Ray Lee

Why women lose at bridge

For a feminine perspective on this same topic, go to linda.bridgeblogging.com.

Mmm.. I can feel the hackles of half my readers rising from the title alone. But bear with me – this is intended to be an objective discussion. And the title isn’t even mine – it was written by an ardent feminist.

On our recent trip to Australia, I took the opportunity to visit Paul Lavings’ treasure trove of old bridge books (Postfree Books), and came away with several nice additions to my collection. One of them was a book with the same title as this article, written in 1985 by Joyce Nicholson (who, I discovered while reading her book, used to be a bridge client of Paul’s – small world!).

Nicholson, who became both a fervent feminist and a keen bridge player in middle age, and seeing no reason why either gender should outperform the other when no physical factors are apparently involved, set about some research a little over 20 years ago on this sensitive topic. She had observed, as many have, that while there are some fine individual woman bridge players, at the very top of the competitive game the bridge world is totally male. She also found it curious that separate women’s events existed in a mind sport, and she wondered whether in the long run that was a good thing.

So far, so good. She lays out the state of affairs accurately – and indeed, the situation is not very different today, a generation later. The remainder of the book is devoted to examining the results of her research, which unfortunately was sociological rather than scientific. What she did was to distribute detailed questionnaires on the subject to the members of the IBPA – the International Press Association – a group of a couple of hundred or so which consists mostly of expert-level players who spend their time observing and writing about the game. She reasoned that their opinions on the matter would be useful and meaningful.

This may be true – but the quarrel I have with her is that they remain opinions. In other words, the survey doesn’t answer the question posed in the title, it tells what bridge journalists think is the answer – a very different kettle of fish. In addition, 75% of her respondents were men, and 25% women, adding a further skew to the sample. In the end, we get no great new insights, simply a range of replies scattered among the usual theories:

  1. Men are more aggressive
  2. Men are more competitive and ambitious
  3. Men concentrate more
  4. Men have more opportunities
  5. Men are more logical and women too emotional

In her autobiography, I Love this Game, world #1 bridge player Sabine Auken suggests the problem relates to multi-tasking. She thinks women do that better than men, while men are demonstrably more focused and single-minded – a refinement of #3, perhaps. Some of these replies offend Nicholson (especially #5), and she spends some time trying to debunk those. In the end, her attitude is ‘So what?’ — since in the final analysis her aim is to prove that women’s inability to crack the top echelons of bridge has nothing to do with inferior mental capacity, but is the result of nurture and societal pressures.

Now while she may be absolutely right about this (remember, her survey simply collected opinions, and has no scientific validity in terms of proving or disproving anything), it is a topic I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. I’ve lived for more than 36 years with an exceptional bridge player, and partnered her on many, many occasions. So I know that women as individuals can play bridge very well. This one can certainly play bridge better than I can. There are other mental pursuits that she can perform better than me – but there are also a number where I outshine her. Do we approach problems differently? I think so, and Sabine would seem to agree.

Let me digress slightly to a related topic, which I think is relevant. Ask any parent, and they will tell you that a child’s personality has more to do with nature than nurture. Children growing up in the same household, in more or less the same environment, show enormously disparate attitudes, personalities and even abilities in different endeavours. Any parent who has had both sons and daughters will also tell you that they are different from the outset – however much society may influence or enhance these differences, they are there from the very beginning. In other words, coming back to topic, I do not personally believe that women are differently-shaped men. It may not be politically correct to say so, but I see no reason that there should not be differences in mental abilities between the sexes, whereby women can turn out to be better at some things than men, and vice versa.

I also thought about all this recently while I was watching a documentary called Word Wars, which is about competitive Scrabble players — turns out all the top players of that game are men too. Now, you might argue that women have too much sense to want to memorize thousands of 2, 3, 7 and 8-letter words, and I wouldn’t quarrel with you. On the other hand, it might be a parallel example to bridge. Moving to another mind sport, it’s been a while since I watched Wordplay, the documentary about crossword-solving tournaments, but one of the US National Champions featured was a woman, Ellen Ripstein – I’ll come back to that point, because I think it’s illuminating. However, while the situation has changed somewhat over the last 30 years or so, women historically have never been able to compete at the top in chess either – the Polgar sisters are perhaps a freak of nature, rather than illustrative of a general trend.

Now, when you poll women bridge players about the existence of separate women’s events, they are all for them. After all, they say, we would have no chance in Open competition, and so never to get to represent our country in (separate) world events and take all these great trips and (for some) earn our fees from sponsors. But I see this as simple cowardice, and the father (or mother) of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s look a player in any sport – how do they improve? Simple—they take on tougher opponents, learning from them and learning how to beat them. The player who says to himself or herself, ‘I’m only a C tennis player, I’ll stay here and beat the other C players because the A and B players are too tough,’ is doomed to remain a C player for ever. And that, in my view, is what women’s bridge does to women.

Chess has gone the same route, and despite the fact that, as in bridge, there are vast numbers of female players, very few have ever been regarded as being in the top echelons of the game. But if I remember rightly, the competitive crossword tournaments are open – discrimination is only by ability level – and there have definitely been women champions.

Either women are equally capable at any mind sport, and all competitions should be open to everyone, or they’re not, and need to be protected, and therefore there should be separate events. I don’t think you can have it both ways.


Judy Kay-WolffNovember 7th, 2008 at 6:01 am

Ray — Your admission (or modesty) that Linda is a better player than you called to mind a funny remark Larry Cohen made when Bobby and I got married. He said something to the effect …

I guess Judy Kay must resign herself to the fact that ONCE AGAIN she will be the second best player in her marital partnership. On the contrary ….. basking in the immense shadows of first Norman and now Bobby was not a hardship — but rather sheer delight! Look at all the free lessons I have been privy to over the course of forty-five years (and that doesn’t even include the screaming).

CathyNovember 8th, 2008 at 9:27 pm

Regarding your comment that chess is the same: ‘Chess has gone the same route, and despite the fact that, as in bridge, there are vast numbers of female players, very few have ever been regarded as being in the top echelons of the game.’

Absolutely not true. It is mostly women who play bridge. There are only a tiny number of female chess players at any level. This has always been so.

Ray LeeNovember 9th, 2008 at 9:42 pm

Cathy, you’re absolutely right — mea culpa. It’s been a long time since I played tournament chess and I had the impression that female participation had vastly increased since then. Interestingly, in checking this out, I came across this fascinating article:


This is a summary of some scientific research that basically ascribes the differential in men’s and women’s ability at chess to participation levels — however, since I would guess that’s not a problem at bridge, what accounts for it there? In addition, it begs the question that if women really have the potential to be as good as men at chess, why hold separate women’s tournaments?

M BlumenthalJanuary 12th, 2009 at 2:03 am

I think there have been studies that that determined women are are pressured by society to assume their traditional roles from early ages. Supposedly women are better verbally and men are better in mathematics That men do so well in Scrabble surpises me. Bridge is basically a mathematical game. Maybe men are brought up to be competitive while women are not. There is only one woman with whom I have played that is as good as a top man.

BTW, I don’t know if this is relevant, I have run fantasy baseball leagues for about twenty years. Of the close to one hundred members in my various leagues only three have been women. None have finished in the money.

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