The forthcoming Official Encyclopedia of Bridge notes that although Harold S. Vanderbilt was born into the richest and most famous American family of the times, piloted three yachts to victory in America's Cup races and was a highly successful business executive, his most lasting fame may come from his contributions to contract bridge.
Vanderbilt began to play serious bridge in 1906, when he was 22, and by 1910 and for 10 years thereafter he was a member of the pair—his partner was J.B. El well—considered to be the strongest in the United States.
Of course, the game in those days was auction bridge; the successful declarer didn't have to bid a game or a slam in order to get credit for it if he made it in the play. Then, while on a cruise in 1925, Vanderbilt began tinkering with the scoring system. He decided that only those tricks for which declarer had contracted should count toward game. He invented vulnerability to handicap the side that already had one game toward the rubber. But his most remarkable contribution was a scoring table so well balanced that slam bidding and sacrifice bidding became matters of fine judgment as well as high excitement.
Another Vanderbilt contribution—the first unified system of bidding—was less successful. His bidding system, featuring a one-club opening to show a strong hand and a one-diamond negative response, failed to become popular. Yet today this same hoary principle has become the basis of the systems played by the Italians and many other expert teams. Undiscouraged by earlier failures, today, at 80, Vanderbilt has published his fourth book, The Club Convention. Very much modernized over the system he originally advocated, it still retains the club opening and diamond denial as its basic fundamentals.
Many modern players do not realize that in addition to being a great theorist, Vanderbilt was also an excellent player. After his invention of contract bridge, he rarely played in tournaments, and in 1941 he retired from competition altogether. But Vanderbilt continued to play rubber bridge in the toughest possible competition. The stakes, of course, were of little concern to a man with his personal wealth but, like all good competitors, he hated to lose.
There was the afternoon, for instance, when he was due to catch the 20th Century Limited to Chicago. Vanderbilt was involved in a bridge game at his club and he was losing when it came time for him to leave. The story goes that, rather than leave a loser, Vanderbilt stayed to play another rubber, secure in the knowledge that the New York Central's crack train would not dare leave without its director and probably its largest stockholder. Vanderbilt has always denied the story but, true or not, you could be sure that if there was a way to victory, he would find it. Here, for example, is a hand taken from his very first book, in which he modestly refrained from stating that he was the declarer who had brought home the ticklish slam.
North's club bid showed a powerful hand and Vanderbilt's diamond response with the South hand showed less than one and a half ace-king tricks, as Vanderbilt called them in those early days of contract. North's two-no-trump bid was forcing and required South to take out in a five-card suit. South jumped to four hearts to show a long suit and better than the minimum his diamond response had announced. North's four-no-trump call indicated that hearts was his weak suit (this was before the Black wood days). South showed his second suit and an aversion to no trump by his bid of five spades and North carried on to the slam.
The key to the whole hand came at the very first trick. Vanderbilt realized that he could not make the slam unless trumps split. To minimize the danger of an overruff in clubs, he won the first diamond lead in dummy and discarded the club from his hand. Next he led a low club and ruffed it, returned to dummy with a high trump and ruffed another low club. A lead to dummy's remaining spade honor left only the master trump outstanding. The good clubs were cashed and the only trick the defenders could win was East's jack of spades.
Note that if Vanderbilt had neglected to discard a club and began his ruffs of that suit with the second round, when he played the third round of clubs West would be in a position to overruff. Or, if declarer drew two rounds of trumps in order to prevent this, he would remain with no entry to dummy after the club suit had been established. It is an easy play to make when you see it—but, even today, how many players would have foreseen the need for Vanderbilt's careful play?