08. Sociable Bridge: Jo & Ely Culbertson

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They were Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in the 20s and 30s. Jo Culbertson, it was said, was the catalyst for  Ely taking up contract bridge, creating the Culbertson System, becoming the nation’s bridge teacher.

Some say she was the better player of the two. They were a team. They challenged and prevailed in tournaments that became headline news and played a “role”  in Ely’s public relations strategy. He freely admitted his strategy in a speech:

“I have sold bridge by appealing to the instincts of sex and fear and by false presentation of
my own character and that of my wife. I am not the cockysmart-aleck, conceited, and ready-
to-fight person I have tried to make the world believe. My wife is not the shy, diffident, cool,
calculating woman I have tried to make the public believe. It is all a stunt calculated to make
the name Culbertson synonymous with contract bridge.

“We appealed to women, to their natural inferiority complex. Bridge was an opportunity for
them to gain intellectual parity with their husbands.”

Culbertson appreciated women as the primal force that made contract bridge the fabulous fad that it became in the 30s. He understood from the outset that women who might (as he said in Bridge World in 1929) “look down on contract bridge as a gambling game somewhere between Mah Jongg and poker” would in the end convert to contract as it became socially necessary to do so.

Convert the women and their husbands and children would follow.

The two were divorced in 1937 but continued a working relationship in their joint bridge ventures. Jo was one of two women who reached the pinnacle in competitive bridge during the 20s-60s–the other was Goren’s partner later–Helen Sobel.

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