Sure it’s nice being a giant in the world of psychology, but sometimes Marty Seligman “just can’t wait to get to the bridge screen.”
BY Barbra Shotel
Back when Martin E. P. Seligman Gr’67 was eight years old, his mother, an avid bridge player, would sometimes keep him home from school to be a fourth in her games.
Missing those classes doesn’t seem to have done him any harm. Seligman, currently the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Center [“Degrees of Happiness,” May|June 2010], still managed to grow up to earn worldwide renown for his research on learned helplessness and positive psychology, become a best-selling author with 200 scholarly articles and a score of books to his credit (Flourish, his next, will be out in April), serve as president of the American Psychological Association, and accumulate numerous other professional honors.
But that early exposure did spark a lasting passion for what he calls “the world’s finest game.” For Seligman, the appeal of bridge “is simple: it is great entertainment.”
While its appeal may be simple, the game itself is anything but. For the uninitiated, bridge is played with a standard 52-card deck by two pairs of partners (North/South, East/West). Each player gets 13 cards and players bid according to the value and number of spades, hearts (major suits), clubs, and diamonds (minor suits) they have in their hand. Each pair attempts to win “tricks” (four cards, one from each player) for their side by laying down either the highest card of the suit being played or the highest trump card. (Trump is the suit of the winning contract and is used to “trump” a trick by a player who cannot follow suit because he or she is out of that suit—unless, of course, it is a No Trump contract where no suit has control.)
The resulting possible permutations are practically limitless, devotees say, touting bridge’s endless variety and mental challenge. The writer W. Somerset Maugham called it the “the most entertaining and intelligent card game the wit of man has so far devised,” while investment guru Warren Buffett (who sometimes plays with fellow billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates) has been quoted as saying he “wouldn’t mind being in jail if I had three cellmates who were decent players and who were willing to keep the game going 24 hours a day.”
Young Marty was a natural. By the time he was 13, he had surpassed his mother—she was “not a good player, but it was a family sport,” he says. As an undergraduate at Princeton in the early 1960s, he even flirted with the idea of turning pro, when the captain of Penn’s bridge team suggested that he and Seligman, then the captain of Princeton’s team, become partners. “I really thought about it, but declined,” he recalls.
As with Gates and Buffett in their respective fields, it’s probably just as well that Seligman ultimately opted for a career in psychology—though his standing in the bridge world is superior to that of either the Microsoft founder or the Sage of Omaha. However, he quickly notes, they are “not doing it for achievement,” adding as well that he—Seligman—will “never be a world-class player,” and that none of them will ever “be in the category of bridge as we are in our respective professions.”
Of course, if you’re them, that still leaves a lot of room to be pretty darned good at bridge.
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FEATURE: Passion Play by Barbra Shotel
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette