SI Vault
H. Allen Smith
December 20, 1954
The great bridge match between Ely Culbertson and Sidney Lenz was a fabulous show which helped the Culbertson system to victory in the bidding war
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December 20, 1954

Culbertson's Coup

The great bridge match between Ely Culbertson and Sidney Lenz was a fabulous show which helped the Culbertson system to victory in the bidding war

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It doesn't seem like yesterday?it seems like a good 23 years ago that we all ganged into the Hotel Chatham for the start of the most spectacular (and goofiest) card game ever played in the history of man.

The Culbertson-Lenz contract bridge grapple began on Dec. 7, 1931 and press association executives agreed that no World Series, up to then, had ever attracted as much national attention.

Weeks of fussing and fuming and name-calling preceded the actual start of the match. Contract bridge, from its quiet beginnings around 1926, had by 1931 become a national rage. It seems likely that the Big Depression was partly responsible. People had no money to spend on other diversions and a deck of cards didn't cost much, so practically everybody played contract.

Into this situation stepped a lean, suave, quick-witted superirritant named Ely Culbertson. He was then 40 years old, son of a Russian mother and an American father and possessed of a manner which some people thought charming but which led others to cast their eyes about in search of blunt instruments. His life in America, up to this time, had been that of an obscure professional card player who haunted the bridge clubs in New York City, sometimes prospering, sometimes broke and in debt. He was certainly one of the ablest card tacticians in the country and his handsome wife, Josephine, was considered to be the best player of her sex.

By 1930 the contract fad was approaching the proportions of a plague, and growing week by week. Culbertson saw the potential, realizing that if he played his cards right he might very well reap both fame and fortune out of the new national obsession. He was not then known as a bridge authority but there were plenty of recognized experts around issuing a confusion of "systems" for playing contract. Culbertson took his time. He spent hours and days and weeks alone with a deck of cards, working out his own bidding system, and when he was satisfied with it, scraped together enough money to start a magazine called The Bridge World.


In the spring of 1930 a British bridge expert published a statement to the effect that American bridge players were a sad lot of blokes. Culbertson promptly issued a sassy challenge. He would bring a team of four to London and play 300 duplicate boards against a British team. The challenge was accepted and now Culbertson had to raise money to get himself and his team to England. Through his magazine he began taking orders for his first book on bridge, not a line of which had been written. He got the money, dictated the text of his book right up to the hour of sailing, and then took off with Mrs. Culbertson and two young men who could play the Culbertson system?Theodore Lightner and Waldemar von Zedtwitz. The arrival of these brash, unknown Americans created a big stir not only in England but on the Continent. The English bridge writers treated them with great condescension and laughed at them in print. Following which the Culbertson team proceeded to clobber the English, winning the match by nearly 5,000 points.

Ely and Jo Culbertson came home famous. Culbertson's Blue Book had been published during the play of the match in London and now was selling furiously all over the U.S. The name Culbertson was fast becoming almost a synonym for contract bridge and, of course, this didn't set well in certain quarters. As the Culbertson system grew and prospered, the book sales and prestige of the old established masters, such as Milton Work, Whitehead and Lenz, declined.

Culbertson began to needle these older men. He wrote about them and he talked about them on the radio. He charged that they were trying to ruin his reputation through a whispering campaign, calling him a dissolute gigolo and a "suspicious Russian." Eventually he drove them to the wall, and they turned to fight.

A dozen of the old masters joined forces in an organization called Bridge Headquarters. Their stated purpose was to "standardize" the game, and they sponsored a method of play which they called the Official System. They went through the motions of inviting Culbertson into the group but he simply threw back his head and cackled at them. It was one against 12, but Culbertson always loved long odds. He picked out Sidney S. Lenz as the best card player in the group and challenged Lenz to a match of 150 rubbers, Lenz to choose his own partner. Culbertson would bet $5,000 against $1,000 that he and his wife, playing the Culbertson system, would beat Lenz and his partner, hewing to the Official System.

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