Paolo Enrico Garrisi: Bridge Origins

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Bob van de Velde, a Dutch historian and journalist of Bridge, in July 2011 wrote an article on a discovery of the Belgian Hans Secelle: the Yeralash, a Russian game similar to Bridge that could be a missed link between Whist and the early forms of Bridge-Whist, was played in Austria before the 1869; then many years before the first mention of the Bridge-Whist in England. Bob van de Velde’s article was published in the July 2011 bulletin of IBPA (International Bridge Press Association); a month later, republished it; in November, it also appeared in the VII Edition of the Official Encyclopedia of Bridge. Eventually, Neapolitan Club published it in December.

When the article appeared in, in August, there were some critical comments.

Philippe Bodard, an historian, wrote on August 11th (the day after the publication): What a joke!!! This book is known since more ten years. You cannot say “he (Hans Secelle) discovered a booklet” which many others know very well.

Bob van de Velde himself swiftly replied: I doubt whether there were many others who knew about the booklet Hans Secelle found. The happy few of insiders must be very limited as the only source for this knowledge is the small article of Thierry Depaulis ‘Aux sources du bridge’, published in the March-May 2003 issue of a rather unknown French magazine ‘Tangente Jeux’ (p.8-9). The author was so friendly as to inform me right now about the existence of this article and said he found the booklet already in 1997! Nevertheless he himself didn’t mention his finding in an article in which he later the same year also wrote about the early history of bridge (in English), neither was it mentioned in the 6th edition of ‘The official encyclopedia’, published in 2001, although Depaulis’ important ‘Histoire du bridge’ from the same year 1997 got all the attention it deserves. Even Depaulis’ compatriot and colleague Jean-Louis Counil in his ‘La naissance du bridge’ from 2004 did not seem to have been acquainted with the article in ‘Tangente Jeux’. So what is the joke ? I think it is a bad joke that bridge historians do not better communicate and cooperate, and that they fail to inform us properly about their discoveries ! Anyway Hans Secelle did, and right he was.

But Jeans Louis Counil, the other historian quoted by Bob, soon answered back: Co-operation between historians is good! We have many exchanges with Thierry Depaulis and Ph Bodard (but non only them). For instance, I send as much as I can information to Tim Bourke for the bibliography in English he has established. Concerning the Jarolash/Vanderheid, just let me say that I have it in my personal library. This demonstrates that I know it!

And Hans Secelle himself, the author of the discovery, of course couldn’t stay out. Rather annoyed, he addresses to Bodard: Good evening Philippe, I did not spend more than 4 years’ spare time to write “something about bridge” and then ask Bob – who’s help has been invaluable over the years – to “tell a joke” on the internet. Perhaps, you are upset for the fact that I did not mention Thierry Depaulis’ article in Tangente Jeux. The fact is that I had never heard of this magazine before (Thierry, who has been helping me on numerous occasions, informed me this morning); I was convinced that I had discovered “bullet proof evidence”… until today. All I did was doing research, analyse the sources that I had access to, and write a book on the history of bridge, to the best of my abilities.

And the reply of Secelle ends the polemics, so far.

By these comments, the reader has already understood that ways and times in which the knowledge is released could be worth as much as the knowledge itself; and a new discovery sometimes doesn’t consist in new facts but in new viewpoints on what is already known. For a better understanding of all this, it will be useful a brief review of what was known until the discovery of Secelle (that a game similar to Bridge was played in Wien thirteen years before the Bridge-Whist was thought to be appeared in England).

The hypothesis, before, were that the Bridge would arrive to Europe in late 1800 from Russia, or from Turkey, or from Egypt, then held by Turkey. The most verisimilar quotation is a letter of an Italian translator of the embassy in Constantinople, Edoardo Graziani, who played Bridge in August of 1873 at home of a Tukish banker; the quotation is accurate, also with players’ names. The letter of Graziani is of 1922 and were published in the same year by Daily Telegraph; Bob van de Velde reported this witness in the bulletin #222 of the IBPA (International Bridge Press Association) and, later, into the fourth edition of the Official Encyclopedia (1984).

Another quotation of Bridge is in the letter that the surgeon James Paget wrote in April 1843 from London to a friend living in Yarmouth:

“I passed Thursday evening at the Loughs, and we improved our minds in the intellectual games of Bagatelle and Bridge for about two hours…”.

“Loughs”, a Scottish word for lake, today obsolescent but then used in England, could be for Paradise Park, near Lough Road; but more probably it referred to Finsbury Park, where there is a pool, near his home and the hospital where he worked. At any rate, the Paget’s Bridge remains only a word about a game not necessarily of cards (Bagatelle is not). Furthermore, the letter was addressed to Miss Lydia North, then still living with her father, the reverend Henry North: a “…Rather severe old gentleman…”. Then Miss Lydia wasn’t exactly the person one would talk about card playing in the Victorian Age.

