18th European Youth Team Championships Page 3 Bulletin 2 - Tuesday, 9 July  2002

The All-Time Bridge Greats (2)

By Ely Culbertson

Harold S. Vanderbilt may have invented the game of Contract Bridge, but the biggest single name in the history of the game is not that of Vanderbilt but, without doubt, that of Ely Culbertson.

Culbertson (1891 - 1955) was born in Romania, the son of an American father, a mining engineer, and a Russian mother, the daughter of a Cossack chieftain. An American citizen from birth, he spent much of his youth pursuing revolutionary ideas in labor disputes in the American North-West, Mexico and Spain, and being involved in one of the minor Russian revolutions.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 wiped out his family's substantial assets there and for the next few years he made a living in various European cities, notably Paris, by utilising his skill at cards. In 1921 he returned to the USA, continuing to make his living from cards. Two years later he married his first wife, Josephine, a highly regarded bridge teacher in New York. Together they became a successful tournament pair.

Then came Contract. Culbertson saw that the new game gave him an opportunity to displace the entrenched authorities on Auction Bridge and began a long-term plan with the aim of making himself the king of bridge. Culbertson was a fine bridge player, let there be no doubt of that, but his true genius was in marketing, and as a self-publicist it is hard to find his equal in any walk of life.

By the mid-1930s the name Culbertson was almost synonymous with Contract to the ordinary player. 1929 saw the publication of The Blue Book, which he marketed as the first systematic presentation of the principles of winning at Contract. The same year Culbertson founded his magazine, The Bridge World, which is still going strong today. He ran an organisation of bridge teachers who all taught the Culbertson system, sold bridge stationery and other supplies including the new Kem playing cards, and conducted bridge competitions, both at home and abroad.
His success can be illustrated by the fact that in 1937, its best year, The Bridge World grossed over $1,000,000, of which some $220,000 were royalties which went to Culbertson before profits were calculated. Translate those figures into today's money and we can see that Ely Culbertson was doing very well for himself.

But to reach this pre-eminent position Culbertson needed not only ability and a willingness to work hard, he needed the life blood of publicity and to eliminate the opposition. No opportunity to get publicity was overlooked. He once claimed that, though he had never played golf, he would break 90 at his first attempt. Of course he failed, but it still got him more news coverage.

But the biggest and best publicity of all came at the end of 1931. Alarmed at Culbertson's success, a group of the old established authorities of Auction Bridge, who did not wish to lose their position to this young upstart, had got together and produced 'The Official System'. Culbertson badgered and provoked Sidney Lenz, leader of this group, until he finally agreed to play a challenge match of 150 rubbers. Culbertson had offered to bet $5,000 to Lenz's $1,000 on the outcome with the winnings to go to charity.

The match began at the Hotel Chatham but was later moved to the Waldorf Astoria to accommodate the growing crowd of onlookers. Lenz partnered Oswald Jacoby, already a fine player at the age of 29 and destined to be in the top echelon of players for half a century to come. Culbertson partnered his wife, Jo. During the match, Lenz fell out with Jacoby and the latter was replaced by Commander Wingfield Liggett Jr. Several players stood in at various times for Jo, whose stamina was not quite up to that of Ely. The result of the contest was a win for Culbertson by almost 9,000 total points, confirming him as number one.

Not only did the match confirm Culbertson's position at the top of the bridge world, but it also made him rich in a more direct fashion. During the month-long 'Battle of the Century', he was earning $10,000 a week for network radio broadcasts, he and Jo both acquired contracts for widely syndicated newspaper columns, and he made a series of movie shorts for $360,000.

Culbertson's success was now assured and he continued to milk his position for all it was worth, producing new books, giving radio lessons and lectures, endorsing products and opening his own bridge club, Crockford's. All the time, he was alive to the importance of publicity. He was frank about his approach. He once said in a speech:

'I have formed the greatest advertising and publicity organisation in the world.
I have sold bridge by appealing to the instincts of sex and fear and by false representation of my own character and that of my wife. I am not the cocky smart-alec, conceited and ready to fight person I have tried to make the world believe. My wife is not the shy, diffident, cool, calculating woman I have tried to make the public believe. It is all a stunt calculated to make the name Culbertson synonymous with Contract Bridge.

First we had to build a system. That took six years. Then we had to sell the system. We appealed to women, to their natural inferiority complex. Bridge was an opportunity for them to gain intellectual parity with their husbands. We worked on their fear instincts. We made it almost tantamount to shame not to play Contract. I have sold bridge through sex - the game brought men and women together. I used the words 'forcing bid' and 'approach forcing' because there is a connotation of sex in them.'

In 1935, Culbertson played and won the last of his great challenge matches, against P. Hal Sims. Shortly afterwards he retired from competitive bridge. The competition was getting tougher and to continue to play but without success would risk eroding his dominant position in the minds of onlookers. He continued, however, to play high-stake rubber bridge for most of his life.

Ely and Jo were divorced in 1938. He was remarried in 1947, to Dorothy, a non-player, 35 years his junior. He had two children from each marriage.

In his later years, his principal interest turned to the quest for world peace. As early as 1938, with war looming in Europe, he proposed arms limitation and international control of decisive weapons of war. After World War Two, some of Culbertson's ideas made a discernible mark when the United Nations was established.

But, whatever his interest in politics as a young man and in later years, it is as a bridge player and publicist that Culbertson really made his mark. As a player, he claimed to play his opponents rather than the cards, but it cannot be disputed that he was a fine technician and was responsible for many valuable contributions to bidding theory. Some of his 'playing the man' was, at best, gamesmanship. As appropriate for a particular opponent, he would play quickly or with exaggerated slowness, goad and taunt his opponents, etc. For the match against Lenz he would regularly turn up late, then eat at the table, claiming that 'his public gave him no time to do otherwise'.

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