Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), the renowned Chinese leader who steered China into an era of reform and modernization, was not only a political mastermind but also a devoted bridge player. While his contributions to China's transformation are well-documented, his passion for bridge remains a lesser-known facet of his life.
Deng came to prominence in the latter half of the 20th century as a key figure in the Chinese Communist Party. His leadership played a pivotal role in steering China from the tumultuous era of the Cultural Revolution towards a more open and market-oriented approach. In 1978, he became the "paramount leader" of China, ruling publicly until 1992.
It is said that Deng learned bridge during a work-study program in Paris in the early 1920s, thereby establishing a hobby that would last his lifetime. 1
The Chinese leader's affinity for bridge belied the general Communist view of the game as a bourgeois pastime. Indeed, bridge was forbidden during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976. 2
Nevertheless, with Deng's backing, bridge was gradually reintroduced on a national scale. The Chinese Sports Commission facilitated its inaugural national bridge tournament in 1979. Subsequently, in 1980, the Chinese Contract Bridge Association (CCBA) was founded.
The International Bridge Press Association recognized Deng's significant contributions to the development of bridge in China by honoring him with the Goren Personality of the Year award in December 1981.
Shortly thereafter, the CCBA gained affiliation with the World Bridge Federation (WBF) in 1982.
Deng's bridge partners included American expert Kathie Wei-Sender, Chinese Go expert Nie Weiping, and several high-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party. The latter included Hu Yaobang (former General Secretary from 1982-1987) and Ding Guangen (Politburo member from 1992-2002).
Wei-Sender, whose husband C.C. invented and popularized the Precision bidding system, traveled numerous times from the USA to China to play with Deng and promote the CCBA.
Of Deng, she once stated, "It's his main form of relaxation. He is a conservative and careful player who likes to win, but never for money.... Mr. Deng was a very competitive, but cautious and thoughtful player." 3
Hand records from 1980s Communist China are scarce, but Alan Truscott once detailed Deng's prowess in a 1983 New York Times column. In the deal, Deng Xiaoping and Ding Guangen were playing Precision. 4
overcall was risky given the vulnerability and devalued spade queen. That said, Ding chose well to double rather than raise diamonds, and Deng judged well to pass.
(Note: If playing today, perhaps Deng would have made an immediate Support Double
of South's 2.)
Deng found the lead a low spade, and the defense collected 3 tricks in that suit before Deng shifted to a diamond.
East took his A
and returned a club through declarer's tenace.
Deng took two rounds of clubs and led a third for partner to ruff with the A.
later became the defense's eight trick. +800 for East-West.
Photos of Deng during this period show him holding cards in one hand while chain-smoking with the other. For a while, he reportedly played 6 hours every Sunday — between 3:00-6:00 p.m. and 7:00-10:00 p.m. (The hour break was for dinner.) 5
From July 1988 until his death in 1997, Deng served as the Honorary Chairman of the Chinese Contract Bridge Association. On February 26, 1989, he was bestowed with a gold medal by the WBF in recognition of his dedication and influence in the world of bridge.
Notably, in June 1993, WBF Chairman Bobby Wolff visited to Deng to further recognize the popularization of bridge in China. Deng purported "swelled up with pride" upon receiving an official certificate from Wolff for developing and promoting the game at an international level. 6
Deng's legacy is not without its stains. His government was involved in numerous human rights violations which included the Tiananmen Square Massacre (1989) that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of student protesters. Deng himself is purported to have given that order for military force.
However, Deng Xiaoping's love for bridge offers a unique perspective on the man behind China's policies. His passion for the card game reveals a deeper layer of his strategic mindset, one that was instrumental in transforming China into the economic heavyweight that it is today.
Semler, H. Eric. (1989, June 18). Crackdown in China; Did Deng, a Bridge Lover, Bid While Tanks Rolled?
. The New York Times.
2, 5 Feng Jianhua. (2011, October 18). Lasting Charisma and Theory. Beijing Review.
Truscott, A. (1983, May 22). Bridge; A China Hand
. The New York Times.
Pantsov, A. and Steven I. Levine. (2015). Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life. Oxford University Press.
Truscott, A. (2004, August 21). Bridge; World's Best-Known Player? His Daughter Enjoys It Too
. The New York Times.