Play with Fire Goes Master

Bridge vs Poker

Pocketrockets24785 The substitution of Texas hold ‘em for baccarat in the new Bond movie, Casino Royale, was not just a shrewd move by the movie’s producers to update the Bond’s debut novel for a modern audience, it was a symptom of a dramatic change in the Western world’s card game habits.

Card games, which use a universally available deck, are essentially a cultural heritage. Parents teach card games to their children, teenagers learn card games from their peers, and adults learn card games from the odd fanatic (such as myself) keen to spread a variety of games to as many people as possible. At any given time, there will necessarily be one game that is more popular than others.

In the United States in 1940, the most popular card game was contract bridge (hereafter, bridge). It was played by 47% of women, and 30% of men. Poker took second place for men at 22%, and a distant sixth for women at 5%. The survey in question, conducted by the Association of American Card Manufacturers, does not specify which forms of poker were being played, but I suspect that some form or draw or stud poker dominated at this time.

Bridge has its origins in trick taking games (such as whist) which date back to the early 16th century, although the earliest rulebook for something resembling modern bridge is dated 1886, and calls it ‘biritch or Russian whist’. It’s popularity grew in the US and the UK in the 1890s, and in 1925 a variant of the basic game developed by railroad tycoon Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (and others) called contract bridge was introduced. This form so completely replaced other forms of the game that the name bridge is now synonymous with contract bridge.

The domination of bridge in the mid-twentieth century had a measurable consequence: decks of cards had an extra card added which detailed the scoring for bridge. Almost all decks of cards sold in the UK and in Europe have a bridge scoring card included in them (I am not certain if the same is true in the US).

Texas hold ‘em (hereafter, hold ‘em) is a younger game. It is believed to date back to the 1900s, and according to legend was first played in Robstown, Texas, before coming to Dallas around 1925. It was first played in a casino in 1967 at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. Ever since then, its popularity has been on the rise.

In the first decade of the 21st century, hold ‘em’s popularity has exploded – in part due to increasing coverage on TV, and in part due to its popularity as an online gambling game. However, this growing interest in hold ‘em has been possible thanks to key aspects of the game. Firstly, many people already understand ‘the poker ladder’ (the sequence of winning hands: highest card, pair, two pair, three of a kind, straight, flush, full house, four of a kind, straight flush, royal flush). Secondly, with or without this prior knowledge, people can learn to play hold ‘em in just a few minutes. Thirdly, each hand plays quickly and simply. Furthermore, you can play hold ‘em with any number of players (although it can be more rewarding with greater than four players). Even when not played for money (using chips solely for keeping score) the game is exciting, fun, social and extremely compelling. 

By comparison, bridge has been in serious decline. Although there are still 200 million bridge players worldwide, the average age of bridge club members in the UK is now 55, and in the US it is 60 – and aging with each passing year. There are a number of reasons for the game’s decreasing popularity. Firstly, it requires exactly four players – a serious limitation for any game. Secondly, it is complicated: the bidding system can take weeks to learn, and years to master. Thirdly, its deterministic mechanics often act as a cause of passive-aggressive rudeness, as partners bitch at each other: “why didn’t you lead with the king?”

Peter Stocken, chairman of the English Bridge Union observes: “One of the blights of bridge in the past… has been the bad behaviour of some. God knows, I was guilty of it in my youth. It's normally partners getting at each other, and it's incredibly off-putting.” 

(This sniping between partners is almost universal in amateur bridge, and the reason that I now refuse to play the game).

Bridge is dead, long live hold ‘em. Or at least, so it seems. There is one final battlefield where bridge might make its final stand – the ubiquitous scoring card included in almost every deck of cards. As long as this card displays scoring details for bridge, the venerable game will hang in just a little longer. But if the manufacturers of decks of cards begin to take out the bridge score card and replace it with a reference card denoting the poker ladder (as already happens in decks that are packaged with boxes of poker chips), then the battle will be over, and hold ‘em will have achieved an absolute victory over its rival. 

