Mind Games

Posted by John Branston on Wed, Sep 23, 2009 at 12:38 PM

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Ex-jocks battling it out in knockout competition. Slams. Tests of stamina over five days. Teamwork. Unbearable pressure.

Gotta be a tough sport, right? Only if you consider the annual Robinsonville, Mississippi Bridge Tournament at Sam's Town Casino in Tunica a sport.

Are non-contact mental games sports? Former athlete, newspaper columnist, and Memphian Bob Levey thinks so.

"It requires stamina, teamwork, skill, practice and physical alertness. No, you don't have to be tall or muscled. No, steroids wouldn't help you at all. But top-level bridge is every bit as much a physical sport as it is a mental one. Semi-proof of the pudding: Bridge was seriously considered as a new Olympic sport for 2008. It was knocked out at only the last minute. It was considered longer than table tennis and softball."

Levey, who held the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism at the University of Memphis for three years, got into the local bridge scene during his stay and returned this week for the regional tournament. The former Washington Post columnist played high school football and basketball in New York and "then my genetics caught up to me."

He's not the only one who turned his competitive passions to bridge. One of his partners is FedEx pilot L.C. Crowe, a former fighter pilot and cornerback for the Air Force Academy. They finished second in their group. Players play 72 hands a day, and they're on the clock so there's none of the interminable waiting that can make party bridge a bore. One dumb play can cost a team valuable points and the trust and confidence of partners. Bidding requires teamwork, and sometimes the weaker player with the weaker hand winds up playing the cards while the stronger player is the dummy.

"It's sort of like baseball," says Levey. "You have to have a pitcher and a catcher. Two pitchers or two catchers doesn't work."

I spent half my college weekends playing bridge but never got very good at it because other players had better memories and could see the end game well before all of the cards were played. Levey said some the best players in Robinsonville are accounting types and hard-charging businessmen. Drinking, which was a staple of my college games, is not a good idea. Maybe Carling Black Label was my problem.

But I don't agree with Levey that bridge is a sport, even though it made the cover of Sports Illustrated some 50 years ago. It's a pasttime, like poker or Scrabble, that people like author Steven Fatsis ("Word Freak") can become very good at while also bringing excitement to it.

Strategy? Yes. Winners and losers? Yes. Skills? Definitely. ESPN? Sometimes. But if it doesn't require special shoes, a uniform, or a ball, and it does require that you sit in a chair, it ain't a sport.

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