Bridge in the western United States owes its organizational beginnings to an administrative giant: Tom Stoddard of Laguna Hills CA. Hailed as the “Father of West Coast Bridge,” Stoddard is one of the outstanding personalities of American bridge as an ACBL Hall of Fame administrator who pioneered bridge teaching and bridge-club management.
Bridge cures Depression
In 1931, at age 35, Stoddard owned a failing hotel in Los Angeles. Having played contract bridge and read about it in the Los Angeles Times, he was inspired to turn the bottom floor of the hotel into a center for bridge for bridge lessons and duplicate games. By 1933, the club employed 11 teachers and was open six days a week from 9:30 a.m. to midnight.
National Tournament Director Charlie MacCracken calls Stoddard an extremely successful organizer. Stoddard would go from city to city, he says, recruiting people who became unit officers. “They, in turn, would be eager to increase attendance at their clubs, and they recruited a lot of members.”
Pulling together clubs and players throughout the West Coast, Stoddard founded the Pacific Bridge League in 1933. The PBL included the 11 far western states, the territories of Hawaii and Alaska, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. Stoddard also started publishing the Contract Bridge Forum in the early 1930s. Through more than 78 years of publication, it has been the voice of the Western Conference.
On the tournament train
In his presentation, “Bridge in the Wild & Wooly West,” Bob Garret outlines Stoddard’s strategy for staging the first bridge regional in the west.
“He picked a popular venue he could easily advertise – the world-famous Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel, bi-annual site of the 1930’s Academy Award ceremonies and home to the renowned Cocoanut Grove Nightclub.” The 1935 Labor Day weekend tournament was a roaring success. Today, 82 years later, the All Western Regional is still held on Labor Day weekend, except that it has moved north to Santa Clara CA.
Retired National Tournament Director Tom Quinlan calls Stoddard a very congenial man.
“When he talked to you one-on-one, you felt like he was truly interested in you,” says Quinlan. “He didn’t have any trouble making friends, and this helped him immensely when it came to wheeling and dealing with hotels.”
Says Garret, “Our entrepreneur’s next idea was 70 years ahead of its time – why not a traveling regional?”
Stoddard conceived of a 10-day tournament that would start play at the Ambassador Hotel, then at the end of the afternoon of the fifth day of play, the players boarded the Southern Pacific “Coastal Starlight,” and played the evening session as they chugged north to San Francisco. On day six, they began play at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. In alternate years, play started in San Francisco and caravanned south to Los Angeles, according to Quinlan.
“It was a tradition for the mayor of each city to greet the players on the first day of play in their respective city,” says Garret. Bridge Week, a regular fourth-of-July regional on the ACBL calendar, is that tournament – minus the Ambassador, the train and San Francisco.
In 1946, Stoddard added another prestigious hotel to his regional locales when he negotiated with the Spreckels – a prominent San Diego Family – to bring bridge to the Hotel Del Coronado.
Garret’s historical research shows the bridge rate for a 1957 tournament at $18 a day. In today’s dollars, $18 equals $156 – and it included meals.
The result of a 1937 merger between the United States Bridge Association and the American Bridge League, the ACBL pretty much stopped at the Mississippi River.
Collaboration to extend the League’s territory westward began in 1940 when the ACBL and the PBL agreed upon a uniform masterpoint system. On his way to meet with ACBL Secretary Bill McKenney in New York, Stoddard’s plane went down in St. Louis. Garret says the rescue workers dug a “very much alive Mr. Stoddard” out of the debris. Relatively uninjured, Stoddard requested immediate booking on a flight to New York.
In 1946, Stoddard turned his bridge business over to his associates, and in 1948, he agreed to a merger of the PBL and the national organization, an arrangement that was consummated in 1956.
While each of the seven districts that made up the Western Division had its own political leadership, Stoddard maintained overall control as the manager of the Western Conference.
MacCracken remembers Stoddard as being extremely thrifty.
“One of Stoddard’s executives, Allan Green, used to take a toothbrush and aluminum polish and clean up aluminum boards when they came back to the office following tournaments.” Eventually the toothbrush wore out. “Allan went into to see Tom. ‘I need a new toothbrush,’ said Allan.’
“‘Let me see it,’” replied Stoddard, who upon presentation of the debristled brush, agreed it needed to be replaced. “‘Go buy a new one on your lunch hour.’”
Green returned from lunch with a new brush. When Stoddard saw him, he grabbed the new brush away and took it home for his own, says MacCracken. “The next day, Tom came in with his used personal toothbrush for Allan to use to polish the boards.”
“Western Conference tournaments were huge!” MacCracken says. “It wasn’t unusual for Bridge Week, held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, to have side games of 20 sections.”
Quinlan remembers a tournament at the Ambassador so large that a tent was erected on the front lawn. He calls the arrangement rustic and he would know – as a rookie TD, he worked the tent!
“The idea wasn’t popular with the players, and it was abandoned.”
Quinlan also remembers Bridge Week as the first tournament which offered midnight games. “I don’t know of any other tournament in the west that had a midnight game. These were not small games – we had a hundred tables, six or seven sections filled up the room.”
The playing area was conveniently located right next to the bar, Quinlan adds. “That bar did a lot of business!”
Quinlan says Stoddard’s wife was a fairly good player, but of Stoddard – “I never saw him play bridge. He was never a tournament player. But he was a great administrator.”
Named the ACBL Honorary Member in 1960, Stoddard was also a member of the Goodwill Committee. He contributed monthly to the Bridge Bulletin as its Western tournament correspondent. In May 1976, he was awarded the rare “Certificate of Service” citation by the ACBL Board of Directors for his long and devoted service to bridge and to the ACBL.
Stoddard, who died in 1976, was inducted into the ACBL Hall of Fame in 2010 as a Blackwood Award winner.