The All-Time Bridge Greats
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
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
'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