Third, in order of reliability, is the evidence of the Turkish Metin Demirsar, who attributes the invention of the game to British soldiers during the Crimean war (1853-1856), as told him on 1991 by his guide in Istanbul.

The three sources aren’t inconsistent: some Britons living in London were able to play a likewise Bridge game in 1843 (Paget reference); in 1854 they went to combat in Crimea (Demirsar reference, for what it is worth), where they met other cultures –Turkeys, Russians, Italians (Graziani ref.) – spreading the knowledge of the game. What is difficult, however, is to link these references to the fact that already existed two Russian games with some similarity with Bridge, Vint and Yeralash; and the fact that, despite the existence of Vint and Yeralash, the new game doesn’t seem to be originated in Russia.

In facts, the discovery of Hans Secelle is not the Yeralash itself – it was already quoted by William Dalton in 1910 – but the fact that in 1869 this game was already known and played in Wien, and this implies a further complication. Those were the times of the Austrian and German Empires: almost all the continental Europe between France and Russia. It’s difficult to think that in Wien was played a game so popular to be published, whereas it was unknown in Berlin, Trieste, Budapest, Bucharest, Chisinau, Warsaw: utterly unknown in any else place of the central empires but Wien.

A reasonable hypothesis could be that in central Europe there were several of such games, with some differences between them, and with different names depending upon the country, or the province, where they were played. One of these variants might have come in contact with the Vint or with the Yeralash thanks to traders or to the military or diplomatic corps, crossing the boundaries between west and east: the Danubian area from Wien to the Black Sea. The new game, born from this embrace, went back to western Europe with its strange new name, Biritch, taken somewhere in the long journey. Later, Biritch had been anglicized in Bridge: William Dalton noted that the two words, when spoken quickly, have the same sound.

It is now necessary to examine more closely the Demirsar reference. It was published in 1992 in the New York Times by Alan Truscott and reported in the Official Encyclopedia since 1994 (fifth edition). The story has more than a flaw. First, it’s a fourth hand story: born in 1854, it had to travel many times from mouth to ear, from 1854 to 1991, to reach Demirsar’s guide and eventually Demirsar and Truscott. Second: how did go that those soldiers spread the game from Crimea to Constantinople, crossing the Black Sea, but not back to England, where it remained almost unknown until 1880? Truscott himself posed the question, and sorrowfully explained: maybe they died in Balaklava. Third: an interesting part of this tale is about the name: nothing to do with Biritch – and so much for other reliable sources – but it came from the needing of a pair to cross the Galata Bridge on Bosphorus to join the other pair in a coffeehouse. That’s well and good, but it only shifts the mystery on the preceding name before the Britons would christen it.

A story of a bridge to cross for joining a table is reported also by William Dalton eighty five years before Truscott in his “Bridge and Auction Bridge” (1906); the book deals with the Auction Bridge, the new way to play borne from India in 1904. Dalton wrote of a bridge in Great Dalby, Leicestershire; being it a little disrupted, so being the crossing dangerous, the players were used to say “Thank goodness, it is your bridge tomorrow” (or maybe “Darn it! It’s our bridge today!”). This story is more verisimilar for it identifies the preceding name, right the Russian Whist, but Dalton himself didn’t believe on such origin of the name; nevertheless, he accepted that in Great Dalby there were players of Russian Whist.

Another origin of the game in Europe, still according to Dalton, could be in a community of Greeks settled in Manchester in the seventies of the eighteenth century. Both Dalton’s hypotheses have the value to place the cot into little communities – Great Dalby, despite his name, only has 400 inhabitants – as it should be for a game that had to remain unknown for other twenty or thirty years.

Conclusion. Until now the research was focalized mainly in Turkey and middle east, and aiming at identifying a name more than a game; after the discovery that a game of the Whist or Vint family were played in Wien before the 1869, it is time to enlarge the visual to the western Europe to identify the games, whatever they were named, which resemble the primordial Bridge. Maybe Great Dalby is worth a journey to ask how their ancestor passed the cold Winter evenings.


Paolo Enrico Garrisi

January 15, 2012


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One Reply to “Paolo Enrico Garrisi: Bridge Origins”

  1. Dear M. Paolo Enrico Garrisi,
    “Bravo” for your blog and the “Neapolitan Club” website.
    If you have a personal email, I would be happy to speak with you about “the Origins of the game of bridge”.
    Best Regards,
    Philippe BODARD

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