07 August 2018

a history of bridge games - in Turkey, Russia, Britain, France and the USA

Let us start with whist. The history of Whist can be traced at least to the early C16th in England (as mentioned in a pub­lish­ed sermon by Bishop Latimer in 1529) and through succeeding centuries under different names. Whist maintained its pop­ularity as a fashionable amusement, but it was not until 1742 that Edmond Hoyles’ famous Short Treatise on Whist appeared.

In 1834 Lord Henry Cavendish-Bentinck (1804-70) invented the first sig­nal where partners defending against a contract could play particular cards to give a coded meaning, to guide each other. After ret­irement in 1857, Cavendish devoted himself to playing world class whist at the Port­land Club in London. In fact the first game of Duplicate Whist was pl­ayed in London that year, under Cav­end­ish’s dir­ec­t­ion.
Two beautifully dressed couples playing bridge

The USA progressed in parallel with Britain in extending Duplicate. A dup­licate whist game was played privately in Chicago in 1880 and in a club in New Orleans in 1882. The first interclub match was played in Philad­elphia in 1883. The first duplicate match in Britain was in Glasgow in 1888.

Duplicate offered the possibility of replacing private games by public contests. Major steps forward followed:
a) foundation of the Americ­an Whist League in 1891;
b) first book on tournament organisation, by John Mit­ch­ell, des­cribed pair-play and the method of match pointing; and
c) Henry Barbey printed Laws of Bridge in New York in 1892.

In London, members of the Port­land Club took on "bridge" very seriously in 1894, encouraged by Lord Brougham who had learned it in India from army off­icers.

But claims of a much earlier existence of the game were made by people who had lived abroad. And from non-English speaking countries. Metin Demirsar reported that as part of a course on Ottoman history and architecture, his guide discussed Brit­ish soldiers play­ing bridge while serving in the Crimean War in 1854-56. Was the name taken from Gal­ata Bridge, spanning the Golden Horn and linking both parts of Is­t­anbul, where they crossed every day to play cards in coffeehouses? The book Modern Bridge by Slam (London 1901) also suggested Bridge was first known in Turkey and had been played in South-Eastern Europe ever since the early 1860s.

In 1869 Christian Vanderheid wrote Extensive Self-teaching for the Learning of Yeralash-Russian Whist, published in Vienna. This booklet, now in the Bridge Collection Amsterdam, named Russia as the country of origin.

Edouard Graziani, an Italian Embassy translator, was one of the best Bridge players of the Cercle d’Orient Club in Const­ant­inople. In Aug 1873 Graziani played bridge at the home of Georges Cor­onio, Bank of Const­antinople manager, along-side his Rumanian financier friends. From Const­antinople, he said, the game travelled to Cairo and thence to the West.

Colonel Studdy said the game was actually of Levantine orig­in; he’d learned bridge in the trenches at Plevna during the Russo­-Turkish War of 1877-8. This dating of the game and the Turkish or Russian origin were strongly supported in a letter from AM Keiley, a member of the Khedival Bridge Club in Cairo. Turkey held Egypt from the early C16th until WWI, when “Khedive” was the official title held by the Turkish viceroy.

The Daily Telegraph discussed a Mr OH van Millingen, who lived in Constant­inople in 1879-80. He remembered Britch, a Russian game that became very popular in all clubs, instead of whist. He noted that bridge had app­eared in the 1860s among Greek, Armenian and Russian communities of traders and diplomatic off­icials in Turkey.  

Ely and Josephine Culbertson
painted by Nikol Schattenstein, 1930
Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

In conclusion, Thierry Depaulis’ comprehensive Histoire du Bridge agreed that bridge devel­oped in the diplomatic community in Istanbul. Depaulis connected the game to Russia where it was called Sib­erian mix­ture, bel­onging to the wide family of whist-related games. It came to Istanbul about 1860-65 and changed its name to biritch. The game was prob­ably spread by wealthy Greeks who travelled to Russia and Turkey, and helped introd­uce it to Western Europe. But why did the game not appear in Britain earlier than it did? After all, some 14,000 officers and troops were con­cen­trated around Constantinople in 1854.

An important change from whist was the expos­ure of one hand as the dum­my; Dummy Whist originated as a game for 3 players. Anot­h­er innovation was the introduction of the double and redouble. There was no limit to the number of redoubles, and this gambling feature of the new game was soon eliminated by the change to Auction Bridge.

In the 1920s there were different scoring systems in use. In France Contract Bridge was called Plafond i.e. ceil­ing.

