On Friday, November 26, I and hundreds of players from around the world sat down in Austin, Texas to play bridge in the American Contract Bridge League’s Fall North American Bridge Championship, or “NABC”. Normally, ACBL hosts three NABCs per year, and the main event fields are stronger than those of most World Championships. However, the Austin NABC had a special significance as the first major in-person bridge event of any kind held in two years. COVID-19 had forced the cancellation of the five prior NABCs as well as a World Championship and two European Championships. When I sat down to play, there was palpable excitement in the room. The games that most of us had taken for granted were back, and we planned to enjoy every second.
There was some drama leading up to the tournament because the United States government had instituted travel restrictions that could have prevented many international players from attending. However, ACBL management worked with immigration attorney and bridge expert Jason Feldman to ensure that NABC players were granted exemptions. Interestingly, the bridge player exemptions were the same type as those granted to international athletes in physical sports.
I have always felt that bridge should be recognized as a sport. OK, maybe we could call it a “mind sport” instead. To put it politely, most top bridge players do not look like typical athletes. However, success at top-flight bridge requires training, strategy, tactics, and teamwork; the same requirements as physical sports.
Most of you probably do not know that bridge made it into the 2002 Winter Olympics as a demonstration event. Canada won, with BBO founder Fred Gitelman spearheading the team. We were not invited back. Then about ten years ago, there was a push to add an entire mind sports tournament to the Olympic rotation. In 2011, Beijing hosted the first “Mind Sports Games” under the auspices of SportAccord, the parent body of the International Olympic Committee. The event included competitions in bridge, chess, go, draughts, and Chinese checkers. I represented the USA there, which was a great experience. In China, top bridge players are minor celebrities—there were schoolchildren asking for our autographs. The event ran well, but of course there are still no mind sports in the Olympics. But let’s get back to Austin.
Obviously, COVID-19 was very much on the players’ minds. Large conventions have often been “super-spreader events” whereby a few sick people infect a huge percentage of attendees. The Austin NABC was committed to avoiding that outcome. All attending players were required to be vaccinated, and masks were mandatory everywhere in and around the playing area. Compliance was not 100%, but it was pretty good. However, there was still at least one known case of a player contacting COVID. I played against him and chatted with him, but he didn’t manage to infect me, his teammates, or anyone else that I heard about. It’s liberating to know that we can hold an in-person bridge tournament without everyone coming home sick.
Austin was a clear success, surpassing attendance estimates and providing a quality tournament experience. It was a big change from the online play we have all become accustomed to over the past couple of years. I don’t know what we would have done without BBO over that period. But it sure is nice to have a mix of live and online events available again.
Chris Willenken is one of the world’s top bridge players. In 2022, he won the Vanderbilt Knockout Teams and earned a silver medal in the World Mixed Teams. He offers private playing lessons on BBO.
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