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Olympic Intellectual Sports

by Michael Cappelletti |  Published: May 17, 2005


I have long been an advocate of promoting both poker and bridge (and perhaps chess, also) as Olympic "intellectual sports." Maybe now that TV poker ratings are very high and everybody knows somebody who plays poker online, the Olympic Committee would look favorably on a business plan.

One reason why poker has been so successful on television is that many viewers tend to get involved. While attending the huge national bridge tournament in Pittsburgh (national bridge tournaments are held three times a year) recently, I happened to walk by a large-screen television in the lobby of the Pittsburgh Convention Center, where about a hundred people were standing around watching a no-limit hold'em tournament on television. I stopped to take a look.

The fifth boardcard (the river) was a third diamond, and one of the players was apparently sweating about what to do. Various voices from this crowd (of mostly bridge players) were heard suggesting that he move all in – even though he had merely a pair of kings. Finally, as if he had heard their cries, he pushed in his formidable stack. His opponent, who had been betting with kings and jacks, thought for several minutes and then folded what would have been the winning hand. The crowd section applauded and jeered.

Several days later I was playing a bridge hand in which, even if you know very little about bridge, you will probably understand the "poker aspects" involved. During the final match of the final two-day National Swiss Teams event, I picked up A-K-Q-J and two little spades, one little heart, two little diamonds, and A-K-10-little of clubs. That is a very good hand, and it got even better when my partner, John Morris, opened the bidding with one heart and our opponents passed throughout.

I made the normal bid of one spade and John bid two hearts. At this point, my normal bid would be three clubs – my good second suit. But, for tactical reasons, I chose to bid three diamonds, although I held only two little diamonds. My partner bid three no trump and, according to plan, I gambled and bid six spades. The opening lead was the 7♣, the "unbid suit" (it is often right to lead the unbid suit).

As the dummy came down, aceless, I knew I was in trouble. Dummy had one little spade, K-Q-J, three little hearts, Q-J-little in diamonds, and Q-9-little in clubs. Thus, if our opponents knew the situation, they could cash three quick tricks (the A♥, A◆, and K◆), which would set me two tricks.

On the opening club lead, I played the 9♣ from dummy, right-hand opponent played the jack, and I won the ace in my hand. I did not draw trumps, as it might enable our opponents to signal that they like diamonds. Instead, at trick two, I played my single heart. Left-hand opponent won her ace. She now had the opportunity to cash two diamond tricks, which would set our slam two tricks.

But looking at the K◆, and remembering that I had bid diamonds, she thought it more likely that I held the A◆ (her partner actually had the A◆) than the K♣, so she played another club. Thus, I won the club with my king, drew trumps, and easily took 12 tricks to make my slam. That result enabled my team to finish in the overall standings.

What happened on that hand exemplifies how making certain "tactical" bids in bridge resembles bluffing in poker. Television viewers would undoubtedly enjoy watching the human interactions involved in these exciting hands – especially if a four-hour championship session was edited into a one- or two-hour segment with expert commentary about the most interesting hands.

Intellectual sports would certainly add additional appeal for Olympics television audiences, because instead of just watching athletes perform, television viewers would tend to get more involved by thinking about what actions they would take with any given hand. And if poker and bridge (and perhaps chess, go, and backgammon) became Olympic sports, many foreign countries would inevitably move closer toward our Western/democratic way of life. ♠