Linda Lee — My personal bridge blog

Why Do Women Play Bridge Worse Than Men?

I don’t think there is much debate that at the top levels men play bridge better than women.  If bridge had a true ranking system there would be no women in the top 25 players in the world.  There are very few women who could expect to be ranked in the top 100, maybe none.  At the world championships women have their own private event.  No men allowed.  Why is this necessary?

There has been a running argument that women’s events are a bad idea.  The theory is that women who play in these events do not develop their bridge skills as they would if they played against the very top players, that is the top men.  I do not believe this to be the case.  Despite the fact that women’s events are available there is every chance to also play in open events.  Besides only so many of either sex can play in the Bermuda Bowl.  In my personal experience I learned more from playing the Venice Cup than I did in all the open events I played.  This is not the reason that women are not up to men.

When I learned to play bridge first at the end of high school and then seriously in university I was one of less than a handful of serious women players of my age.  There were, at least in those days, many young male players.  What were the young women doing?    I wasn’t hanging out with them but I assume that they were studying or more likely socializing.  Women generally do not learn to play bridge or take it seriously until they are in their 30’s or older.  In my opinion this is one of the major problems.  It is very difficult to be a topflight bridge player unless you start young.  I don’t know why that is, perhaps the brain is less flexible.

When I went to university I studied mathematics.  My class was devoid of many others of my sex.  I have been asked on occasion to talk to women about careers in mathematics or engineering to encourage them to enter the field.  I do not have the statistics but I still think that there are fewer women in fields like this.  I can speculate that there is a difference in the brains of men and women.  

I have also noticed that women approach games differently.  Usually they approach driving differently too.  Women are much less likely to give the guy in the next car the finger when he doesn’t let them make a lane change.  I play an online role playing game called Everquest.  Almost all the healers in the game are women.  Almost all the tanks, big hulking warriors, are men.  I think there is a reason for this gender selection of roles.  It mirrors real life.  At the bridge table there are still women who need to "control the table".  But most of the time most women just want to play their best.  In  less serious competition, even regional events, some women seem to have more time and desire for the social niceties.

There is a gender difference, it relates to the psychological makeup and the psychological makeup of our species.  All these factors contribute to the lower probability of a woman being the best bridge player in the world.  I conjecture that just as in chess to develop top ranked women players you start with someone who has the right heredity and then you develop their bridge skills from an early age.  This might overcome the other obstacles.  It has in chess with  the Polgars, 3 Hungarian sisters who were nurtured in chess by their father from early childhood.  One of the sisters has made it to the final rounds of the playoffs for the world chess title, the first woman to do so.

Since clearly in both chess and bridge most women cannot compete in Open Events at the world championship level it seems to me that is reasonable that they have an event that they can play in.  Does this make them worse players?  I think not.  Most women work hard to prepare for these events, they practice, get coaching, play in other challenging events (often open ones).  I had not expected that I would get so much out of playing in world championships but it has been a terrific experience. 


RayNovember 27th, 2007 at 6:38 pm

As Linda knows, I have long been of the opinion that women are not simply differently-shaped men. I see no reason why women should not be better than men at some mental pursuits, and vice versa — although in these days of political correctness, you take your life in your hands to say so out loud. For all the reasons Linda quotes, it’s clear that the top men are better at bridge than the top women, even though there are plenty of expert-level women players. Where she and I differ is that I think pink-point events are partly to blame. Women’s bridge is bad for women’s bridge. I was delighted to see some of the young European women stars here in San Francisco this week — playing in the Open Pairs event, not the parallel Women’s Pairs. Want to improve? Play against the best opposition you can find.

ShazNovember 27th, 2007 at 10:39 pm

I was recently wondering why there are two rounds of qualification for the CNTC while you simply have to register your team for the CWTC. Then I figured that’s likely because there probably aren’t enough women’s teams out there that after eliminating three quarters of them you’d still have enough for a championship… After all, I couldn’t think of three other women in my university who would be interested in and able to play at that level to form a team with. Still, I thought it was interesting that there is such a big difference between the two events.

Roy HughesNovember 30th, 2007 at 3:20 pm

If a hypothetical list of the world’s best one hundred bridge players were found to contain more men than women, it would not necessarily follow that men are inherently better players. Getting to the top one hundred requires that one dedicate a great deal of time and other resources in the attempt to become proficient at a pursuit that others are unaware of, or ignore, or treat as an amusing pastime. Some of those whose qualities would allow them to become great players have directed their talents instead to becoming doctors, scientists, writers and artists.

Should there be separate events for women? I say yes, but we should support a woman’s right to play in open competition if she chooses. It is important to note that societies have differing attitudes about gender issues. Canada and the United States, with our longer history of feminism, are perhaps closer than other parts of the world to the point of view that women’s events are not needed. We need to remain respectful of other countries’ sensitivities.

Nick FahrerDecember 1st, 2007 at 3:17 am

Linda’s points are all valid, particularly about starting bridge when young. Let’s face it, bridge has some serious image issues, and I’d say young women on the whole may be more self conscious when it comes to image than young men.

There’s also the obstacle that women have to face when they get older, perhaps get a partner and then start a family. For all our good intentions I have rarely seen a household where men did do 50% + of the work and please correct me if I am wrong.

Women already have to forgo or stall their professional careers when starting a family, so why should a secondary recreational pursuit like bridge not be affected too?

For further reading, I’d recommend “Why Women Lose at Bridge” by Joyce Nicholson (1986).

lindaDecember 4th, 2007 at 3:48 pm

I agree with most of your points Roy. It is true that there could be many women who are talented but do not put the effort into reaching the top 100. However, I think that there is actually more of a discrepancy than that. By the way, even in the 70’s when I was at university I was almost the only women there to play. So Shaz don’t get too discouraged. I used to tell other women it was a great way to meet men.

Neill CurrieApril 11th, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Hi. I was just listening to a very recent Freakonomics podcast. In it they quoted recent research about the difference in how the sexes compete. Apparently, when girls/women compete against against women they perform better than when girls/women compete against a mixed-sex field.
Maybe this has something to do with the perceptions??

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