elements of mental stimulation, luck, and socializing that are hard to find in other games so cheap and easy to play. Although bridge's Golden Age popularity may not be replicated again in the United States, millions of Americans still enjoy the game. And bridge players are not limited to the States; Holland, for example, teaches bridge in public schools. The game is played so much in Iceland that the tiny country of 300,000 boasted the world championship-winning team in 1991. Other unlikely hotbeds of bridge include Brazil, Turkey, Israel, and Norway. France, meanwhile, won a world championship in 1997, while Italy, as mentioned, has put together some of the greatest teams ever. Bridge is one of the few games played today by people of all ages, races, and nationalities.


*A set of four cards (one from each player) played in clockwise order. The highest card (usually!) wins the trick.

**One suit (clubs, diamonds, hearts or spades) whose cards outrank all the cards in the other three suits.