Omar Sharif and Bridge: Understanding the Math Behind His Famed Hobby

Sharif was a big bridge player.

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Google paid tribute to legendary actor Omar Sharif on Tuesday, whose roles in such greats as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago propelled him to stardom. But perhaps less known is his love of the card game bridge. He used to play while he was making films and rose in the ranks to become one of the 50 best players in the world.

Bridge is easy to learn but difficult to master. Four players are dealt a hand of 13 cards each. The players then take it in turns around the circle to place a card down face up constituting a “trick.” The winner of the “trick” is the person who places the highest value card that also matches the suit of the first card placed down. During the “bidding” phase, teams decide how many “tricks” they think they can win based on first-placed suits. The declarer is the one who is left at the end of the bidding process and thus plays the hand, and their teammate called the dummy must place their cards down face up on the table and let the other three play. That’s a very simplified version of the rules, but it’s a game that incentivizes taking risks depending on how you consider your chances.

Bridge is a complex game to master.

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Bridge requires players to understand their chances ahead of play. They need to calculate how many cards they have in the suit and how those cards interact with the other hands. For example, a player with a lot of high cards (ranked in terms of “high card points”) is likely to win more “tricks” and score more, so part of the game is working with the probabilities of the dealt cards.

As the goal is to work as a pair to win the most tricks, the game also requires pairs to work together and find the longest suit fit between the players. Diamonds and clubs are called “minor” suits and worth less than the “major” spades and hearts suits. Players need to maximize their chances of winning the bid by finding eight cards between their partner that match the suit and could result in a strong play.

Sharif was prolific in his bridge playing. He founded the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus and performed for such audiences as the Shah of Iran. When asked once why he played so much bridge when he could have been making more films, Sharif replied: “The real question is why I spend so much time making movies when I could be playing bridge.”

Google has previously paid tribute to figures like Virginia Woolf, Sergei Eisenstein, and John Harrison.

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