Last month in London, where my business was connected with the plan to bring the now 10-year-old contract bridge laws up to date, I visited the headquarters of England's lawmakers for whist, for bridge and now for contract: the venerable, aristocratic and exceedingly exclusive Portland Club, situated on Charles Street in the heart of Mayfair not far from Berkeley Square.
Contract bridge is the one card game with laws that are not subject to change by individual whim or local option. Its laws are made for the players but not by them nor even by their duly elected representatives.
In return for this somewhat undemocratic procedure, however, a contract bridge player can cut into a game anywhere in the world with no need to learn a new set of house rules and with no worry that his seemingly unbeatable hand might be wrecked because an opponent produces a joker, or the ace of a strange green suit he never saw before.
Who makes these bridge laws?
Several august groups collaborate to insure that the bridge code will be international. Here in the U.S. it's the National Laws Commission, an independent committee of the American Contract Bridge League. On the Continent it's the Executive Committee of the European Bridge League, comprising the bridge leaders of many countries. But in England it's the Card Committee of a single bridge club, the Portland, a club to which not one of Britain's top tournament bridge players belongs.
Ever since I got over my first nervousness about hobnobbing with pasteboard kings and queens, I have felt quite comfortable in court society, so it did not faze me that the Portland's members are for the most part of a rather exalted position. I long ago discovered that the card table is a social arena where the only recognized inequality is in the matter of skill.
Nevertheless I was awed, remembering that the early greats of whist had played at the tables of this same Portland Club a century and more ago; men like James Clay, William Pole, Henry Jones. Pole, born in 1814, was the first whist expert to emphasize the partnership factor. Clay was an even earlier whist expert. Jones, widely known under his pen name of Cavendish, was called the "father of modern whist," and was recognized as the top authority of the game.
Today the Portland Club's quarters are comfortably modern; yet there is a feeling of timelessness about them that links back to the Portland's natal year of 1825. According to tradition, the club really began 10 years earlier, having been founded in 1815 as the Stratford Club. Finding themselves saddled with one objectionable member, the ever-consistent Stratfordites never dreamed of asking him to resign. Instead, they simply abandoned the Stratford Club and reorganized as the Portland—with one member less.
Portland Club history is bound up with the history of all games of the whist family. Bridge, that newcome interloper, was first introduced there by Lord Brougham in 1894. By 1898, the Whist Reference Book sadly reported, "The fact is the Portland, like many other clubs, has been suffering for some time from an attack of 'bridge' and, until the craze has run its course, true whist is in the minority there, to the sorrow of whist lovers."
The author proved a poor prophet. The whist family was doomed to produce a line of patricides. Bridge (in which the dealer's side named the trump suit) was followed in 1904 by auction bridge (in which the highest bidder named the trump), and auction was swallowed by contract bridge about 1929. Each new sprig overwhelmed the branch from which it sprang, but for each new game the Portland Club was recognized as England's official lawmaker. The code under which contract is played today was drawn in collaboration with and approved by the Portland; new laws, when they are adopted, will achieve international acceptance only when they win the sanction of the Portland Club's Card Committee.