As “Fargo” Season 3 kicks off in its premiere episode, viewers meet a few of its soon-to-be-in-over-their-heads-in-crime characters. Among them are Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor) and Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a pair who have dreams to dominating the competitive bridge circuit for big bucks.
To people unfamiliar with the game, it might sound a bit weird, especially with bridge’s stereotypical depiction in movies as a game 1950s couples play with their friends on weeknights. But like in “Fargo,” there is a healthy competitive scene around the game, with tournaments and world championships — and even professional players.
So can you earn a six-figure sponsorship to play bridge, like Nikki hopes to do in the premiere episode of “Fargo?”
The answer, at least in 2010 when the show takes place, seems to be yes. According to a 2010 story from Canada’s Globe and Mail, there are professional players who make bridge their living, in fact. But keeping yourself afloat as a pro isn’t the same as in other card games, such as poker.
Professional poker players make money a variety of ways — first, by winning, since poker is a gambling game. But tournament players also can win hefty purses even in smaller tournaments, to say nothing of the millions of dollars up for grabs in the World Series of Poker and other similar big-name competitions. The best poker players today also often get corporate sponsorships in the poker world, especially because bigger tournaments have come to be televised.
As the Globe and Mail reports, though, 2010 bridge pro play was a tougher racket. The story describes a world championship tournament where the winners took home a purse of precisely zero. There was no prize money up for grabs at all. And smaller tournaments, like the seemingly fictional Wildcat Regional where Nikki and Ray play, probably don’t give out any prize money either.
Bridge, of course, is a four-player card game in which two sets of players are partners, taking on the other team. The rules are a bit complex, but the basic overview is that each team is trying to win “tricks.” One team declares a “trump” suit and plays a card, and the other players each take turns playing a card, attempting to play the highest card they can of the same suit (or the best trump they can) in order to win the trick.
Scoring and strategy in bridge comes down to trying to accurately predict just how many of each hand’s 13 tricks you and your partner can win.
According to the Globe and Mail story, bridge sponsorships like the one Nikki’s hoping to get do exist, but they’re different from poker’s corporate sponsorships that often have players wearing branded clothes when they appear on TV.
In bridge, sponsorships come from rich folks who pay great players to be on their teams for tournaments. The idea is that these players look for the best partners they can get in order to be competitive. Not many players get to that status though — the Globe and Mail article says there were maybe a few dozen in North America who made a good living on bridge when the story was published.
But the six-figure income Nikki talks about is (or was in 2010) possible, the story says, if you’re really good.
In addition to being great at bridge, you also need to be personable, according to the pro bridge players the Globe and Mail quote. Nobody wants boring folks on their team. So in addition to making a reputation for themselves at bridge tournaments — something Nikki and Ray might be on the way to doing with their third runner-up title at the Wildcat Regionals — the pair will also need to be fun and friendly so that professional sponsors will want to hang out with them.
All that suggests a bit of where “Fargo” Season 3 might be headed for Ray and Nikki. They’re already embroiled in some dastardly doings by the end of the premiere, but the pair have big bridge plans going forward. It seems possible we could see them engaging some deep-pocket bridge fans for a sponsorship. And surely, since this is “Fargo,” nothing untoward will come of it.