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The Birthday of Contract Bridge

Harold Stirling Vanderbilt was a card game enthusiast who perfected a new form of bridge, embodying the plafond principle but including the element of vulnerability and producing a scoring table that corrected the major faults in plafond. He succeeded so well that his game of contract bridge became the staple diet of card players everywhere. Afterward, he wrote:

"Many years of experience playing games of the Whist family were, I think, a necessary prelude to acquiring the background and knowledge needed to evolve the game of Contract Bridge. Starting as a young boy about 70 years ago, I have played successively over the years Whist, Bridge, Auction Bridge, and Plafond. "I compiled in the autumn of 1925 a scoring table for my new game. I called it Contract Bridge and incorporated in it, not only the best features of Auction and Plafond, but also a number of new and exciting features; premiums for slams bid and made, vulnerability, and the decimal system of scoring which by increasing both trick and game values and all premiums and penalties was destined to add enormously to the popularity of Contract Bridge.

"An ideal opportunity to try out my new game presented itself while I was voyaging shortly after completing my scoring table with three Auction Bridge playing friends on board the steamship Finland from Los Angeles to Havana via the Panama Canal, a nine-day trip. At first, we were at a loss for a term, other than game in, to describe the status of being subject to higher penalties because of having won a game. Fortunately for us, a young lady on board the Finland solved that problem by suggesting the word 'vulnerable.'

"We enjoyed playing my new game on board the Finland so much that, on my return to New York, I gave typed copies of my scoring table to several of my Auction Bridge playing friends. I made no other effort to popularize or publicize Contract Bridge. Thanks apparently to its excellence, it popularized itself and spread like wildfire."

No world-popular game in history, certainly none in the Whist family, can so accurately pinpoint its conception and the first time it was ever played.

Recent research has established that the S.S. Finland reached Balboa on Oct. 31, 1925, too late to proceed through the Canal or for passengers to go ashore. Francis Bacon III in 1975, the then sole surviving member of Vanderbilt foursome, recalled that on that night the lady who suggested "vulnerable" was allowed to join their game of plafond and attempted to suggest some exotic and impractical changes based on a game she said she had played in China. This so irritated Vanderbilt that the next day, while the Finland passed through the Canal, he worked out the scoring table for contract which, except for notrump tricks then being valued at 35 points each, remained virtually unchanged half a century later.

Within two years, three codes of laws had been produced for the new game. Those of Robert F. Foster and the Knickerbocker Whist Club (both 1927) were withdrawn in favor of the more authoritative code issued by the Whist Club of New York. In 1928 the game was adopted in the major New York clubs, and late that year the first National Championship was held.

Harold Stirling (Mike) Vanderbilt donated the Vanderbilt Trophy to go to the winners of what was then the U.S.A. national team-of-four championship. In 1932 and again in 1940, he was part of a team that won his own trophy and he penned several books on the subject. In 1969, the World Bridge Federation made Vanderbilt its first honorary member. When a Bridge Hall of Fame was inaugurated in 1964, Vanderbilt was one of the first of three persons elected. His trophy remains one of the most prized in the game.

The S.S. Finland Challenge is a privately organized worldwide pairs game held annually the last week of October to commemorate the birthday of bridge.

Source: Benoni Bridge Club , South Africa