Where did the concept of vulnerability come from? Harold Vanderbilt was aboard the Steamship Finland during a 9-day trip from Los Angeles to Havana via the Panama Canal. The Finland reached Balboa in Panama in Oct 1925, too late to ent­er the Can­al. That night a young lady joined their game of Plafond and suggested some exotic but impractical changes bas­ed on a game she’d played in China. At first Vanderbilt could not describe the status of “being subject to higher pen­alties, because of having won a game”. The young lady solved the prob­lem by suggesting the word “vulner­able”. The very next day, while the ship passed through the Canal, Vander­bilt establ­ish­ed the scoring table for bridge. The game had formally become Contract Bridge!

Harold Vanderbilt’s rules embodied the Plafond principles but corrected that game’s major faults. Thus to the best features of Auction and Plafond, he had added some exciting new feat­ur­es eg premiums for slams bid and made, and the element of vulnerability.

In the USA Contract Bridge took off in 1927, thanks to the soc­ial app­roval of Harold Vanderbilt, his new scoring system and Ely Culbertson’s (1891–1955) marketing genius. Culbertson who took the game beyond the elite to the middle classes where Contract Bridge quickly became the favourite card game.

In 1928 the new game was adopted in the major New York clubs. Later that year the first National Championship was held, with the Vanderbilt Cup as the prize. Leadership in the new game went to Ely Culbertson, who founded the first bridge magazine in 1929. Committees representing the USA, Britain and France were appointed and the first issue of The Bridge World magazine promulgated an International Code of Laws. In 1930 Culbertson published the best-selling book Contract Bridge Blue Book, showing how he and his wife were a successful partnership.

The Anglo-American Matches in 1930, 1933 and 1934 were huge. The first recognised World-Wide Championship was in 1937 and it restarted after WW2 in 1950. The World Bridge Federation was founded in 1958, and the first Team Olympiad in 1960.

One of Charles Goren's many bridge books

Charles Goren (1901-91) had begun playing auction bridge while a law student at McGill, and by the early 1930s he had become an expert on the newer contract bridge. He developed point-count bidding, a simplified system of valuating one’s hand in which points are assigned to both high cards and short suits. The elegant Goren System of bidding in Contract Bridge became standard after 1950.

I learned whist and its derivatives (500 and Solo) in the 1950s and joined the elite circles of bridge players in the late 1960s, meeting my then-boyfriend across a bridge table! My standards for a potential husband had been high.  A young man had to be socialist, feminist, anti-war (Vietnam), university educated, surrounded by a loving family and preferably a red-head. But mostly he would have to love bridge.


Hels said...

I rang the Australian Bridge Federation to see when the game was first professionally organised in this country. Bridge associations were formed in NSW and Victoria in the early 1930s and then later in the other states. At a Federal level, the states did not get together to form the Australian Bridge Federation until the 1960s.

CherryPie said...

Fascinating history of the card games. I especially like the bit about the requirements for your future husband :-)

I used to play whist a lot but I have rarely played bridge.

Andrew said...

I smiled at the end. My grandmother used to play whist. It all sounds terribly complicated. A game of snap anyone?

Hels said...


although there are different regulations, both games are equally mathematical and intellectual. Ditto Solo, by the way. I would play whatever game your local clubs love best.

When my late parents were ready to move into a care home, they made their choice based on location of the home, the availability of vegetarian meals and a guarantee of weekly bridge games :)

Hels said...


Your grandmother must have loved the social life that whist games brought. My grandmother certainly loved her Polish Rummy games with "the girls", especially on holidays in Daylesford and Hepburn Springs.

Re the selection of possible husbands, I omitted one important variable out of modesty (a cute body). As it turned out, Joe certainly was a very good bridge player, had red hair, a great body, was a university graduate and was pro-women's equality, but his socialism and pacifism left quite a lot to be desired.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, What elegant people play whist and bridge, at least from the evidence of the paintings. It makes me sorry that I never have been much of a card player. At least I get to empathize with Robert Benchley, a non-card-player of note, who nevertheless wrote some very humorous articles about bridge games.

We Travel said...

The joy of an international game is that it can be played anywhere. Language is no problem. For a game in hearts, just hold up four fingers, then point to the heart.

Hels said...


I should have added "paintings" as a key word, but I hadn't thought of artists like Albert Guillaume before writing the post. In the French paintings, at least, the game was not always exactly identified, but the players always looked very well groomed. Very similar to Belle Epoque paintings called At the Opera etc.

Hels said...

We Travel

That is very true. Spouse and I played a lot of Bridge across Europe, the only problem arising because we didn't know how to explain which playing-system we were using ...in Hebrew, Italian or Dutch. Thank goodness most people knew what ACOL, Standard American and Goren meant.