Card Games All-Time Championship Bridge Match in 1931 Part 1

About the All-Time Championship Bridge Match in 1931, history of the international card game.


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 super-irritant 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.

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 4 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. He began taking orders for his 1st 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 2 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.

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