Mr. Ely Culbertson, was born July 22, 1891, and died December 27, 1955. He was considered the foremost authority in America on contract bridge for many years, and he was credited with making the game an international popular pastime. His efforts in making the game popular lay in the fact that paid off, and the game of bridge became very fashionable and socially accepted and acceptable. The bridge player of today must realize that card playing was considered idle work and a pastime of the devil during that era.
Mr. Ely Culbertson was also an author and lecturer on mass psychology and political science, which perhaps gave him an edge in popularizing the game.
He was born in Romania but was an American citizen from birth by registration with the US Consul, being the son of Ahilon Culbertson, an American mining engineer, who had been retained by the Russian government to develop thc Caucasian oil fields and who had married a Russian woman, Xenia Rogoznaya, daughter of a Cossack Atamon or Chief.
Mr. Ely Culbertson belonged to a pioneer American family that settled near Titusville and Oil City, Pennsylvania, and later joined the Sons of the American Revolution to refute rumors that he had changed his name or falsified his ancestry. The political upheaval of that time can be read in many history books, and the life on the social level was difficult at many times for many individuals.
He attended gymnasia, a form of schooling, in Russia and matriculated at Yale in 1908 and Cornell in 1910, but remained only a few months at each prestigious university. Later in 1913 and 1914 he studied political science at L’Ecole des Sciences Economiques et Politiques at the University of Paris, the Sorbonnes, and in 1915 at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. But Mr. Ely Culbertson was largely self-educated, and the knowledge and education for which he was admired can principally he attributed to a self-imposed and invariable regimen of reading a book designed to improve his knowledge at least one hour before going to bed each night. Mr. Ely Culbertson had an aptitude for languages and he could speak and read fluently Russian, English, French, German, Czech, Spanish and Italian. He also had a working knowledge of Slavic, Polish, Swedish and Danish-Norwegian in addition to Latin and Greek.
In 1907 Mr. Ely Culbertson participated as student in one of the abortive Russian revolutions actions closely observed by the American government. It was only ten years later that the Romanov Family was overthrown. Many students of the time thought it quite fashionable and politically correct. He pursued his revolutionary ideals and ideas in labor disputes in the American Northwest and in Mexico and Spain during the years 1911 and 1912, where he served as an agitator for the Union and syndicalist sides. It is necessary to understand the times and the political upheavals of that time to understand Mr. Ely Culbertson. After the Russian revolution in 1917, the family fortune was lost and confiscated by the Russian State. The family was forced into exile to Paris, France, where they stayed for four years, and then lived in several other European cities. The main source of income was derived from the talent of Mr. Ely Culbertson as a skilled card player, and not only in the game of bridge, which was just an emerging game.
Considering the aftermath of the First World War, it is no wonder that Mr. Ely Culbertson decided to make the trip to New York in 1921. He was almost a pauper and lived primarily from his winnings at card games. Two years later, in 1923, he married Mrs. Josephine Murphy Dillon, one of the highly reputed bridge teachers in New York City. Using his card talents and her influence, the two soon became a successful pair as tournament players and were considered bridge authorities. Between 1926 and 1929, the new form of the game of bridge, called Contract Bridge, began replacing the game of Auction Bridge.
Mr. Ely Culbertson recognized the business opportunity in this development in the game of bridge and attempted to establish himself as the main authority on Contract Bridge. He planned a long-term campaign that included the construction of a dogmatic System by issuing a magazine publication, which would appeal to the group leaders in Contract Bridge. He wrote a bridge book, which was highly regarded as the Bible of all contract bridge players. He organized a group of professional bridge teachers, and above all, he was instrumental in convincing the general public that card playing was not idle work, or the work of the Devil. The religious obstacle was perhaps the most difficult hindrance to his plan to popularize the game of Contract Bridge.
The plan proved conspicuously successful. Mr. Ely Culbertson founded his magazine, The Bridge World, in 1929, and through the same corporation published his earliest bridge books, all of which were best sellers. He manufactured and sold bridge players’ supplies including the introduction of Kem playing cards. Kem cards were the first successful plastic playing cards and have been manufactured in America since 1934, and each year several new designs are introduced. Mr. Ely Culbertson maintained an organization of bridge teachers called the Culbertson National Studios, which at its peak had 6000 members, and he conducted bridge competitions through the United States Bridge Association and the World Bridge Olympics and American Bridge Olympics. In its best year, 1937, The Bridge World Inc. grossed more than $1,000,000, of which $220,000 were royalties payable to Mr. Ely Culbertson before profits were calculated. His long-term plan had finally paid off. The following picture depicts Mr. Ely Culbertson at the age of thirty-five.
Concerning the magazine, The Bridge World, it must be admitted that it helped to popularize the game of bridge tremendously. A short history follows:
The Bridge World is the oldest continuously published magazine dealing with Contract Bridge. This is an established fact. The magazine was the idea of Mr. Ely Culbertson and was first published in October 1929. The Bridge World is published on a monthly basis and the initial success convinced the publishers to continue the magazine. Public interest was generated by such bridge matches and events such as the Culbertson-Lenz Match of 1931-1932 and the Culbertson-Sims match.
Mr. Ely Culbertson was the Editor In Chief until 1943. Several decisions made concerning the sale of the magazine proved unsuccessful, and the publication itself became uneconomical. However, the magazine held a certain reputation and the better than average bridge player remained a subscriber. Over the years, the magazine also became the springboard from which to promote and advertise new ideas and concepts in the bridge community.
The Bridge World was the first magazine to publish concepts and conventions such as the Stayman Convention, the Roth-Stone and Kaplan-Sheinwold Systems, Lavinthal suit-preference signals, the Unusual No Trump Convention, the Key Card Blackwood variation, and the many modern treatments and methods using transfers and doubles.
The Master Solvers Club was initiated to debate and discuss these Conventions, Systems, and Treatments, and consisted of a panel of bridge experts who would vote for or against the new idea or concept and give their reasons for their particular vote. This “Bridge Think Tank” concept has been adopted by many other publications, and is still a popular section of The Bridge World magazine.
The list of Editors and Contributors contains many pioneers in the bridge community. Among them are B. Jay Becker, Sam Fry Jr., Charles Goren, William Huske, Oswald Jacoby, Theodore Lightner, Walter Malowan, Geoffrey Mott-Smith, Alfred Sheinwold, Alexander Sobel, Alan Truscott, Bobby Wolff, Waldemar von Zedtwitz, Edwin Kantar, Eric Kokish, Kit Woolsey, and many more not mentioned here.
The history of the magazine is like that of any other magazine. There were successful times and not so successful times. In 1943, the publication was taken over by Albert H. Morehead, who edited it in association with Richard L. Frey, Josephine Culbertson, Alphonse Moyse Jr. until 1946. Alphonse Moyse, Jr. continued the publication under the aegis of Mr. Ely Culbertson and his wife, Josephine Culbertson until their deaths, December 1955 and 1956 respectively. At this time, Alphonse Moyse Jr. became the sole owner and editor of the magazine.
In November 1963, the magazine was purchased by the McCall Corporation and Alphonse Moyse, Jr. was retained as Editor. Upon the retirement of Alphonse Moyse, Jr., McCall Corporation decided to sell the publication to Edgar Kaplan and Jeff Rubens, who then became the sole owners. Edgar Kaplan held the title of Editor and Jeff Rubens held the title of Co-Editor. Jeff Rubens had been writing for the publication Bridge Journal (bold) and now his articles appeared in The Bridge World.
The Bridge World continues to be published and is also represented on the Internet since 1996 and can be reached athttp://www.bridgeworld.com
As a regular tournament competitor Mr. Ely Culbertson had the best record in the earliest years of Contract Bridge. In 1930 he won the Vanderbilt and American Bridge League Knockout Team events, also the American Bridge League Board-a-Match Team Event, and finished second in the Master Pairs. That year he led a team that played the first international match, in England, and defeated several teams there. In 1933 and 1934 his teams won the Schwab Cup. After 1934 Mr. Ely Culbertson seldom played tournament bridge, but he was second in the ABL’s 1935 matchpoint team contest and in the International Bridge League’s first intercontinental tournament in 1937. Mr. Ely Culbertson continued to play high-stakes Rubber Bridge until about two years before his death. The success of Culbertson’s Blue Book in 1930 caused the established auction bridge authorities to join forces to combat his threatened domination of contract bridge.
During these pioneer days of the game of Contract Bridge, it was not possible for one person to dictate to the bridge playing community how the game should be played, and who made all the rules and regulations required. Mr. Ely Culbertson, supported by his tremendous efforts and success, rather assumed this position, which became a threat to the game itself. The other bridge authorities decided that a panel of bridge experts conceive an Official System.
This Official System represented a system of Contract Bridge Bidding devised and endorsed by a group of leading American bridge authorities in 1931 and 1932, in opposition to Mr. Ely Culbertson and his assumption of being the single and foremost authority.
The future of the game of Contract Bridge had taken a new course with the decisions of Milton C. Work, Sidney S. Lenz, Wilbur C. Whitehead, Winfield Liggett Jr., and F. Dudley Courtenay. They had formed an Advisory Council for Contract Bridge with contributors such as Shepard Barclay, Fred G. French, Henry P. Jaeger, Madeleine Kerwin and E.V. Shapard.
Three of the principles, which the Official System advocated, again in opposition to Mr. Ely Culbertson, still have their place in the game. First is the employment of the 4-3-2-1 count for No Trump bidding. Second is the incorporation of an intermediate game invitation, non-forcing, suit bid on the Two Level. Three is the employment of an original opening and forcing bid, or the artificial Two-Club Convention, designed for game and slam.
Mr. Ely Culbertson witnessed the demise of his influence over the game of Contract Bridge and countered by challenging the leading player among his opposition, Sidney Lenz, to a test match, offering 5-1 odds. He was still a betting man. Mr. Ely Culbertson’s victory in this match, played in the winter of 1931 and 1932, fortified his leading position among the playing community. The Culbertson-Lenz match was closely watched and followed. The great publicity accorded the match enriched Mr. Ely Culbertson. The fact was that he and his wife both acquired contracts for widely syndicated newspaper articles, and he made a series of movie shorts for $360,000, and he received $10,000 a week for network radio broadcasts.
For a short history and the final tally of the Culbertson-Lenz Match, please click on the following:
However, the panelists listed above who introduced the Official System were making headway within the bridge playing community. In 1935 Mr. Ely Culbertson attempted to recapture the magic of his victory against Lenz by playing a similar match against R Hal and Dorothy Sims. This became bridge history as the Culbertson-Sims Match and was again closely watched and followed. But although the Culbertsons won this match also, there was no such publicity advantage as accrued from the Lenz match.
The publicity accorded Mr. Ely Culbertson throughout his professional career can be attributed equally to his unquestioned abilities, his colorful personality and his flamboyant way of life. Mr. Ely Culbertson lived in the grand manner, with total disregard of expense whether at the moment he happened to be rich or penniless. The story is told of how he once walked into Sulkas on Fifth Avenue in New York and bought $5,000 worth of shirts. He smoked a private blend of cigarettes that cost him $7 a day. When he decided to buy a Duesenberg automobile in 1934 he did not sell his Rolls Royce, but gave it away. His home for years was an estate in Ridgefield Connecticut, with a 45-room house, several miles of paved and lighted roads, greenhouses, cottages, lakes, and an enclosed swimming pool with orchids growing along its periphery. He always had caviar with his tea and made special trips to Italy to buy his neckties. When he died in 1955, he owned five houses for his own use, four of them with swimming pools. Mr. Ely Culbertson rationalized these extravagances as publicity devices. He actually lived in one small room with a cot and a table, and he spent most of his time pacing the floor and thinking, as the rumor has it.
Mr. Ely Culbertson’s contributions to the science of Contract Bridge, both practical and theoretical, were basic and timeless. He devised the markings on duplicate boards for vulnerability and the bonuses for games and partscores. He was the first authority to treat distribution as equal or superior to high cards in formulating the requirements for bids. Forcing bids, including the one-over-one, were original Culbertson concepts, as were four-card suit bids, limited No Trump bids, the strong Two Bid, and wholesale Ace-Showing including the 4 No Trump slam try. These were presented in the historic Lesson Sheets on the Approach-Forcing System devised in 1927, and in numerous magazine articles written by Mr. Ely Culbertson in the Twenties and early Thirties. Specific bridge principles attributable to Mr. Ely Culbertson, separately described, include among others Asking Bids, the Grand Slam Force, Jump Bids, and the New-Suit Forcing principle, which Mr. Ely Culbertson first introduced and later repudiated.
As odd as it may seem to the reader, Mr. Ely Culbertson, during 1938, with war imminent in Europe, lost interest in bridge and decided to devote his time to seeking some grand achievement in political science. To effect world peace he proposed international control of decisive weapons and a quota for each major nation in tactical forces. After formation of the United Nations to which the ideas of Mr. Ely Culbertson made a discernible contribution, he persisted in a campaign to give it adequate police power. At one time 17 US Senators and 42 US Congressmen subscribed to a proposed joint resolution of Congress advocating the proposals of Mr. Ely Culbertson. It seems that the gentleman attacked each field with the same vigor and vitality, with the same amount of energy and time.
However, in the course of these activities Mr. Ely Culbertson lost his position as the leading bridge authority; which was waning before practically changing careers, by 1950 or earlier. Charles Goren had surpassed him in the sale of books and other bridge writings and in the adherence of bridge teachers and players.
However, when a bridge Hall of Fame was inaugurated in 1964, nine years after his death, Mr. Ely Culbertson had the honor of being the first person elected. Though he was at no time an ACBL Life Master, he was named Honorary Member in 1938.
Ely and Josephine Culbertson were divorced in 1938, and in 1947 Mr. Ely Culbertson married Dorothy Renata Bachne, who was 35 years younger. There were two children by each of his marriages. Culbertson suffered in later years from lung congestion diagnosed as emphysema, and died at his last home, in Brattleboro, Vermont, of a common cold that proved fatal because of the lung condition.
Minor works by Mr. Ely Culbertson, such as paperbound books and pamphlets, are literally too numerous to mention, and all or nearly all were written by members of Mr. Ely Culbertson’s staff under his direction, as also were most of the newspaper and magazine articles published under Culbertson’s name from 1932 on. Earlier articles in bridge periodicals were written by Mr. Ely Culbertson, as were his major books listed above.
Mr. Ely Culbertson was a pioneer of the game of bridge, and inspired many to take the game seriously. He overcame the notions of society, battled the traditions of a religious society, and was an icon to many bridge players and authorities of his time. He may have assumed too much, but he did tremendous work in establishing a foundation for future bridge players. He should not be forgotten.