11. Bridge: The Goren Era . . .

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was already in full swing in the early 50s when I first learned to play bridge. Goren replaced Culbertson with his own system for bidding and playing bridge, but copied Culbertson in the way he made himself the new Mr. Bridge. Like Ely, he sold the Goren system from outside the ACBL establishment, as a profit-making business, and with appeal to women players.

Although Goren was not at his height until toward the end of the 40s (WWII intervened), the year 1937 seems to have been the beginning of the end for Culbertson. That year the Culbertsons divorced, Charlie Goren won the title for winning most ACBL points, and the Chicago Tribune replaced Culbertson’s bridge column with Goren’s.

As I remember the 50s and 60s bridge lessons were widely available in adult ed programs at local high schools–that’s where I took lessons at one point. The husband of one of our bridge club members taught them–Goren of course. But there was no doubt that those who attended were all more or less like me–just wanted to improve their game a bit. No one, as I remember, mentioned duplicate bridge.

As far as I could tell, Goren did not encounter the hostility from the establishment that Culbertson had experienced. A kind of armistice as the ACBL pursued its mission (and benefitted from the sheer numbers Goren attracted to the game) and Goren pursued his. But then Charlie Goren was a far nicer guy than Ely Culbertson.

Goren was unique in his era, in choosing women partners when he competed in tournaments. Helen Sobel, in particular. Goren said that if he counted only championships won with men as partners, his track record would not have been much better than that of his competitors. Counting only his matches with women as partners was another story–they had been his “winning-est” partners.  He freely gave Sobel credit for reaching the pinnacle in bridge.

In 1958, Goren made the cover of Time magazine and was crowned him King of the Aces. The article that ran with that cover portrays Goren as laid back, “strangely out of place among the fierce-eyed, quick fingered, nerve-torn bridge experts competing . . . bland and smiling”–playing at a hotel in Miami with Helen as his partner. When it was all over, said the magazine, Goren had won the Life Masters Pair Gold Cup, and made sure to describe Helen as one of the world’s greatest bridge players.

Goren ended the era in bridge where a personality-driven guru promoted himself to the general public. That ego-driven, profit-seeking motive of Culbertson and Goren is what made bridge into the fad it was back then. Today’s elderly bridge players–all those nonagenarian and centenarian old ladies playing bridge–are the last remnants of the profound influence Culbertson and Goren had on the history of bridge.


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