Miriam Kull loves diamonds. And spades and hearts and clubs. In fact, the 32-year-old working mother from Bern spends a sizeable chunk of her week thinking about them: she plays the card game bridge at an international level.
“I tell my friends not to ask me about bridgeexternal link because I won’t stop talking about it!” she warns. But those who risk it soon discover the challenges of juggling two young sons, a job with the Bern cantonal authorities and the pressure of representing one’s country.
It all began about ten years ago on a holiday to Italy with a friend from university, where Kull studied economics. Her friend’s father played and took them to a game.
“I was sitting there and didn’t understand a thing, but I was interested because I was into card games like Jass [the Swiss national card game, which has similarities with bridge] and board games,” she says.
Back in Switzerland, she googled “bridge” and found – in addition to methods on crossing rivers – a course for university students in Bern.
“I signed up and from the first evening – when we played until after midnight – I was hooked. And then I met my future husband! At first, everyone thought the only reason I was coming along was to meet him, but it was also the game. I fell in love twice!”
Kull says there are two main things she loves about bridge. “First, it’s the game itself, the logic: it’s a lot about numbers, probability, strategy. I love the mental challenge.”
Then, she says, there’s the social aspect of playing with a partner against another pair. “It’s a lot about being on the same wavelength as someone else. And your bridge partnership can grow – that’s what I love. You start playing better together.”
Many husbands and wives play together, but married couples have been known to arrive at clubs and tournaments in separate cars so they don’t have to drive home together after a furious tableside slanging match…
“There’s the saying ‘don’t partner your partner’,” Kull smiles. “The thing is, everyone makes mistakes and when you carry arguments home, that’s not good. Arguing about bridge hands in bed isn’t good.”
She admits it wasn’t easy in the beginning playing with her husband – now a strong player himself. “We had a lot of heated arguments. But now I love playing with him and telling him about my bridge adventures. If he didn’t play bridge, I couldn’t do that and I couldn’t share this part of my life with him.”
Is it true they had a bridge honeymoon? “Well, it wasn’t really our honeymoon, but a couple of weeks after our wedding we went to a bridge camp in Germany and stayed in a dorm with eight other bridge-playing couples,” she says.
“It’s an international game. I play bridge on my holidays in Spain, Croatia – you just go to the nearest club, sit down and play. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the language.”
It’s hard to imagine affable, enthusiastic and permanently smiley Kull ever arguing about cards.
She describes herself as “very calm, focused, not emotional” – at the table anyway. She is also very determined, a vital quality for going from scratch to international level within ten years.
She admits, however, that because there are fewer strong female players than strong male players in Switzerland, it’s easier to get an international call-up as a woman.
“The best players in the world are all men. Lots of people ask why – and it’s focus. Men often have fewer ‘distractions’ like family and so on. To be a world-class player, you really have to focus hard on bridge and invest a lot of time between the ages of 25 and 45, and that’s hard for women.”
Top-level players take part in tournaments every single weekend apart from a short summer break. Assuming they work during the week – few people in Switzerland earn a living from bridge – not much time is left over for personal and family matters.
“It’s not easy,” she admits. “It needs a lot of organisation and for both sides of the marriage to go for it – my husband has to support me and obviously I have to support him. It can be stressful.”
Kull represented Switzerland for the first time at the World Mind Sports Games in Beijing in 2008. She was part of the mixed six-person Swiss junior team.
“It was one of the most amazing adventures of my life. We played and stayed at the same places as the Olympic athletes, so we lived in the Olympic Village. We were there for two weeks and played usually seven to eight hours a day, every day.”
She then represented Switzerland in the women’s team in 2010 at the European Championship in Ostend. “My husband came with us to Belgium and looked after our son, and then in the breaks I would feed him. All the volunteers loved him!”
After cutting back on the cards to spend time with her young family – her sons are now four and two – she’s beginning to play more, hoping to represent Switzerland again. Last year she and a partner won the national mixed pair title.
When not playing with cards or children, Kull puts her logical brain to good use, working for the cantonal authority in Bern. She helps with the financial and administrative side of after-school day centres, where older pupils can stay if their parents are working.
She says she is prepared to teach them bridge – “I’m sure it would help at school, for example with concentration” – but admits it’s not easy attracting a new generation of young players.
“I lived in Zurich for five years and tried to get young people to play there – and I’m doing the same here in Bern – but I don’t have a formula for success,” she says.
“I hope my own kids will play, but you never know.”
Bridge, also known as contract bridge, is one of the world’s most popular card games.
It is a 52-card trick-taking partnership game and is thought to be based on a Russian version of whist, called biritch. Versions of whist go back to the 16th century, but bridge as we know it didn’t take off until the 1920s in the United States.
It peaked in popularity in the 1940s, but is still played by millions all around the world. The American Contract Bridge League has estimated that around three million Americans play at least once a week.
According to the Swiss Bridge Association, around 10,000 people currently play the game in Switzerland.
The World Bridge Federation has its headquarters in Lausanne.
Traditionally strong nations include the US, Italy, France, Norway, Poland and the Netherlands.
Famous bridge players – real and less real – include James Bond, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Hercule Poirot, Winston Churchill, Chico Marx, Martina Navratilova, Buster Keaton, Omar Sharif and Snoopy (cartoonist Charles Schulz, a long-time player, occasionally drew Snoopy, Woodstock and Woodstock’s friends playing bridge).