Bridge union goes to court over refusal to recognise card game as sport

It evokes fierce passions, creates marital discord and is intellectually taxing. But does the mental gymnastics of bridge qualify it as a sport?

In a challenge worthy of the complex tricks of the card game itself, a High Court judge must rule whether bridge should be defined as a sport or – as some say – it is “more like reading a book”.

Followers of the famous game – from local bridge clubs to the rich and famous – believe it should have the same recognition as other games such as chess, snooker and darts – all of which are deemed to be sports.

However Sport England, the government body which distributes lottery funding, disagrees. It has refused to recognise bridge as a sport – a decision that would have big financial benefits for organisers of the game.

Now the English Bridge Union (EBU) has gone to the High Court in London to challenge the decision.

‘’Sport England refused to recognise bridge as a sport, a position which the EBU believes to be inconsistent with both the wishes of parliament, and the opinion of significant international sporting organisations,’’ an EBU spokesman said.

‘’When ruling on what constituted a sport in the 2011 Charities Act, parliament specifically included ‘mind sports’, stating that sport comprised ‘activities which promote health involving physical or mental skill or exertion’.’’

He said bridge required ‘’undoubted levels of mental skill’’ and had ‘’known health benefits’’.

About 300,000 people worldwide enjoy the game which has been around for more than 100 years. Followers have included Sir Winston Churchill, Bill Gates and members of the band Blur.

The late actor Omar Sharif once said: “Acting is my living but bridge is my passion.”

Lawyers for the EBU said officials want a judicial review to determine whether Sport England had acted lawfully in “adopting a policy that prevents it recognising sports that it does not consider to be ‘physical’.”

“The EBU is hoping that the judicial review will pave the way for bridge and similar sports to receive the recognition that they deserve,” said a spokesman for the law firm Irwin Mitchell, which is representing the EBU.

At the heart of case is funding and status. Lack of recognition by Sport England affects EBU’s ability to take part in European and international competitions. If bridge were a sport, it could also seek lottery funding and exemption from VAT.

The spokesman for Irwin Mitchell added: “Chess has already been recognised as a sport by the International Olympic Committee and was demonstrated at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. It was also included in the 2006 and 2010 Asian Games and is being considered for the Pan-American games.

“Organisers of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo have invited both chess and bridge to apply for inclusion in the games, which, if accepted, will be the first time players have competed in the Olympics.

“If bridge were to be recognised as a sport in England then the EBU would be able to invest in a number of projects to teach bridge to people of all ages and to ensure that facilities are improved.”

Alex Peebles, a lawyer for EBU, added: “We will argue that a sport does not need to be physical to be regarded as a sport as a matter of law. We hope our legal challenge will result in Sport England reconsidering its decision not to recognise bridge as a sport, which will help the EBU to access the essential support they need to continue growing and attracting new players.”

Jeremy Dhondy, an international bridge player and chairman of the EBU, said: “We hope that this hearing will allow bridge to be recognised in the way that it should.”

Other EU countries, such as the Netherlands, Ireland and Poland, recognise bridge as a sport.

Today’s hearing before Mr Justice Dove is expected to last two days with judgment reserved.

When the case came before Mr Justice Mostyn who gave permission for the judicial review challenge, he was not encouraging.

Kate Gallafent, QC, for Sport England, said: “The starting point of the definition of sport is physicial activity. Bridge cannot ever satisfy this definition.” There was a difference, she said, between sport and recreation. “I can enjoy sitting at home reading a book – it does not mean I can claim it’s a sport.”

Mr Justice Mostyn, who confessed to enjoying a hand of bridge himself, said that it was arguable that bridge was a sport in English law, adding: “The brain is a muscle.”

He told Ms Gallafent: “I am afraid you have failed to land the ace of trumps.”

Mr Justice Dove must decide whether she plays a better hand this time.