Warren Buffett & Why Bridge isn’t Poker

There is an interesting piece in today’s NY Times about the why poker has been on the ascendancy, and bridge, once one of the most popular card games in America, continues to decline. The author, a former world champion and sometime bridge partner of investor Warren Buffett, argues that television has done the trick, with evening TV-watching replacing foursomes around the bridge table.

Speaking as an infrequent and crummy bridge-player, I think there is some truth to that. But I also think that money makes a difference. I’m not aware of a widely-used poker-style system of payoffs that would attract the fast money crowd to a card game that is otherwise nearly unmatched in its rewards for skill, strategy, and ruse.

And the preceding almost certainly explains the game’s appeal to Mr. Buffett, as his partner points out:

No one would describe Warren [Buffett] as timid. Yet, when we first played bridge, we got trampled by our opponents because Warren deferred to me, and I was afraid to make mistakes. As we got to know each other, and as our partnership solidified, things changed.

The Warren Buffett you know from business is now the same Warren Buffett I know at the bridge table. And as Warren would tell you, playing bridge is like running a business. It’s about hunting, chasing, nuance, deception, reward, danger, cooperation and, on a good day, victory.


  1. Justice Litle says:

    The reason texas hold ’em dominates, in addition to the money aspect, is because it offers an optimal combination of skill and luck. A superior poker player will always win in the long run, but a “fish” can get lucky with a run of good cards on any given night. (And when the fish does get lucky, he will falsely attribute it to skill — and come back for more.)
    It is this ability for a mediocre to poor player to win semi-regularly that keeps the public interested. (A similar dynamic applies to daytrading.) In contrast, a mediocre bridge or chess player has no shot at all against a truly skilled opponent. The poker model is thus much closer to the casino model — where the house has an absolute edge, but the edge is kept small enough to entertain the fish and give them a good time.

  2. I too am a crummy bridge partner, and I too have wondered why TV and poker have trumped such a fascinating game like bridge. I agree that the casino/luck/lottery mentality has been applied to poker, and hence the appeal to the masses. That’s been my theory also with the decline in horse racing. To win consistently at the track takes a lot of experience and knowledge. Even though there is a certain amount of luck involved, it comes all too rarely for the casino/poker person to become attracted to it.

  3. Interesting points. That is definitely a problem for bridge, in that a skilled player really can wallop an unskilled one over and over again. While skill will eventually win out in poker, you can have long enough runs that people get seduced in until they’ve lost their money.

    But that said, there is also the reverse phenomenon at work, one where many people won’t play poker because there are such low (time-related) return to skills. I feel that way, generally, and know others who do. Apparently there aren’t enough of us though …

  4. Perhaps age is a factor here. Younger people are more predisposed to gambling, and the poker craze is being driven by them. Online poker has probably had a lot to do with building the demand. It’s easier now to find a game than in times past, and I don’t think peoples’ goal systems have changed much in a few generations.
    Bill Gates is famous for having whiled away time at Harvard playing poker, now he plays bridge with Buffett.

  5. As a bridge player several times a week, I have given a lot of thought to why Bridge is in decline. My theory is that younger people (and older) do not want (can’t ?) to spend the time it takes to become a decent bridge player. Just learning the rules and the basics of bidding is very time consuming. Not so with poker. The rules are extremly easy to understand. Straights bgeat 2 pair, etc.
    If I hadn’t learned bridge as a teenager, I doubt I would start now (in my sixties). Too hard! Poker is easy (ha)!
    With most young wives working full time, when does a young couple with 2 kids find times to leaqrn b ridge? I don’t think its possible!
    Well, that’s my rant for today. Have a good weekend.