American Contract Bridge League moves headquarters to Memphis

Memphis, Tennessee, November 28, 1972: The prestigious American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) officially moved its North American headquarters from way up north in Greenwich, Connecticut, to way down south in Memphis, Tennessee, at 2200 Democrat Road. ACBL opened its offices, here yesterday, near the airport.

The decision to move did not come easily for the 44 year old card playing organization, especially from the standpoint of maintaining its rather stable—if not stodgy– historical tradition.

The ACBL board has been debating for months on exactly where to place the headquarters.  Everyone on the board knew by having the headquarters first in New York City for 42 years, then having it in Greenwich for the past two years created a huge geographic imbalance for the 170,000 member North American card organization.  Such a widely dispersed group needed to be more centrally located.

Even though Dallas, Cleveland, and St. Louis were considered as possible locations, Memphis got the nod for two main reasons:  it is more centrally located from a population standpoint, and it is an inexpensive city from which to operate.

ACBL underwent many name changes over the years until its current name was adopted in 1937; however, ACBL’s version of “contract” bridge first began being played in the mid-1920s among the wealthy elites in the northeast and spread rapidly from there to avid bridge enthusiasts of all economic classes.

Throughout its history, though, contract bridge has always maintained a kind of aristocratic air as being a card game played by intellectually gifted people with a penchant for the analytical and possessing—what is sometimes “politely” described as– a competitive nature.

That image was likely started by multi-millionaire Harvard educated attorney, businessman and champion yachtsman Harold “Mike” Vanderbilt of Newport, Rhode Island, great-grandson of legendary American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt.  “Mike,” as he was nearly always called, created the whole concept of contract bridge in 1925.

While on a Scandinavian ship voyage with bridge playing friends, “Mike” came up with his contract concept that took a lot of “luck of the draw” out of the game of bridge and made it a far more strategic, thoughtful, analytical card game. Prior to “Mike,” everyone played what was called “auction bridge.”

Vanderbilt felt the auction bidding system for estimating how many “tricks” a player could take in a hand of bridge was too loose and too much of a game of chance.  He tightened the game whereby each player had to make an exact contract for all tricks which they felt they could win in a hand, and he also altered the scoring system to match his new rules.

Sound confusing?  Exactly.  In a sense, Vanderbilt’s new bridge playing rules were tough—kind of like separating the naïve guessing children from the experienced calculating adults.

So, because of the dapper, bon vivant image of Vanderbilt and his immense wealth and social standing, it is likely contract bridge took on “Mike’s

somewhat exclusive and exalted image.  For the next few years, he spent a lot of money and time promoting his “adult” version of the game.  In 1929, Vanderbilt  published his first book on contract bridge.

But, now, the epicenter for the game of contract bridge has come to Memphis.  The exclusive image of the yachtsman on the waves of the Atlantic Ocean has been replaced by the working man’s barge, navigating the currents of the Mississippi River. Bridge is everyone’s game now—sociologically and geographically.

This headquarters move appears to be a point of pride to bridge players throughout the Mid-South. To the South’s ardent players, the game of bridge is far and away the greatest pastime in the world.  And, to emphasize the point, as stated by one Mid-South player, recently, “A bad night of bridge is far better than a good night of TV.”

Update

Today, the headquarters for the American Contract Bridge League is still located in the Memphis area, but in 2010, it moved to Horn Lake, Mississippi, at 6575 Windchase Blvd.  This attractive, state-of-the-art headquarters building boasts what is probably the finest bridge museum in the world, the ACBL Bridge Museum.  It is a fascinating interactive museum to visit, even if you are not particularly involved in bridge.  Its exhibits are compelling simply from an historical standpoint, and it also has the ACBL Bridge Hall of Fame, a difficult honor to attain, if there ever was one.

The 60 staff members at ACBL headquarters are kept extremely busy assisting 3 million tables of bridge annually with 300,000 of them on line.  There are now 3200 bridge clubs in North America that hold at least 1100 ACBL sanctioned bridge tournaments every year.

So, today—simply because of where it is located, the American Contract Bridge League has become a continuing part of Southern Memories for upwards of 170,000 avid bridge players, regardless of where they live in North America.

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