Next time you buy a deck of cards, see which scoring cards are packaged with it. Let me know what you find! And don’t forget to mention where you are in the world.


  • The Fireside Book of Cards, Jacoby, Oswald and Albert Morehead (Simon and Schuster, New York), 1957.

  • How Bridge Became Cool, Ed Caesar, The Independent, 28 November 2006. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Every deck of cards I've ever bought in the United States has had a poker hands card included, going back at least twenty years.

When I was 15, my friend's dad tried to teach us bridge and it didn't go well at all. After about forty-five minutes of confusing explanations, we gave up.

I think poker has more significance in American culture. When I encounter a bridge column the terminology is like a completely different language, whereas the basics of poker have entered common usage. I mean, we had a sitcom named Full House. Almost every Western has at least one scene of the toughs in the saloon playing poker. Country-western music draws heavily on poker imagery.

I think hold-em has grown in popularity because it combines both the long-term strategy of standard poker with a more tactical game (what hands can you make with the dealer cards?). Add in the competitiveness of bluffing and you have a game that provides immediate excitement.

This is not to say that bridge can't be exciting. Just that poker has so entered American culture that the excitement is immediately comprehensible.

As an aside, the most popular card game in the Marine Corps is Spades (or Hearts). I've seen people play eight hours a day for weeks at a time in the field. Those games can get very, very heated. Quite amusing.

Yes, in the US, most decks of cards don't come with bridge rules. If they do have rules, it'll be the poker ladder (not necessarily the rules of poker per se).

You say: "In the first decade of the 21st century, hold ‘em’s popularity has exploded – in part due to increasing coverage on TV"

I believe one of the reasons (maybe the main one) Hold`em has become so popular is exactly because it is so TV-friendly, with its open cards on the table and mere two cards held per player.

By the way, I'm speaking from an outside-us/uk perspective.
I think it's not so common, in Brazil, to get scoring cards with a deck, but when it happens, I believe they are designed for "Buraco" (canastra?). Long matches, up to 4 players (an optimal game would have 4) starting with 11 cards each, piles for buying and discarding. Nothing that you would watch on TV...

Up in Canada I can remember having decks with Bridge rules, but most of these were older decks. Newer ones always seem to have the Poker ladder on them.

I've always viewed Bridge as something archaic and convoluted. I'm all for bidding and trick taking games (although it's been a long time since I've played Euchre), but bridge always seemed like something I'd need a book, or a master, to learn from. Just plain too much work to learn unless I have people to play with.

And I still don't know the rules to Hold 'Em. Maybe I'm just not into the popular sphere enough, but I've never understood the pop culture attachment to the game. It shows up everywhere the way that Bingo used to. It feels overused to me, and shallow.

Both of those observations are surface ones, but they have successfully kept me from learning either game yet.

Thanks for the comments everyone!

I half suspected we'd find poker ladders in US decks, so it's nice to be confirmed, and interesting too to see Bridge forced out of Canada (with its links to both the UK and the US) in this way.

Duncan - I really rate Hold 'Em as a game. It really plays much more smoothly and easily than other poker variants; it's easy to learn, and compelling to play - even when not paying for money. But you have to like 'social' card games to enjoy it, I suspect.

I haven't heard of Buraco, Chico, but it does indeed seem to be a Canasta variant - there was bound to be somewhere in the world where a Rummy variant would be the most popular game; I'll bet Brazil isn't the only country with a Rummy variant (rather than a Whist or Poker variant) as its current most popular card game.

Anyone from any other countries reading, please let me know the reference cards in your local decks! Thanks in advance!

Interesting to find someone else playing Hearts - Black Maria (a variant where AKQ of spades were worth 7, 10, 13 points) was my staple game both ways on the school bus, 25 years ago now.

My dad is a big hearts player too. . .

