The All-Time Bridge Greats
By Harold S. Vanderbilt
The ancestry of the game of bridge can be traced at least as far
back as early sixteenth century England when prototypes of Whist
were being played. By the middle of the seventeenth century Whist
was being played under its modern name.
The next major step towards bridge as we know it came in the eighteenth
century with Bridge Whist, the main innovations being that the dealer
or his partner could select the trump suit plus the exposure of
the dummy hand. Also, reflecting the fact that Bridge Whist was
essentially a gambling game, were the new calls of double and redouble,
which could go on indefinitely. Already, many of the features of
scoring with which we are familiar today, such as games, rubbers
and slam bonuses, were in place.
Step three came early in the 1900s with the introduction of Auction
Bridge. The major innovation was the introduction of competitive
bidding. The aim was always to keep the bidding low because declarer
gained full credit, including slam bonuses, for the tricks made
whether contracted for or not. Scoring was quite different from
that of Contract Bridge and honours, which play a minor part in
rubber bridge scoring today and none at all in duplicate, had a
disproportionate importance which could seriously distort the bidding.
And then, late in 1925, came the final step to Contract Bridge,
the game we play today. The man credited with the invention of the
new form of the game was Harold Stirling Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt had been born into the then richest family in America
and on his father's death in 1920 he inherited an estate worth well
over $50 million. He had taken up bridge seriously in 1906 and his
partnership with Joseph Bowne Elwell was considered to be the strongest
in the country at Auction Bridge for many years.
The story goes that Vanderbilt was taking a cruise from California
to Havana, Cuba in the Fall of 1925. While on the cruise he formulated
the rules and scoring table for the new game of Contract. Vanderbilt
actually came up with little new but rather gathered together what
he considered to be the best features of a number of games already
in existence. Putting a premium on accurate bidding, the idea that
only tricks both made AND contracted for should count towards game
was already a feature of Plafond, a game particularly popular in
France and with which Vanderbilt would certainly have been familiar.
The story also tells that many suggestions were made by a young
lady fellow passenger, including the innovation of vulnerability,
which added considerably to the variety of the game. The young lady's
identity has never been established and whether she ever actually
existed is a matter for conjecture.
Vanderbilt inflated the scores for tricks and undertricks, for
slams and for winning the rubber. Basically, by adding noughts on
to the old scoring tables, he made the numbers more exciting, but
Vanderbilt also altered the scores for making and defeating contracts
to get the right balance to encourage the competitive aspect of
Over the next few years, Contract swept all before it and was soon
the dominant form of the game. Vanderbilt's social standing was
the key to the game's rapid acceptance, making it instantly fashionable.
But it was not only as inventor and populariser that Vanderbilt
was a major figure in the game. He also made a massive contribution
to theory, devising the first unified system of bidding, inventing
the concept of the strong 1§ opening and 1¨negative response, the
strong no trump and weak two bids.
Vanderbilt was also active in bridge administration and a fine
player. He awarded the Vanderbilt Cup for what is still the most
prestigious teams competition in American bridge and won his own
trophy twice, in 1932 and 1940.
So Harold S. Vanderbilt's place in the history of bridge was a
crucial one. In succeeding chapters we will look at some of the
other great names who, through their great skill or colourful personalities,
have also laid claim to a place near the top of the bridge pantheon.