Bringing back sartorial standards at the card table would curb aggressive behaviour, says Tony Forrester.
Picture the scene. A room with a hundred one-metre-square tables with four people seated around each one, deep in thought. The women smart as usual.
The men... some are still OK but there is now a large body (in more ways than one) of the T-shirts and shorts brigade. Sandals - no socks, of course - are an optional extra. One just prays that they do not have the desire to lean back in their chair with hands clasped behind their head. I leave you to imagine the resultant waft, and it is not of Hugo Boss.
Welcome to the modern bridge tournament. It could be even worse. I have seen cards thrown across the table, a man pinning another against a wall, hands round his throat. Such physical violence is rare, but in a tournament where 1,000 people are playing, up to 50 arguments resulting in raised voices could be heard during a single day.
This week, there has been renewed concern that aggressive play means standards have declined. But I am not convinced that introducing a code of conduct, as happened in 2006, has improved matters. There may be a much simpler solution. Dress sense has disappeared. In the 1970s, when I started competing at tournament level, it was jacket and tie for the evening sessions. By the 1980s, we were down to "no jeans" and then the constraints were lifted altogether.
But what have these comments about dress to do with whether bridge players act courteously? Just this: we tend to dress according to occasion. So, one wouldn't arrive at an interview in the bridge attire mentioned above, or visit the beach in Benidorm in a suit and tie. Once we go down-market in our choice of clothes, our consciousness follows suit. I believe bringing back minimum standards in dress will have a positive influence on how we behave at the table. It is a social occasion of note and bridge should not be afraid to distinguish itself as such. Just take tournament snooker as a parallel. It is elevated by the look of the competitors rather than diminished by them; by keeping its dinner jackets it has maintained standards and reputation.
What else can we do? Discard the plethora of rules which allow bridge's "legal eagles" (those who study the niceties of the most obscure rules) to intimidate inexperienced players. One of the most common tricks is ostentatiously timing players after "stops" (where the next player must pause for 10 seconds after a pre-emptive call). Instead, we should focus on the approach fostered by Andrew Robson, the country's leading bridge teacher at his club in Fulham. Summed up in one word: "enjoy". For, if we can't relax, there will be more friction. More friction produces more argument and those who benefit are generally those who shouldn't. They are the ones studying the fine print of the "laws" in greatest detail, just waiting to hit some innocent over the head with their new-found knowledge.
Of course we cannot help occasional bust-ups. Bridge is an emotional game; it produces a passionate, competitive response from us and that is one of its strengths. And a little touch of spice can do no harm - for example John McEnroe and Alex Higgins boosted interest in their respective sports to record levels.
So we must embrace our volatile alter ego but not feed it with artificial sweeteners. Bridge is not a game that deals in celebrity, or that chases after the young and fashionable. That, in the end, is its strength and why more people in the end are turning to it. The pleasure of the game is power enough. So we must remove the legal paraphernalia from our game, raise the standards of dress and watch as bridge retrieves its former status in our society.
Tony Forrester is bridge correspondent of The Daily Telegraph