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.
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
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
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
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
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.