Skip to main content
Original Issue


On a visit to London, America's premier bridge expert is the guest of a distinguished peer at the shrine of the game

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.

The tacit arrangement is typically British in that ruling power is entirely a matter of tradition, for the Portland Club sends no teams to the tourneys. Some of its members were and are great players, but the Portland has made no effort to perpetuate its onetime description as "the club of the most skillful of London card players" by extending an open-armed welcome to bridge experts. For a card club, this is exceptional. And, though its members sit down to excellent dinners prepared by an exceptional chef, though they sometimes hold a golf tournament, though it is in all respects its members' home away from home (with ladies barred, of course), the Portland is first and last a card club.

The Earl of Carnarvon (son of the man who discovered the tomb of Tut Ankh Amen), with whom I have frequently enjoyed a game, had described the Portland as a "charming club to belong to; its members charming to play with and against." I found he had in no way exaggerated: nothing could have exceeded the charm and courtesy with which they relieved me of my money.

However, of course no money changes hands in the playing rooms. Score ledgers for each table are turned in at the conclusion of play and each member's results—including the results of his guests—are posted to his account. I am not sure how regularly these accounts are settled, for I am still awaiting word from the Duke of Marlborough, the sponsor on whose cuff I played, as to how much I owe him.

My account was not as easy to keep track of as you might think—due not alone to the complexity of translating results from pounds to dollars but also to the courteous English custom of calling "Table up" at the conclusion of each rubber.

Under this system a player cut out at one table is eligible to play at the first table to conclude a rubber. As a result of this—and because there is a longish interval between tea time and the late London dinner hour—I played at all three of the active tables in my room.

This call of "Table up," by the way, was the only time I heard a raised voice all afternoon. Portlanders post-mortem quite as much as other players, but requiems on unfulfilled contracts are softly uttered in a nearly voiceless minor key.

I am still at rather a loss (alas, literally as well as figuratively) as to the Portland's customary stakes. I seldom play rubber bridge, and when I do it is at modest rates. But this was a special occasion; I was the guest of the Duke of Marlborough, and besides, as someone remarked under quite different circumstances, "It was the only game in town."

Looking over the roster of the Portland Club's 100 members, it is apparent that they are drawn from a variety of influential spheres of British society. It includes men like Rudolph de Trafford, head of Higginson's and brother of Sir Humphrey de Trafford, steward of The Jockey Club; Mark Ostrer, head of Gaumont-British; Sir Edward Baron, head of Carreras; Baron Robert de Nexon, president of Chanel International, president of the European Bridge League and one of the last of the gentleman riders in the steeplechase.

It is a roster studded with names important in and to the game of contract bridge: Sir Guy Dombille, who played against teams headed by Ely Culbertson in the first international contract bridge matches; Horace H. Renshaw, chairman of the Portland's Card Committee, who somehow manages to combine the easy grace of the English country gentleman with the drive of an American industrialist; Geoffrey Butler, president of the British Bridge League; representatives of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales; and many more.

I began this tale by saying that the laws of bridge are the same wherever you might play. Everywhere, that is, except the Portland. With legislatorlike privilege, they have embroidered on the laws their own prohibition: in the Portland Club cue bids are taboo; I was warned when I first sat down to play, "We don't bid voids." I wonder what might happen if one of the players in those sacred precincts were to bid a psychic. I, for one, did not care to find out by trying.

The Portland Club is historic, dignified, distinguished. While sitting in its august rooms, I was inevitably reminded of the most famous of all bridge hands—the "Duke of Cumberland." Today's slangy description of a powerful hand as "quite a duke" may stem from this legendary deal, which isn't a bridge hand at all but was originally a whist hand. Like the Portland Club, however, it has prospered through all the games of the whist family.

In the original story, the duke, sitting in the West position, had a slightly different hand, including a fourth club. At whist the last card was turned to determine the trump suit. In this deal, South turned a club for trump. The duke was asked, "What would you lead?" When His Grace answered, "The fourth-best trump, of course," he was offered a bet that he would not win a single trick. The duke accepted the wager to the tune of £20,000, and his loss (worth much more than $250,000 in today's money) is the largest ever recorded on a single hand.

The great flaw when the hand was put into a bridge setting was the way North and South were supposed to arrive at a club contract. However, I am pleased to report that this flaw has been cured by one of the newest conventions in bridge—North's "unusual no trump" asking partner to take his choice between the minor suits (SI, Sept. 16, 1957).

Of course, seven clubs is a laydown. North ruffs a spade or a heart opening; South gets to his hand twice by ruffing diamonds and is able to finesse against West's trumps while at the same time establishing North's long diamond suit. West's "duke," in all the years of this hand's history, is still waiting to take a trick.









EARL OF CARNARVON is one of Portland Club's many fine bridge-playing peers.



NO MONEY changes hands in the Portland Club. The steward (above) records the stakes of the members in his ledger, later makes the necessary financial adjustments.


East-West vulnerable West dealer


[Spade] .. ..
[Heart] .. ..
[10 of Diamonds]
[9 of Diamonds]
[8 of Diamonds]
[7 of Diamonds]
[6 of Diamonds]
[5 of Diamonds]
[4 of Diamonds]
[3 of Diamonds]
[2 of Diamonds]
[Ace of Clubs]
[Queen of Clubs]
[10 of Clubs]
[8 of Clubs]


[Ace of Spades]
[King of Spades]
[Queen of Spades]
[Jack of Spades]
[Ace of Hearts]
[King of Hearts]
[Queen of Hearts]
[Jack of Hearts]
[Ace of Diamonds]
[King of Diamonds]
[King of Clubs]
[Jack of Clubs]
[9 of Clubs]


[10 of Spades]
[9 of Spades]
[8 of Spades]
[4 of Spades]
[3 of Spades]
[8 of Hearts]
[7 of Hearts]
[6 of Hearts]
[5 of Hearts]
[Diamond] .. ..
[7 of Clubs]
[5 of Clubs]
[3 of Clubs]
[2 of Clubs]


[7 of Spades]
[6 of Spades]
[5 of Spades]
[2 of Spades]
[10 of Hearts]
[9 of Hearts]
[4 of Hearts]
[3 of Hearts]
[2 of Hearts]
[Queen of Diamonds]
[Jack of Diamonds]
[6 of Clubs]
[4 of Clubs]


2 [Spade]
3 [Heart]
6 [Heart]


7 [Club]


4 [Heart]


5 [Club]