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It is true, of course, that contract bridge did not spring into being, Athena-like, from the head of Vanderbilt. He played many hours at the card games which are the forebears of contract: auction bridge, bridge whist and whist—the latter the farthest removed from contract but itself the font of derivative four-handed contract card games in which a trump is selected and victory depends on the number of tricks won in play.
Whist—and it was so titled, the legend goes, from the practice of hissing out "whist" to call for silence in 17th century cardrooms—was played as follows: as in contract the dealer distributed 52 cards equally among the four players, turning up the last card to determine trump. There was no bidding, no dummy, no no-trump. Though considerable ingenuity could ferret out the lie of the cards, the outcome of the game depended largely on luck.
Whist was a popular game, though, widely played not only in England but throughout the Continent. In fact, it was somewhere on the Continent that further variations led to a game known as bridge. Some historians say that bridge was originally played in Istanbul, Turkey by the Russian colony there. In any case, judging from one familiar story, it was from the Mediterranean that the game of bridge was brought to England. A certain Lord Brougham, visiting in Cairo, was introduced to a derivative of whist which, he was informed, was called bridge. The differences between the whist he knew and the new game were several. The last card was no longer turned up. Instead, the dealer, after inspecting his hand, named the trump or no-trump, or, if his hand was unsuitable to do either, he would say, "Partner, I leave it to you"—"bridging" the decision across the table (which is, of course, the prosaic version of the origin of the game's name). If his partner could find no suitable bid, he would say, "I make it a spade," the cheapest declaration, and one that was usually doubled. The dealer always played the hand, and, after the opening lead, his partner became dummy. In the scoring, each trick above six that either side won counted toward the 30 points required for game; when spades were trump they counted two points, clubs four points, diamonds six points, hearts eight points, royal spades (introduced in the late days of auction) nine points, and no-trump 12 points. Doubling was allowed, and, since there was no restriction on the number of redoubles until auction bridge was introduced, the trick score in a bon vivant game frequently mounted to awesome proportions.
Lord Brougham was delighted by the game, realizing quickly that it required a mental skill not involved, in whist. The story goes that he returned to London in the autumn of 1894, and one night joined a game of whist in the Portland Club, then a whist strong-hold and now a world-famous center of contract bridge. To the consternation of the other players at the table, Lord Brougham, neglecting to turn up the last card on his deal to signify the trump, picked up his hand, peered into it and announced the trump. The other players must have thought Lord Brougham addleheaded from the Mediterranean sun. Whist was a game conducted in rigorous formality. Lord Brougham is supposed to have apologized profusely for his oversight and told the group that his mind was on another game—bridge, he told them it was called. The whist players were intrigued and when the rubber of whist was completed, Lord Brougham showed them how to play it. Bridge was almost certainly known in England before Lord Brougham's arrival from Cairo, but his evening in the Portland brought it to widespread attention in whist circles. Within a few years bridge had supplanted whist in popularity.
When Vanderbilt was 15 he and his mother received their first bridge lessons from-the noted expert Joseph Elwell. Elwell in later years was Vanderbilt's favorite auction bridge partner, until his murder on June 11, 1920, a mystery that was never solved. He was found slumped in an armchair in the living room of his New York apartment with a powder-stained bullet hole in his forehead. He was clad in pajamas and wrapper, and—an insult to his notorious vanity—missing his toupee and false teeth.
The game in which Elwell partnered Vanderbilt was called auction bridge. It succeeded bridge and was the predecessor of the game Vanderbilt introduced aboard the Finland in 1925. The bridge historians are surprisingly in accord that auction bridge originated in India at a British post in the hill country. Three members of the British civil service were stationed there, with—to their despair—no fourth within 100 miles. The three—the names of two of them survive: a Mr. F. Roe and a Mr. Hudson—were avid bridge players, but although they tried all sorts of variations of three-handed bridge they never hit on anything which was completely satisfactory. Finally, one of them suggested that they bid as at an auction for the declaration of trump—thus giving each side, rather than simply the dealer, a chance to determine the final contract. They christened the game "auction bridge." Roe published a short treatise on the game in Allahabad in 1904 under the pseudonym "John Doe." The pamphlet found its way to England, and its innovations were adapted to four-handed bridge, first at the Bath Club in 1906, and then in the Portland Club in 1907.
The new game spread rapidly, submerging whist to a large extent, the old bridge completely, and continued to enjoy popularity until 1925 and the cruise of the Finland .
Auction bridge came to Vanderbilt's attention while he was attending the Harvard Law School in 1908. He became proficient at it almost immediately. Card games are almost second nature to him. Vanderbilt thinks that anyone possessed of normal intelligence can become a good cardplayer, but that the really good player—and he believes that the Mendelian law of inherited characteristics has much to do with it—must have some card sense born in him regardless of the diligent application he may give the game.
His own success and his card sense he attributes to an instinct and liking for cards that he has enjoyed since he was able to distinguish a jack from a queen. Card games absorbed him. As a boy he kept badgering his family's maids and gardeners for a game of slapjack, or casino, or old maid, and later hearts. He kept at his cards through school, college and law school (both at Harvard University). By the time he moved to New York in 1910 to enter the law department of his family's New York Central Railroad, he had established a considerable reputation as an auction bridge player. Of course, there were some—mainly habitu�s of the old Whist Club on West 36th Street in New York—who couldn't believe his reputation could hold up in expert play. In fact, when they heard there was a card-playing Vanderbilt, they rubbed their hands in delight and in anticipation of bulging their pocketbooks. But they found to their sorrow that his reputation was well founded. "They used to pay up regularly," Vanderbilt recalls with a grin.
As much as he enjoyed auction bridge and his success at it, Vanderbilt felt that the game could be more stimulating. The Finland cruise gave him a chance to try out a game he had been mulling over in his mind for some years. He realized that auction bridge was defective chiefly in that, although it had introduced the excellent principle of competitive bidding between the 'two sides to determine the final contract, it had retained the bridge principle of scoring toward game all tricks won in excess of the contract. Vanderbilt had played the French card game plafond and recognized the merit of its greatest asset: having to bid game in order to make it. He decided to introduce this feature in his new game, and saw what a fascinating field it opened up in connection with slams—not as in auction scoring a slam bonus because the slam was made, but having to bid the slam and risk sacrificing a sure game in order to obtain the bonus.