The card game bridge is many things. It is a game of strategy and skill, with complex rules and a rich history played by millions of people, with tournaments held every year around the world.
But bridge is not — according to a European court — a sport.
On Thursday, the European Court of Justice ruled that bridge couldn’t be considered a sport, even when played competitively, because it lacks a “significant physical element.”
The decision arose from tax dispute. In the United Kingdom, sporting events are generally exempt from paying value added tax, or VAT, which covers goods and services. If an activity is shown to promote mental and physical well-being, it can qualify for the exemption.
The English Bridge Union, based in Aylesbury, England, said the card game fit the bill. It called bridge a “card-based mind sport” and said it shouldn’t have to charge VAT on entry fees to its tournaments. The bridge union brought the legal action after Britain’s tax authority denied its request earlier this year.
In the legal proceedings, the bridge union argued that bridge should be deemed a sport because it promoted intellectual well-being. “Sport” under European law includes activities that provide physical and mental benefits, the organization said, so bridge must count.
But the court of justice disagreed. In its ruling Thursday, the court conceded that bridge “constitutes an activity beneficial to the mental and physical health of regular participants.”
“However, even if they do prove beneficial to physical and mental health, activities of pure rest or relaxation are not covered by that provision,” the court wrote. “The fact that an activity promoting physical and mental well-being is practised competitively does not lead to a different conclusion.”
The bridge union said in a statement Thursday that the decision came “as both a surprise, and a disappointment.” A favorable ruling would have lowered the price of entry in bridge competitions and opened the game up to a wider audience, it said, noting in particular bridge’s popularity among retirees and people with low income.
“Making the game cheaper for them to play would increase their levels of participation and help to encourage their peers to learn to play,” the bridge union said. “The EBU is very disappointed that the VAT burden which makes it harder to get more people playing this fantastic pastime will not be removed.”
The decision reverses an opinion by the court of justice’s advocate general, who issued a nonbinding recommendation in June that bridge was, in fact, a sport, and should qualify not only for VAT exemption but a rebate on taxes it paid previously.
There was, however, an upside to the court’s ruling, according to the bridge union. The court left the door open for European Union member states to exempt bridge from VAT by deeming it a “cultural service” that “holds such a place in the social and cultural heritage of that country that it may be regarded as forming part of its culture.”
It was a promising development, the bridge union said, but added that it had “yet to consider the implications of the suggestion.”
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