When the Spingold, the championship's most prestigious tournament, reaches its final rounds near the end of the event, the players' cards will be broadcast over the Internet and streamed in a makeshift theater. The roughly 300 spectators won't be cheering, but "they might gasp if some spectacular play is made," said Steve Bates, one of the 80 to 100 directors of the tournament.
Players in the Spingold - named for Nathan Spingold, who donated the trophy in 1934 - play about 60 hands a day, in two four-hour sittings. Bridge, called "the world's most challenging mental sport" by the ACBL, is played by two pairs at each table. Partners communicate with each other through bidding in order to outscore other pairs during multiple rounds of play.
Jeff Johnston, a senior director of the ACBL, said bridge, long viewed dismissively as a game favored by seniors, has made modest gains in popularity in recent years. The group's membership of 165,000 this year marked a 20-year high, he said, with 250 new members every month.
He said the game is becoming more popular with the young, thanks to an ACBL effort to teach the game in schools as a way of building mathematical thinking skills, and is attracting more interest abroad.
Johnston said that the spring national championship, in Memphis, had competitors from about 30 countries; in Philadelphia, he expects 40 nations to be represented. More than 30 children from China will participate in the youth tournament in the event, which runs through July 22 and also includes a collegiate tournament, a women's tournament, and beginners' rounds.
"It's actually totally stimulating. It's the kind of thing where you have to concentrate the entire time," said Corey Krantz of Drexel Hill, who plans to play 540 hands over 10 days. Since he learned the game 16 years ago, Krantz has acquired more than 5,000 master points by winning tournaments - enough to make him a Diamond Life Master, the fourth-highest rank conferred by the ACBL.
Krantz and his business partner, David Rose, run the Bridge Club of Center City, a storefront opened in 1999 where Philadelphians stop by for lessons and games.
"You get addicted to it without having the need to win money or gamble money. It's just that compelling," Rose said.
"People like the fact that they're always going to be confounded and humbled by the game. You come to bridge, you know you're always going to have a challenge before you."
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