I play various games at work during my lunchhour. I've noticed that the easiest games to get other ppl to play are primarily, short in playtime, simple in terms of rules, and scalable to differing numbers of players. (People come in and out of the games constantly)
Curiously Texas hold 'em went down like a lead balloon, go figure.

In Australia, I think I've only ever seen a scoring card including in a pack of cards once, and it was when I was under the age of ten and have only hazy memories of it. Certainly I've never found one in the last fifteen or so decks I've had cause to encounter.


No scoring reference cards at all? This suprises me! Keep your eyes open and let me know if you see one anywhere.

I admit I haven't checked, but wouldn't it make sense to have poker rules in a poker deck, and bridge rules in a bridge deck? The numbers on the bridge deck are smaller, as you have to hold 13 cards in a fan.

Also, I wonder if part of the decline in bridge play has to do with changing attitudes toward smoking? When I used to play, smoking was an expected part of the experience. Now you'd have to find 4 people all in the same camp regarding smoking.

Doug - what country are you from? In the UK, the standard decks usually come with Bridge rules - it's quite likely there are special Bridge decks that I haven't seen because I don't play the game, though.

I'm in the USA. Googling a bit, I see ( someone asserting that poker decks are considered the standard deck in the US whereas bridge decks are standard in the UK.

This is not something I've paid attention to in recent years.


Thanks for reporting this! I've examined my decks and noticed that even without including a scoring card, there are differences between the size of the markings from country to country. Decks I have from the Netherlands and Greece, for instance, have large print markings that would make them unsuitable for bridge, although neither deck comes with a score card. I'll enjoy investigating this further.

Thanks again!

I know this is an old post, but I just had to comment. Our staple game going through university in New Zealand was 500, a game derived from bridge. There are variants for 2-6 players, though the most popular is the 4-player version, and frequently rather than playing the variant for 2 or 3 we would just deal 'dummy hand(s)' to make the number up to 4. As we would usually have more than 4 hanging around, if someone had to leave another could take their place.

500 plays like bridge but is much simpler and less deterministic, there was very little sniping between partners, and we only tended to keep score occasionally or when it was necessary to keep people playing in the spirit of the game; we tended to treat each hand as a separate game.

Katherine: thanks for this! No problem picking up on old posts - everything is always "in play" in this game. ;) I like the idea of a Bridge variant that is less deterministic - that appeals to me.

Best wishes!

I stumbled upon this post after googling poker vs bridge. I've been trying to learn brdige on my own for the past five years, on and off (i'm 21 now). I get really tempted to give up but for seome reason not known to me i always go back to it again. Bridge really is a very difficult game, its like learning a code language. Poker on the other hand is TOO easy to learn. I know many people say its a game that needs much skill but I dont really se their point. Its all about luck. That being said, poker has the obvious advantages of less limitations on number of players etc. Moreover, people in universities love poker, even older people because it allows you to socialize (and have a fun conversation) on the side. Come on, the purpose of game night is more than to just play cards. Whats a game of cards without a little gossip?
I live in India and bridge is populer only amongst the really older people (50+). The younger lot are getting obsessed with poker, perhaps because it has been glamourized so much in tv and movies.
Interesting post,

Anand: thanks for stopping by to comment! Bridge is indeed very much like learning another language. It's an especially challenging game, and as such also quite rewarding.

But you are wrong to dismiss poker as "all about luck". There is a tremendous amount of skill in most poker variants (especially Texas Hold'em, Omaha etc.).

If you want proof that there is more than luck to this game, consider that one of my friends is a professional poker player who makes his living from the game. No-one makes a living as a slot jockey (which is pure luck)... there has to be a skill element in a game for anyone to make a living at it, as you must have a reliable edge to push the odds in your favour.

The skill, however, is in "knowing when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em" - which requires both some knowledge of probability (calculation of the number of "outs" etc.), and ideally the ability to read other players. Sometimes the best play in a game of poker is to pass a hand up - and that takes some getting used to. :)

Best wishes!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)