So, Is Bridge a Sport? Fans Say Yes – Wall Street Journal

BRIGHTON, England—There is little doubt that bridge is a mentally challenging card game known to generate fierce passions—and even end in acrimony.

But does that make it a sport? A British judge is set to rule on the question this week, a decision that English bridge aficionados hope will finally accord them the same respect given to snooker and darts, both which are recognized as sports in the U.K.


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Leading the charge is Ian Payn, vice chairman of the English Bridge Union and a serial contestant on some of the U.K.’s more cerebral television quiz shows. His group has taken the U.K.’s main sports administration body to court after it refused to accept bridge as a legitimate sport.

“Bridge is hard, it’s mentally taxing,” says 55-year-old Mr. Payn. “We are sick of being told that what we do is less important because we don’t sweat enough.”

The International Olympic Committee has long recognized the card game as a sport, even if it hasn’t yet admitted it to the Olympic Games.

But such arguments fail to wash with Sport England, the state body that allocates funding to non-professional sports associations and that is the defendant in the legal claim. To qualify as a sport under its rules, it says, an activity must have some kind of physical element.

Some administrators in the traditional sporting world accuse the bridge crowd of looking for more than recognition. If certified as a sport, bridge would be entitled to tax exemptions that would lower the costs of hosting tournaments. The U.K. government ministry in charge of sport has recently sided with Sport England.

Mr. Payn says money isn’t his prime motivation but acknowledges there could be a financial benefit for his members. Potentially “hundreds of thousands of pounds” worth of back-taxes could swell the coffers of bridge clubs around the country, he said.

The trick-taking card game is famously impenetrable to outsiders, but holds a powerful sway over its players, who proselytize its myriad complexities. Beloved by the rich and famous, the game enjoyed a 1930s heyday after a variation of bridge caught the popular imagination, spurring a craze that gripped Depression-era America.

Despite the game’s genteel aura, bridge players are known for their tempestuous will to win. In 1929, a Kansas City housewife shot and killed her husband after he botched a game, while the bridge world was recently roiled by allegations of cheating by two of Europe’s top partnerships.

Today’s high-profile devotees include legendary investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates. Mr. Payn says he once paired up with Mr. Gates in an impromptu game during a visit by the Microsoft co-founder to the U.K. A spokesman for Mr. Gates didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Payn shared his predicament with a lawyer who worked at the same office. His legal opinion: the bridge union had a case worth fighting.

In February, with unanimous backing from his fellow board members, Mr. Payne strolled to the nearby Royal Courts of Justice and filed his lawsuit.

The legal arguments turn on Sport England’s claim that its remit is limited to physical activity, but the bridge union claims that definition of sport is too narrow.

Sports England “refused to even consider recognizing bridge as a sport,” said Mr. Payn. “But neither did they adequately describe how you would define a sport. We’re challenging them to do that, bearing in mind this is the 21st century and not the 19th.”

“The starting point of the definition of sport is physical activity. Bridge cannot ever satisfy this definition,” said Sport England lawyer Kate Gallofent, speaking at a spring hearing that would determine whether or not the EBU got its day in court. “There is a difference between sport and recreation. I can enjoy sitting at home reading a book—it does not mean I can claim it’s a sport,” said Ms. Gallofent.

Judge Henry Mostyn, a self-confessed bridge dabbler, disagreed.

“Ms. Gallofent, I am afraid you have failed to land the Ace of Trumps,” said Judge Mostyn, who ruled that the EBU’s arguments at least deserved to be considered.

Noting bridge’s Olympic recognition as a “mind sport,” he granted permission for a judicial review, which is scheduled to start on Tuesday.

In a hotel ballroom on a recent Saturday afternoon in Brighton, a Victorian resort town on the south English coast, the cream of British bridge gathered for an annual competition. Hundreds of players sat at tables of four, cards mounted in neat piles on green felt tops.

While most of the physical action on display involved folding arms and scratching noses, players insisted that bridge is grueling in its own way.

Among them was Heather Dhondy, an England international player and full-time bridge professional. “It’s a tough, tough competitive sport,” said the 49-year-old, adding she sometimes loads up on carbohydrates before a big tournament in order to get a good night’s sleep. “It isn’t tiddlywinks.”

Michael Byrne, who won the coveted Open Swiss Pairs event with his playing partner, former Australian champion Keiran Dyke, eschews chocolate and sugary drinks, as well as Brighton’s raucous night life, to ensure victory.

“I had to grit my teeth and go to bed early,” said 27-year-old Mr. Byrne.

Mr. Payn, who was taking part in the tournament alongside Joe Fawcett, his long-time playing partner, quickly abandoned hope of a podium finish. After dissecting their performance, the conversation turned to the impending legal fight.

The English Chess Federation has recently joined the bridge union’s suit as a co-plaintiff, on the advice of the judge. But even among the newfound allies, respect was tenuous as Mr. Payn and his partner dismissed the board game as less demanding.

“Chess?” harrumphed Mr. Fawcett as he explained why moving pieces around a board is less arduous than bidding for cards. “It’s just black against white.”

Write to Alexis Flynn at alexis.flynn@wsj.com

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