Legal battle over status of ‘mind sport’

Sporting behaviour? Enthusiasts of some games think they are worthy of more recognition.

Fans who think the card game bridge should be a sport have gone to court. Is physical exertion integral to sport, and is exercise of the mind just as valuable as exercise of the body?

The pastime being discussed in front of Mr Justice Dove today is a gentle one: the most devastating thing that can happen while playing it is to see a trump card defeated by one of higher value. But the judicial review before him has generated considerable passion. Bridge is played regularly by 300,000 people in Britain, and their representatives, the English Bridge Union, are arguing that it should be classified as a sport.

If they can persuade him of their case, the judge could order Sport England, the body which decides which activities are defined as sports, to reconsider their method of classification. Such a move could lead to competitive activities which test mental faculties rather than physical ones, such as bridge, chess and Scrabble, becoming sports. Participants would benefit from extra exposure and funding.

Advocates of games such as bridge and chess argue that the International Olympic Committee has supported their case by classifying bridge and chess as ‘mind sports’ in 1999 and inviting their authorities to apply for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. They say legislation defines sport more broadly than Sport England does. And they cite perceived inconsistencies in Sport England’s approach to the issue, noting that activities such as lifesaving, angling and model aircraft flying are on their list of sports. Sport England, though, says its budget should be focused on pursuits which ‘get the nation fitter’.

Bridge is over 100 years old in its current form: it was first played, and its rules codified, in the west in the 1890s. Its origins stretch back almost five centuries; it is descended from whist, a game first referenced in a sermon by the prominent English Bishop Hugh Latimer in 1529. Chess boasts even greater longevity — it is known to have been played in India in the 6th century BC — and is played by over 600 million people worldwide, according to a 2012 survey.

Bridge over troubled water?

Sport England’s lawyers say ‘the starting point of the definition of sport is physical activity’. Games such as bridge and chess may have value, but they do not meet this basic benchmark. Exercise of the body is vital for our health and wellbeing; the sporting budget should not go towards activities which we can carry out while sitting still.

Bridge lovers disagree. Activities which work the mind are as valuable as those which work the body, and we should not judge something merely by how much it makes us sweat. Sport has the power to promote a range of skills, and those which focus on decision-making over running around should be embraced in an inclusive spirit.

You Decide

  1. Should bridge be classified as a sport?
  2. Are mental and physical exercise equally valuable?


  1. List the benefits which you think a sport should bring to its players and rank them in order of importance. How does your list reflect on games like bridge and chess?
  2. Find a game which your classmates do not usually play (for example, a card game). Create a short guide for them, explaining how to play it and why you think it’s worthwhile. Bring it into class so everyone can try playing it.

Some People Say...

“Sport is human life in microcosm.”

Howard Cosell

What do you think?

Q & A

How will this affect me?
It could expose you to the chance to play games which help to build your mental faculties and can bring people together. On the other hand this could mean a change in the amount of funding received by a sport you already play. If more activities are classed as sports, to help fund them money could be spread more thinly across the sports already acknowledged. It may also mean bridge featuring in the sports pages of the newspapers occasionally.
How can I get into bridge?
You need four players for a game of bridge — it’s always played in two teams of two. The rules are testing but not particularly complicated and can be learnt quite quickly. There’s a guide on how to play and information for teachers interested in teaching bridge in the links under ‘Become An Expert’.

Word Watch

300,000 people
Bridge is now played in 600 clubs in England. Games are played by four people at a time, in two teams of two.
The 2011 Charities Act defines sports as ‘activities which promote health involving physical or mental skill or exertion’.
Sport England currently invests around £300m per year in grassroots sport. The money comes from the National Lottery and taxpayers. Around £200m goes directly towards encouraging participation in sport; the rest is spent on facilities, talent, administration and sports development.
The 1890s
Bridge was introduced in both America and England in the early 1890s. It reached New York in 1893, thanks to Henry Barbey, who printed the laws of bridge in 1892. In London, members of the Portland Club first played bridge in 1894, following the example of Lord Brougham, who had learnt the game from army officers.
6th century BC
There is some mystery around the origins of chess. Most historians believe it was first played in India, Persia or China, but there have been claims for its invention on behalf of several civilisations.

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