Ely Culbertson

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Ely Culbertson
Born July 22, 1891
Poiana Vărbilău, Romania
Died December 27, 1955
Brattleboro, Vermont, USA
Nationality American
Occupation Contract bridge writer, publisher, organiser and player; advocate of world peace
Children 4

Ely Culbertson (July 22, 1891 – December 27, 1955) was an American contract bridge entrepreneur and personality dominant during the 1930s. He played a major role in the popularization of the new game and was widely regarded as "the man who made contract bridge".[1] He was a great showman who became rich, was highly extravagant, and lost and gained fortunes several times over.


Culbertson was born in Poiana Vărbilău in Romania to an American mining engineer, Almon Culbertson, and his Russian wife, Xenya Rogoznaya. He attended the L'École des Sciences Économiques et Politiques at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the University of Geneva. His facility for languages was extraordinary: he spoke Russian, English, French, German, Czech and Spanish fluently, with a reading knowledge of five others, and a knowledge of Latin and classical Greek. In spite of his education, his erudition was largely self-acquired: he was a born autodidact.

After the Russian Revolution (1917), Culbertson lived for four years in Paris and other European cities by exploiting his skill as a card player. In 1921 he moved to the United States, earning his living from winnings at auction bridge and poker. In 1923 he married Mrs. Josephine Murphy Dillon, a successful teacher of auction bridge and a leading woman player, in Manhattan.[2] They were successful both as players and teachers.

Gradually the new game of contract bridge began to replace auction bridge, and Culbertson saw his opportunity to overtake the leaders of auction bridge. Culbertson planned a far-reaching and successful campaign to promote himself as the leader of the new game. As player, organiser, bidding theorist, magazine editor, and team leader, he was a key figure in the growth of contract bridge in its great boom years of the 1930s.[3][4]

Culbertson was a brilliant publicist; his team played a number of famous challenge matches, all of which they won. Two matches were played in the USA: against Sidney Lenz's team in 1931-2 and P. Hal Sims in 1935 (this latter between the two married couples Culbertson and Sims). Four matches were played in England, against Walter Buller's team in 1930, two against "Pops" Beasley's team in 1930 and 1933 and lastly against Col. George Walshe's team in 1934. These matches were typically accompanied by noteworthy publicity in newspapers, on radio and on cinema newsreels, and the hands became the subject of intense discussion on bidding methods.[5]

Later, a match against the other leading team of the mid-1930s, the "Four Aces", did not materialize. Culbertson was the most successful player in the early '30s, but in 1937 his team was finally beaten by the Austrian team led by Dr Paul Stern, in the final of the first World Teams Championship, his last participation in a tournament match.[6]

Culbertson founded and edited The Bridge World magazine, which is still published today, and wrote many newspaper articles and books on bridge. He owned the first firm of playing card manufacturers to develop plastic cards, Kem Cards, and developed and owned a chain of bridge schools with teachers qualified in the Culbertson bidding system. He continued to play high stakes rubber bridge for many years, but gave up tournament bridge in 1938 to write and to work for world peace.

Challenge matches[edit]

These matches received a large amount of publicity, being extensively covered in the press, often making the front pages. By winning them, Culbertson suggested to the bridge-playing public that the Culbertson System of bidding was superior to the systems of his rivals, and thereby boosted the sales of his books. But according to Theodore Lightner: "Ely's real advantage was that his team was much stronger than anything others could possibly muster, We could have played different systems and won just as easily."[7]

Culbertson-Lenz match[edit]

This took place between December 1931 and January 1932 at two New York City hotels, and was called "The Bridge Battle of the Century". Sidney Lenz was the leader of a group of players opposed to Culbertson's domination of the game, and who called their bidding system the Official System. Culbertson challenged Lenz to a match, wagering $5,000 against his opponent's $1,000, with the money to go to charity regardless of the outcome.

The winning Austrian team at the 1937 World Championships: from left, Karl Schneider, Hans Jellinek, Edouard Frischauer, Paul Stern (Capt.), Josephine Culbertson (US), Walter Herbert, Helen Sobel (US), and Karl von Blöhdorn

The match was played as rubber bridge, with 150 rubbers being played. Culbertson played 88 of these with his wife, Josephine, partnering one of Theodore Lightner, Waldemar von Zedtwitz, Howard Schenken and Michael T. Gottlieb in the remainder. Lenz played with Oswald Jacoby for the first 103 rubbers, but Jacoby then resigned following a heated difference of opinion over a defensive play.

According to the match referee, Lt Alfred Gruenther (later 4-star General and Supreme Allied Commander Europe 1953-6), after that hand Jacoby said "I made a play that only twelve players in the country would understand, and unfortunately Mr Lenz did not seem, at that particular moment, to be among that twelve". For the rest of the match Lenz's partner was Cmdr. Winfield Liggett Jr. Culbertson's team won by 8,980 points.[8]

Terence Reese said "The Official System (Lenz)... was discredited... That the Culbertsons did not win more easily (for their constructive bidding was much better than that of their opponents) was due to the fact that Jacoby was a player of quite different class from any of the others".[9] Jacoby's psychic bids and his competitive bidding generally kept the Lenz team in the match; but Lenz himself could not tolerate Jacoby's style.

