The card game bridge is hardly the most physically strenuous of activities. But according to a judgment by one of the European court of justice’s most senior lawyers, the game should be considered a sport – for tax purposes at least.
The recommendation is the latest salvo in a longrunning legal case brought by the English Bridge Union (EBU), which argues that entry fees for its tournaments should be exempt from VAT, as is the case with all activities classed as sport.
The EBU lost its initial claim against HM Revenue and Customs, which says sports should have a significant element of physical activity. But the EBU appealed to the upper tax tribunal, which referred the case to European judges.
The player-funded organisation maintains that preferential tax treatment for sport was intended to benefit activities that provide either physical or mental health benefits to regular participants. It argues that bridge – a game played by four players in two competing partnerships – helps stimulate the mind, particularly in older people.
On Thursday the advocate general Maciej Szpunar argued that sport should be understood as something that involved the “training of mental or physical fitness in a way that is generally beneficial to the health and wellbeing of citizens”, and recommended that bridge be exempted from VAT in the UK.
He also noted that the International Olympic Committee was among organisations that “expressly include mental sports or endorse activities without a physical element”, having classified bridge as a sport in 1998.
The case will be reviewed by ECJ judgesin the autumn. If they uphold Szpunar’s recommendation, the EBU will no longer have to pay VAT and may be eligible for a rebate. While the recommendation is not binding, judges usually follow the advice of advocate generals.
“This will have huge benefits as it will allow us to invest further in the game, and make entries to EBU competitions cheaper, thus allowing more people to enjoy playing bridge, and enabling more to experience the social and mental benefits that playing bridge offers,” the EBU said in a statement.
Jeremy Dhondy, the EBU’s chairman, said the finding was “a vindication of our view that bridge should be regarded as a sport with all the advantages that brings both for bridge as a game and also for our members and prospective members”.
“We want our game to play its full part as an activity to promote social inclusion and welcome the judgment of the European court,” he added.
Different countries have different opinions on whether bridge is a sport. In Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and it is classed as a sport for tax purposes, but in Ireland and Sweden it is not.
The 2011 Charities Act adopted a definition of sport as “activities which promote health involving physical or mental health or exertion”, which specifically included “mind sports”.
However, in 2015 the high court ruled that bridge was not a sport eligible for lottery funding, with lawyers acting for Sport England telling the court that the game was no more a sport than “sitting at home reading a book”.