The Bridge to Trump

The Donald Trump phenomenon may be viewed with more understanding if examined in the context of the card game bridge. Its rules and terminology have an uncanny relevance to his bid for the Presidency and his emergence as the frontrunner for the Republican Party's nomination. It may also provide new meaning to his book, The Art of the Deal.

Similar to the general election, bridge is played by two teams of two people each. Seats are designated North-South versus East-West, which are comparable to the geographical alignment of the Republican and Democratic parties.

The game is dominated by veterans, since it takes years of experience to become successful at it. The two Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have been longtime veterans of U.S. politics, while Trump is a self-proclaimed political neophyte. This does not bode well for him, if the campaign is viewed through the lens of this game.

The keys to winning at bridge, however, are intuition and reasoning. Trump has thus far shown himself to be a master at relying on his own instincts and rationales for framing issues and taking non-ideological positions on them. He has been extremely effective at reading his Republican opponents' hands and zeroing in on their weaknesses before they had been revealed. His biting characterizations of former candidates - like Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Marco Rubio - stuck to each and struck chords with primary voters.

Trump has demonstrated a business executive's sharpened sense of probabilities, which are at the heart of most card games and few more so than at bridge. He deploys an unusual logic in addressing issues and has thus far caught his opponents, pundits, and leaders of the Republican Party by surprise.

For those who are not bridge players, here is a very oversimplified summary of how the game is played. Cards are played from each of the four players' hands in succession. Each player has a hand of thirteen cards. There are also only thirteen cards in each suit - clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades.

Lord Acton said, in a quote that Robert F. Kennedy often cited, that "politics is an honorable profession." In bridge, aces, kings, queens, and jacks are called "honor" cards. They constitute the royal family of bridge.

The result of each hand is a four-card "trick" (apologies to the late Richard Nixon), which is won by either the highest card in the suit that was led, or by the highest card in the "trump" suit. The trump suit defeats all others. When a suit is chosen as trump in the bidding, even the smallest trump card counts more than the highest card in any other suit. In effect, a trump is the equivalent of having all wildcards. You may recall that, at the beginning of his campaign, Trump was often referred to as a "wildcard" candidate.

The trump suit is decided in each hand by the players in an auction before any cards are revealed. This auction also determines how many tricks the winner will need to earn a positive score, which is called the "contract." Some auctions, however, end up with a "no-trump" contract. This means that the hand will be played without a trump suit. This is essentially the choice confronting the Republican Party: Trump or no-Trump.

The player whose bid starts the contract is called the "declarer," which is analogous to the announcement of candidacy. The declarer's opponents are called "defenders." Play begins when one defender turns one card face-up, which is referred to as the opening lead. The declarer's partner then lays all of his or her cards face-up on the table, which becomes the "dummy" hand. The dummy may not participate in the play of the hand. The dummy hand, like the Vice Presidential candidate's role in the election, is instead played by the declarer, akin to the Presidential candidate, who calls the shots.

A team of players who have at least eight cards in a suit are said to have a "golden fit," which happens to match the color of Trump's hair.

Bidding sequences are called "conventions." They are codes to a player's partner. These have been developed from years of tournaments and are often named after their creators. Writing in the New Yorker (March 7, 2016), David Owen describes the widely-used Blackwood convention as follows: "... a bid of 'four-no-trump' asks the bidder's partner to reveal how many aces he holds: a response of 'five clubs' means no aces (or all four), 'five diamonds' means one ace, 'five hearts' means two aces, 'five spades' means three."

There is also the tactic of a "preemptive bid," in which a player does not have many high card points, but does have six, seven, or eight cards in a suit. The player can open without having the required point count, but "weak in points." The player would have enough cards in a suit, which would be trump if he or she gets the bid. In effect, this might stop an opponent from bidding, because it forces him or her to pass in order to avoid bidding higher.

Donald Trump may not have the high card points (support from the Republican Party establishment), but he holds many cards (primary voters and delegates). He can win the nomination by playing his hands right. His opponents can win by getting enough high card points together and playing them at the right time.

A statement by a player as to the number of remaining tricks that he or she must lose is called a "concession." The play of two winners by a pair on a single trick is called a "crash." This usually involves a declarer's use of a deceptive play. An extremely skilled play is called a "coup." Which of these will characterize Trump's status by the conclusion of the Republican convention?

Does bridge offer any clue to Trump's prospects as a Presidential candidate? Only time will tell. There is, however, one very significant factor. Bridge is played with a regular deck of cards. There are no jokers.