Anglo-American matches[edit]

Lt. Col. Walter Buller promoted a bidding system that he called "British Bridge", which used direct methods and avoided approach forcing bids as had been incorporated in the Culbertson System. His challenge was accepted by Culbertson, and a teams of four match took place in London in 1930. Culbertson's team won by 4,845 total points over 200 deals. Culbertson partnered his wife, Josephine, and his other pair comprised Lightner and von Zedtwitz. Later in the match Culbertson played with Lightner, and his wife played with von Zedwitz: this was the more successful line-up. The other three members of Buller's team were Alice Evers, Cedric Kehoe and Nelson Wood-Hill.[10]

Immediately after the Buller match, the Culbertson team played another match, against Crockford's Club. The Crockford's team was 'Pops' Beasley (Captain), Sir Guy Domville, George Morris and Captain Hogg; the match over 200 boards was won by Culbertson by 4,905 points (total points scoring).[11]

Match for the Schwab Cup, 1933. At table, from left: E. Culbertson, Lady Doris Rhodes, referee Col. GGJ Walshe, J. Culbertson, Pops Beasley. Behind, far left: Hubert Phillips.

The matches in 1933 and 1934 both took place for the Schwab Cup, a trophy presented for Anglo-American matches by Charles Schwab, an American industrialist and patron of bridge, who was president of the Whist Club of New York. In 1933, Michael Gottlieb replaced von Zedtwitz in the Culbertson team. The British team consisted of Lt. Col. 'Pops' Beasley and Sir Guy Domville, Percy Tabbush and George Morris, Graham Mathieson and Lady Doris Rhodes (pairs were sometimes aligned differently). Culbertson's team won by 10,900 total points over 300 hands. A decisive, but not overwhelming, victory.

The following year, again in London, the Schwab trophy pitted Culbertson's team against, for the first time, a team with "two very experienced partnerships" (Reese) captained by Col. George Walshe. The American team consisted of the Culbertsons, Teddy Lightner and Albert Morehead. The British team was Richard Lederer and Willie Rose; Harry Ingram and Stanley Hughes,[12] with captain Walshe and A. Frost as reserves. Culbertson's team won by 3,650 points over 300 deals. At one time the British team had built up a lead of over 5,000 points, and the Americans led by only 970 points with one session, of 30 deals, remaining. The Lederer–Rose pair tired but refused to take a rest; the last set was a disaster.[13][14] Ingram referred to the element of fatigue when he remarked that at least three of the English players had done a day's work before the evening sessions, while the Americans did not get up till lunchtime.[12][15] All the same, Walshe's team had shown that the great Culbertson team was vulnerable. They were eventually beaten by Dr Paul Stern's Austrian team, the best European team of the 1930s.

Anglo-American matches after World War II, of which there were a number,[16] did not involve Culbertson.

Bridge accomplishments[edit]





  • Contract Bridge Blue Book (1930)
  • 300 contract bridge hands (1933) – from the match vs. Beasley for Schwab Cup
  • Contract bridge complete: the Gold Book of bidding and play (1936)
  • The Strange Lives of One Man (1940)
  • The World Federation Plan (1942)
  • Total Peace (1943)
  • Must We Fight Russia? (1946)
  • Culbertson on Canasta: a Complete Guide for Beginners and Advanced Players With the Official Laws of Canasta (1949)


  1. ^ Clay (1985), Preface, p. viii
  2. ^ The National Encyclopedia of American biography, James Terry White, vol 46 p106 ISBN 978-0-88371-029-6
  3. ^ Culbertson, Ely (1940). The Strange Lives of One Man, An Autobiography. Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto: The John C. Winston Company. 
  4. ^ Francis et al (1994), p. 602
  5. ^ Clay (1985)
  6. ^ Clay (1986), Introduction, p. 3
  7. ^ Victor Mollo, The Bridge Immortals, Faber and Faber, 1967, page 149. Also published by Hart Publishing Company Inc., (New York), 1968, page 201.
  8. ^ Francis et al (1994), pp. 91-2.
  9. ^ Reese, Terence 1963. The bridge battle of the century. British Bridge World, August 1963, p38–43: the rest of the match was described in subsequent issues.
  10. ^ Francis et al (1994), p. 584 and p. 816.
  11. ^ Clay (1985), p. 106
  12. ^ a b Reese, Terence (1974). Obituary of Henry St. John Ingram 1888-1974; reprinted in Hasenson, Peter British Bridge Almanack (2004) 77, London, p. 196
  13. ^ Francis et al (1994), p. 733 and p. 816
  14. ^ Terence Reese, Bridge at the Top, Faber & Faber, 1977, ISBN 0-571-11123-8, pp. 19–22
  15. ^ Ingram, H. St John 1962–63. The brave old days. The British Bridge World, December 1962–March 1963. [This may be the only account of the match of any length; no book of the match was published.]
  16. ^ Francis et al (1994)
  17. ^ "Induction by Year". Hall of Fame. ACBL. Retrieved 2014-12-22.

External links[edit]

Josephine Culbertson