Publish date:


The great bridge match between Ely Culbertson and Sidney Lenz was a fabulous show which helped the Culbertson system to victory in the bidding war

It doesn't seem like yesterday—it seems like a good 23 years ago that we all ganged into the Hotel Chatham for the start of the most spectacular (and goofiest) card game ever played in the history of man.

The Culbertson-Lenz contract bridge grapple began on Dec. 7, 1931 and press association executives agreed that no World Series, up to then, had ever attracted as much national attention.

Weeks of fussing and fuming and name-calling preceded the actual start of the match. Contract bridge, from its quiet beginnings around 1926, had by 1931 become a national rage. It seems likely that the Big Depression was partly responsible. People had no money to spend on other diversions and a deck of cards didn't cost much, so practically everybody played contract.

Into this situation stepped a lean, suave, quick-witted superirritant named Ely Culbertson. He was then 40 years old, son of a Russian mother and an American father and possessed of a manner which some people thought charming but which led others to cast their eyes about in search of blunt instruments. His life in America, up to this time, had been that of an obscure professional card player who haunted the bridge clubs in New York City, sometimes prospering, sometimes broke and in debt. He was certainly one of the ablest card tacticians in the country and his handsome wife, Josephine, was considered to be the best player of her sex.

By 1930 the contract fad was approaching the proportions of a plague, and growing week by week. Culbertson saw the potential, realizing that if he played his cards right he might very well reap both fame and fortune out of the new national obsession. He was not then known as a bridge authority but there were plenty of recognized experts around issuing a confusion of "systems" for playing contract. Culbertson took his time. He spent hours and days and weeks alone with a deck of cards, working out his own bidding system, and when he was satisfied with it, scraped together enough money to start a magazine called The Bridge World.


In the spring of 1930 a British bridge expert published a statement to the effect that American bridge players were a sad lot of blokes. Culbertson promptly issued a sassy challenge. He would bring a team of four to London and play 300 duplicate boards against a British team. The challenge was accepted and now Culbertson had to raise money to get himself and his team to England. Through his magazine he began taking orders for his first book on bridge, not a line of which had been written. He got the money, dictated the text of his book right up to the hour of sailing, and then took off with Mrs. Culbertson and two young men who could play the Culbertson system—Theodore Lightner and Waldemar von Zedtwitz. The arrival of these brash, unknown Americans created a big stir not only in England but on the Continent. The English bridge writers treated them with great condescension and laughed at them in print. Following which the Culbertson team proceeded to clobber the English, winning the match by nearly 5,000 points.

Ely and Jo Culbertson came home famous. Culbertson's Blue Book had been published during the play of the match in London and now was selling furiously all over the U.S. The name Culbertson was fast becoming almost a synonym for contract bridge and, of course, this didn't set well in certain quarters. As the Culbertson system grew and prospered, the book sales and prestige of the old established masters, such as Milton Work, Whitehead and Lenz, declined.

Culbertson began to needle these older men. He wrote about them and he talked about them on the radio. He charged that they were trying to ruin his reputation through a whispering campaign, calling him a dissolute gigolo and a "suspicious Russian." Eventually he drove them to the wall, and they turned to fight.

A dozen of the old masters joined forces in an organization called Bridge Headquarters. Their stated purpose was to "standardize" the game, and they sponsored a method of play which they called the Official System. They went through the motions of inviting Culbertson into the group but he simply threw back his head and cackled at them. It was one against 12, but Culbertson always loved long odds. He picked out Sidney S. Lenz as the best card player in the group and challenged Lenz to a match of 150 rubbers, Lenz to choose his own partner. Culbertson would bet $5,000 against $1,000 that he and his wife, playing the Culbertson system, would beat Lenz and his partner, hewing to the Official System.

Sidney Lenz ignored the challenge but Culbertson kept hammering at him, heckling him in the press and on the air. Culbertson's incredible cockiness was paying off—his book sales continued to mount and thousands of bridge teachers were signing up under his banner. The old guard had to put up or shut up, and finally Lenz accepted the challenge.

Between the time when the rules were agreed upon and the match got under way, the nation's press discovered that it had something special on its hands. In the week prior to Dec. 7, 24 special cables were laid into the Culbertson apartment in the Hotel Chatham, where the first half of the contest was to be staged. A large press room, complete with rows of typewriters and telegraph keys, was established down the hall from the Culbertson drawing room to make reporters comfortable.

Sidney Lenz was then 58, an amateur magician, a Ping-Pong champion, a superb bridge player and a wealthy man. He chose as his partner Oswald Jacoby, a handsome young fellow with dark hair and the build of a fullback, member of the championship bridge team called The Four Horsemen.

On the night the match started there was classic confusion in the various rooms and corridors of the hotel. The place swarmed with reporters and cameramen and society people and celebrities. Chosen to referee the contest was Lieutenant Alfred M. Gruenther, a 32-year-old chemistry instructor at West Point. Everyone was most polite and after two rubbers, Lenz and Jacoby were 1,715 points ahead.

The card table was at one end of the Culbertson drawing room. Across the center of the room stood high folding screens and there were six cracks, each about an inch wide, through which the reporters and favored guests could watch the contest. There was a chair at each crack and the rule said that no reporter or guest could look through a crack more than 15 minutes at a time, and it was required that everyone walk on tiptoe. Signs ordering "Complete Silence!" hung throughout the apartment and on the door where the two Culbertson children were abed was a sign saying, "Quiet! Little Children Asleep and Dreaming."


