02. Bridge: Ely Culbertson is the George Washington of contract bridge

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Each was indispensable–the right man at the right time. One for America, the other in turning contract bridge from a game for the elites and expert players, to the mass fad it became for America’s middle class. Without Culbertson, sociable players like me might still be playing auction bridge.

A bit of bridge history is needed here.

In 1925,  Harold Vanderbilt “invented” contract bridge. His prestige and standing in the international social world and that of competitive bridge had much to do with the remarkable speed with which contract bridge replaced auction bridge amongst the elites of bridge and society, nationally and internationally.

By 1927, a short two years later, the official laws of contract bridge were established in America and England. By 1929 tournaments were being played between the two countries. And by 1929  in London’s exclusive Portland Club–governing both auction bridge and whist–auction had been entirely superseded by contract bridge.

In 1927, meanwhile, Ely Culbertson had had an epiphany. There was a fortune to be made teaching the new contract bridge to that mass auction-playing women with their sociable bridge clubs. Culbertson came up with a strategy to target them–convince them learning the new contract bridge was a necessary social skill. And he created methods and teaching materials, a national bridge teachers organization that successfully did that.

“Striking the country with its full force on the eve of the depression, contract bridge  almost overnight became the obsession of millions” said Rhea and F.R. Dulles in their book  America Learns to Play. 

That explosion in the popularityof contract bridge–turning it into a mass fad–was due to Ely Culbertson.

Culbertson competed in tournaments (with his wife Jo as partner) to establish his credibility, created publicity for himself in part by being obnoxious. He challenged the American Whist League (now ACBL) by hijacking the League’s role as official bridge teacher. When the League announced publication of its official book on contract in 1931, Ely was scornful saying 98% of Americans were already playing Culbertson.

I’m not suggesting another war between a charismatic teacher and the bridge establishment.  I am suggesting that some one, some organization, some combination of people should be providing that “Ely” factor–promoting bridge as a life-enhancing social skill–to the untapped market of potential casual, sociable players who will never play duplicate bridge.

History tells us that when sociable bridge players explode, serious bridge inevitably benefits as well.


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