Linda Lee — My personal bridge blog

Why there are few women at the very top of the bridge world

Ray I am not calling this (as you did):   “Why women lose at bridge.” Obviously women play bridge and win quite often in all kinds of games at many levels. It is only at the very top level that women are significantly outnumbered.

It is my belief that in order to be an elite player in mind sports you must start playing before the age of 25. It is like learning a language, the younger the better. When I went to university to play bridge (and get a degree too) there were no women in the group I played with. At the major bridge club, Kate Buckmans, there were many women but almost none who were my age. It did make it a great place to meet guys, though.

I still think the same thing is true. Very few women in their teens and twenties play bridge at all, let alone compete. Is there a reason for this?  Some of it gets back to the nature versus nurture argument you raise. My sister was a real feminist and when she had children she was going to make sure that the both sexes were treated the same.  No dolls for her daughters.  It didn’t work.

Girls are different from boys and they are encouraged to be different (the nurture part). They just aren’t as interested in competing in card games. By age 30 to 40, many women do get interested in bridge. But their brains just can’t close the gap with their brothers who started at 15 or 18 or 20.

To be an elite bridge player you have to give up a lot. A modern women is often expected to have a job and raise a family. That is frankly hard enough. When my children were little it was hard to leave them to go to work especially when it involved a business trip. I would come back stuffed animals in hand, feeling horribly guilty and missing them. I can’t imagine leaving them frequently to go to a bridge tournament. It just wasn’t me.  I do admire Roselyn Teukolsky who in her wonderful book How to Play Bridge With Your Spouse… and Survive! has these immortal lines. 

“My youngest daughter, six years old, is watching me pack for a bridge weekend.

“When I grow up and have children,” she says to me. ” I won’t leave them to go play bridge?”

“Well darling that will be your choice, ” I say to her, “Mommy also had a choice.  Whether to play bridge, or whether to play bridge and have children.”

But a few sentences later Roselyn says “I never found it easy to tell me girls that we’re leaving away for the weekend.

I love those lines and we did use them ourselves, thanks Roselyn, and it expresses so well the extreme pressure modern women feel.

The sacrifice was too great for me and I suspect it would be too great for a lot of others. So I stopped playing bridge for about 17 years.

That given, I think there are fewer women than men that have the right sort of mind to excel at bridge. It is probably foolish to expect women’s brains and men’s to be exactly the same. Women are better than men at some things and worse at others, on average. It doesn’t mean that a women could never be the best bridge player in the world. It just means it is much less likely. The women would have to be much farther over on the bell curve.

Would women play better if they played in open events? I think most women do play in open events. I suppose there might be a few that only play in women’s events but there really aren’t enough events like that to make it possible if you like to play a reasonable amount. In fact, I think you will find that there are women playing in any open event that takes place. I don’t think it matters if some of the time they get together a team and play in a women’s event. I don’t see why that doesn’t allow them to develop their skills. At the elite level women’s events are of a reasonable caliber and are equivalent to a lot of open events you might play in. I actually liked it better (and I think a lot of women did too) when the Canadian open and women’s team trials were not simultaneous so that women could play in both events.

Another question is do women “deserve” their own event? Why should they be able to play in a weaker event then an open event? I don’t think it is a matter of being deserving. Providing this venue allows women to compete in events that matter to them. It is fun to compete in your country’s trials or even better to represent your country. Why shouldn’t they have this opportunity? I have thought about whether women’s events are different. At the elite level I don’t think that the effort or the atmosphere is that much different. I think by and large women are more social and friendlier. That might not be something you notice at the table once the game has started though. I have found the women’s game less legalistic but that might have just been that I have played much less in them.

What can we do to get more women to make it to the top echelon? When I was working at a major software research and development company I was asked to talk to high school women about a career in mathematics and science. In the 80’s there were relatively few women doctors, engineers, computer scientists etc. That isn’t true today at all. I think the best way to develop elite women bridge players is to get them young. We should go into the high schools and give them incentives to play.

Efforts to provide a BBO women’s club might help but we need a more direct approach too. Francine Cimon has a strong desire to mentor younger women players. Francine has talked about getting a team together for the open championships in 2010 with a lot of young women on it.

I chose to play with Isabelle Smith partly for this reason (also because she is a wonderful player and person).  I like the idea of more mentoring. Maybe it could be tied into other efforts to improve women’s bridge. Women’s bridge doesn’t just have to be about developing women’s partnerships. It should be about developing better skills for women whoever they play with. So men could mentor women too. Go right ahead.


Peter GillNovember 20th, 2008 at 2:09 pm

Linda wrote: “Very few women in their teens and twenties play bridge at all, let alone compete. Is there a reason for this?”

I’ve been heavily involved in organizing youth bridge in Australia for several decades.

I think the poor social skills of many young males who play bridge is part of the reason,

making it difficult for young females to form serious impersonal bridge partnerships.

Australia has provided Kylie Robb (now married to Josh Heller from Canada) and Fiona Brown (now with Hugh McGann from Ireland) but the young males here far outnumber the females.

Linda LeeNovember 21st, 2008 at 3:42 am

When I was a young “unmarried” woman I thought it was great to be with a lot of young unmarried males. In fact, I remember teaching a lonely friend to play bridge so she could join in.

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