He was on a slow boat to Havana, with little more to do than read and play cards, and all the card games seemed boring, too dependent on luck instead of wits. So Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, scion of the New York Central Railroad family, repaired to his stateroom to see what he could do.

Hours later, it came to him. Have players bid games and slams. Devise a scoring system that rewards accurate judgment. Penalize players who fail to make bids. Here was a game suitable for people of his intelligence. Vanderbilt put it to the test with fellow-travelers out there on the ocean and, by God, it worked.

Thus, in 1925, the modern game of bridge was born.

For a few years, Vanderbilt's glorious creation, a refinement of the earlier games of whist and auction bridge, was played only in the exclusive clubs of Southampton and Newport. But as word spread that to play contract bridge well was an instant advertisement of brains, it evolved into the card game for 40 million Americans and millions more around the world.

Today, like so many other popular diversions in the realm of sports and games, bridge serves as a mirror of society. The right of privacy, the impact of television, the relations of different races and nations, the temptation to attain fame through raw cheating or cold cash -- all of these dilemmas of modern man are played out in the world of bridge. It is still a game played with 52 cards, but in several ways it has become a big business.

First, bridge is a popular gambling game. There are more than 500 clubs around the country where playing bridge for money is the major activity. The biggest club New York's Cavendish, regularly runs a 45-cents-a-point game in which nearly $2,000 can be won or lost on just two deals.

Second, bridge supports an unusual underground job market. There are hundreds of professional bridge players, hired hands roaming from tournament to tournament looking for weaker, but ambitious, partners willing to pay big money for the esteem that comes with winning. And pay they do; the pros make as much as $50,000 a year on the circuit.

Finally, there is the popularity of the come-one, come-all tournaments run by the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL), the national governing association. The league operates out of a modern office building in a Memphis, Tenn., industrial park that employes have dubbed The Shrine to Sadie Kumquat.

Sadie is the typical American tournament player: a "little old lady" with time and money to spend on bridge. There are some 200,000 members of the ACBL, and nearly two-thirds are women 50 and older from families earning an average of $21,000 a year. The rest are a wonderfully diverse assortment of players -- from young dope smokers to old businessmen -- but they, too, have the time and money. Last year they spent an average of $500 each getting to tournaments, sleeping at them, buying entries and eating between sessions.

The league, with an operating budget of nearly $5 million, will run nearly 900 tournaments this year. Members took more hotel space than any other group in the country (nearly 30,000 room-nights a year), and the league is the nation's second largest consumer of playing cards (after the hotels on the Las Vegas strip). A typical 10-day national tournament will attract 20,000 players.

But for many players, bridge is more than a business. It is an obsession. When movie star Omar Sharif was asked why he spent so much time at bridge when he could be making movies, he replied: "The real question is why I spend so much time making movies when I could be playing bridge." Then there is Barry Crane, one of Hollywood's most successful television producers whose credits include "Mannix" and "Mission Impossible."

As many as 40 weekends a year, Crane puts show business on hold and heads for the airport. He spends thousands of dollars a year on plane fare and hotel rooms so he can play at bridge tournaments all over the country. He can never recover his expenses, since the tournaments award only master points to winners, never cash. But no one has ever amassed master points -- with 300 being the equivalent of a bridge PhD -- as efficiently as Barry Crane.

As of mid-January, he had won 25,567.11 of them -- more than anyone in the world. The average ACBL member has 20 points. Life masters must have at least 300. Crane is thus a life master more than 85 times. But now he is being challenged by New York bridge professional Ron Andersen, who last year alone compiled 2,724.72 master points, the highest one-year total in the history of the game. He was, in effect, becoming a life master at the phenomenal rate of once every 40 days.

What would inspire someone to push so hard for imaginary points in something that is, after all, only a game? Explained Andersen: "It's a little like Mount Everest. The points were there."

Others might answer that bridge is not only a game. To some, in fact, it is a matter of life and death. Consider some of these stories from the rich lore of bridge:

In a celebrated 1931 incident, Myrtle Bennett, wife of a Kansas City perfume salesman named John Bennett, became so irate when her husband failed to make a four-spade contract that she bolted from the table, grabbed a pistol and shot him dead.

Another time, a man dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of a tournament in Atlantic City. The game was delayed while his body lay beside the table, waiting for the county coroner. Suddenly, a man walked up to the dead player's partner and said, ever so politely: "We were playing against you when your partner dropped dead. I was just wondering: What was your spade holding on that hand?"

Some years later, former international star Lew Mathe was testifying in a libel suit against the ACBL. The prosecutor asked him whether he considered himself the greatest player in the world. Mathe said he did. When his wife later scolded him for his arrogance, Mathe replied: "What could I do? I was under oath."

Perhaps the most publicized bridge game on record occurred in 1931, when an intensely egotistical player named Ely Culbertson bet $10,000 that his building system was the best ever conceived. He offered to prove it against Sidney Lenz, then considered the greatest player in the world, and a partner of Lenz's choice.

The Culbertson-Lenz match lasted nearly six weeks and 1,000 hands before Culbertson lived up to his boast. The match was covered in card-by-card detail by every major newspaper in the country. To send a running account of the match, Western Union kept six telegraphers on duty 24 hours a day. "Leaders in society and the professions . . . presidents of banks and corporations . . . all sat or stood behind the screen [outside the playing room at a New York hotel] trying to catch a glimpse of the players' faces and the flash of a card being played," according to one history of the match. "It was the greatest peep show in history."

This is not to imply bridge is only for egomaniacs, voyeurs and murderers. Most bridge players have never played in the competitive "killer" environment of a major tournament, but rather enjoy themselves around the kitchen table or at a small, friendly once-a-week game. "Friendliness is still the essence of the game," says Richard Goldberg, executive secretary of the ACBL. "People play bridge to have fun, not to be treated like dog meat by some aggressive stranger."

Indeed, though it began as a game for the upper crust, bridge has always had a certain leveling effect; the cards are the same for rich and poor, prince and peon. Explaining the game's tremendous popularity among the troops in World War II, Lee Hazen, a top player of that era, said: "It was the only game GIs could play that didn't cost money. And it cut across rank and standing. You'd see Pfcs cursing out lieutenants in a way that would have landed them in the brig if it wasn't a bridge game."

What really made bridge a game for the masses was the work not of war but of one man, Charles Goren. Goren popularized the simple system of counting points in a hand, assigning numerical values to aces, kings, queens and jacks and also to shortness in suits. In his books and newspaper columns, Goren taught millions the basic elements of his game in such a way they could learn in one night. The essence of bridge is communication between partners, and Goren explained how to communicate better than anyone before him.

Goren is approaching his 80th birthday, living in reitrement in California. He has not written about bridge since 1972, or played seriously since 1963. But a potbellied South African named Tannah Hirsch has assumed his role. Every day, in an office building across the street from New York's Grand Central Station, Hirsch can be found working at a cluttered desk, writing Goren's newspaper columns, editing new editions of Goren's books and running bridge cruises in Goren's name.

"If you call me Charlie," says Hirsch, "I'll answer."

The Goren legacy is simple and profound, according to the keeper of his flame. "He made bridge the only game in the world where a beginner can sit down against a world champion and maybe beat him. He made it a game that may have started as a rich man's pastime, but which is everybody's now."