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Harold Stirling Vanderbilt

Harold Stirling Vanderbilt (July 6, 1884 - July 4, 1970) of Newport RI, was a bridge authority whose revisions of auction bridge scoring principles created modern contract bridge, also a system-maker and a champion player. He was born at Oakdale NY into the richest and most famous American family of that time. His father, William Kissam Vanderbilt, died in 1920 leaving an estate of some $54.5 million. Vanderbilt graduated from Harvard Law School in 1910, then entered his family's railroad business, New York Central, founded by his great- grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. For many years he was a successful business executive. His greatest fame in competitive fields is as a yachtsman. His revision of right-of-way rules are still known as the Vanderbilt Rules. Nevertheless, his lasting fame is more likely to come from his contributions to bridge.

Vanderbilt took up bridge seriously in 1906, and his partnership with J. B. Elwell was considered the strongest in the U.S. from 1910 to 1920. During that period the contract bridge principle — counting only bid tricks toward game — was often proposed and as often rejected, except for the limited success of Plafond. Experimenting with the proposed new game while on a cruise late in 1925, Vanderbilt originated the factors of vulnerability and inflated slam bonuses. He produced a scoring table so balanced as to make nearly every aggressive or sacrifice bid an approximately even bet, allowing just enough differential to permit the exercise of nice judgment.

The rapid spread of contract bridge from 1926 to 1929 is largely attributable to Vanderbilt's espousal of it; his social standing made the game fashionable. Vanderbilt's technical contribution was even greater. He devised the first unified system of bidding, and was solely responsible for the artificial 1 bid to show a strong hand, the negative 1 response, the strong (16- to 18-point) notrump on balanced hands only, and the weak two-bid opening. These and his other principles were presented in his books. Contract Bridge Bidding and the Club Convention; The New Contract Bridge; Contract by Hand Analysis; and The Club Convention Modernized.

Vanderbilt was a member of the Laws Committee of the Whist Club of New York that made the American laws of contract bridge (1927, 1931) and the first international code (1932). He then became chairman of that committee, and largely drafted the international code of 1935, the American code of 1943, and the international codes of 1948 and 1949. He remained co-chairman of the National Laws Commission of the ACBL for the 1963 laws. In 1928 Vanderbilt presented the Harold S. Vanderbilt Cup for the national team-of-four championship now known as the Vanderbilt. This became, and still is, the most coveted American team trophy, mainly because the replicas were donated personally by Vanderbilt to the winners. In 1960 Vanderbilt supplied the permanent trophy for the World Bridge Federation's Olympiad Team tournaments, again adopting the policy of giving replicas to the winners.

As a player, Vanderbilt always ranked high. In 1932 and 1940 he won his own Vanderbilt Cup. He played by choice only in the strongest money games, and was a consistent winner. His regular partnership with Waldemar von Zedtwitz was among the strongest and most successful in the U.S. In 1941 he retired from tournament bridge, but he continued to play in the most expert rubber bridge games, in clubs and at home.

In 1968, Vanderbilt spent more than $50,000 to recreate the lost molds for the replicas of the American trophy and to provide a quantity of replicas of both trophies sufficient to last from 20 to 40 years. To perpetuate this practice of awarding individual replicas, Vanderbilt further bequeathed to the ACBL a trust fund of $100,000, a gift that wisely foresaw the possibility of inflation, but provided that excess funds, if any, can be donated io Vanderbilt's name to a charity of ACBL's choice. When last purchased, replicas of the American trophy cost $600; of the Olympiad trophy, $500.

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 three persons elected. Member Advisory Board Bridge Encyclopedia.

Source: The Officicial Encyclopedia of Bridge, 1994