A ghostly, unending procession of reporters, columnists and special guests moved in and out of the room. Each New York newspaper assigned at least one reporter to stay with the match to the end. The Associated Press had two men present every evening and the United Press and International News Service had one each. Special writers such as Ring Lardner, Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, Robert Benchley, Westbrook Pegler, Grantland Rice, Henry McLemore, Eddie Neil and Lucius Beebe dropped in from time to time. Pegler spent one evening ranging through the halls asking the same question: "Who's pickin' up the tab?" Runyon insisted on challenging all the bridge experts to meet a team of Broadway characters in a back room at Lindy's. McLemore came to fulfill a lifetime ambition to become "a crack reporter."

Those of us who were present every night for five weeks might well have become bored with the proceedings if it hadn't been for Culbertson. He needed no press agent. In devising methods of irritating and enraging his opponents, he anticipated the "Gamesmanship" ploys which later appeared in books by Stephen Potter. He was consistently late getting to the card table and this infuriated Sidney Lenz, a man of little patience. Culbertson went into long periods of meditation before bidding or before playing a card, and Lenz soon grew bitter about the entire proceedings. Culbertson would sometimes have a juicy steak served on a corner of the table, eating as he played, and Lenz would complain: "My God, Ely, you're getting grease all over the cards! Why don't you eat at the proper time, like the rest of us?" To which Ely would reply: "My vast public won't let me, Sidney."

At the end of the 27th rubber Lenz was ahead by more than 7,000 points but on Dec. 15 Culbertson took the lead for the first time. He never relinquished it after that and each evening as he arrived (late) at the table he'd smile sweetly at Lenz and in his rich Russian accent he'd say, "Well, Sidney, have you changed your system yet?"

Before long Lenz was accusing the Culbertsons of failure to adhere to the Culbertson system. There were many delaying arguments on this point and Lieutenant Gruenther, a much harassed young man, settled them as best he could. The lieutenant had to travel each afternoon from West Point to New York, supervise the evening's play, start back around one o'clock and be ready for an 8 a.m. class. Mrs. Gruenther did most of the driving while her husband snoozed in the back seat.

Public interest in the contest reached such a pitch that one evening Jack Curley, the wrestling impresario, arrived at the Chatham demanding the right to switch the play to Madison Square Garden. He proposed that the players should occupy a glass cage and the audience follow the play on huge electrical scoreboards. He insisted that a fortune could be made from such an arrangement. "A fortune for you," said Culbertson, "but I'm interested only in making a fortune for myself."

The public got immense satisfaction out of the knowledge that these great stars of the game were frequently guilty of bonehead plays. On Dec. 28 Jacoby quit, after a loud dispute with Lenz. Late in that evening's session Lenz suddenly turned on Jacoby.

"Why do you make such rotten bids?" he demanded.

Jacoby stared at him and didn't answer. Culbertson smiled and said, "Shall we play another rubber?"

"Not with me, you don't!" snapped Jacoby, rising to his feet.

Referee Gruenther intervened, saying that the rules required another rubber. Jacoby sat down again, then turned to Lenz and said: "Sidney, in a hand in the second rubber tonight you made an absolutely stupid defensive play, and then you criticized me. I'm resigning right now as your partner."


Lenz looked at him a moment in disbelief. "Well, well, sir; well, sir," he stammered, "all right, sir."

The next evening Lenz had a new partner, a rotund former Navy officer, Commander Winfield Liggett Jr. Commander Liggett agreed to play as his old friend's partner but told the press that the contest was proving nothing at all about the relative merits of the bidding systems.

On the evening of Dec. 30 came a new sensation. Several of us were sitting around the press room listening to Sir Derrick Wernher, a British-American bridge star, analyze the play. Into the room walked Culbertson. Sir Derrick spoke to him, asking him why he had not responded to a challenge he had issued the previous summer. Culbertson said he hadn't heard of any such challenge. Said Sir Derrick: "You liar. You're a slab-sided piece of beefsteak."

Sir Derrick was standing in a corner, a man of huge physical proportions. Culbertson strode up to him, fists clenched, glared up into his face and said:

"Why, you 500-pound piece of English beefsteak, you, I consider you a cheap shark and not worth playing against. I wouldn't dirty my hands at the same table with you."

Sir Derrick responded in kind. Culbertson shrilled that he'd bet $5,000 to $2,000 that he could pick a team from among the reporters present that would beat any team selected by Sir Derrick. "On second thought," Culbertson snarled, "I'll bet $500 you haven't got $2,000 to bet." Sir Derrick then called Culbertson a liar and Ely advanced on him again, just as Jo Culbertson came into the room and grabbed him. She dragged him away to the playing room but Culbertson refused to start the evening's contest until Sir Derrick had left the hotel. As the Englishman was leaving, Mrs. Culbertson yelled after him, "What a coward you are, Derrick!"


The second half of the match was played at the Waldorf-Astoria in quarters provided by Lenz. It all came to an end on the night of Jan. 8, with the Culbertsons victors by 8,980 points. After the last card had dropped, Lenz stood up and shook hands with Mrs. Culbertson. Culbertson walked over to join in the felicitations but Lenz turned his back on him. Lieutenant Gruenther went back to West Point to pursue a career that would eventuate in his becoming Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

Contract bridge, of course, is not what it was in those frenzied days, but it remains one of the most popular of our indoor sports, and Culbertson still rates as one of the top authorities. Lenz is now 81 and Culbertson attended his 80th birthday party and the two men shook hands. Culbertson, who has been divorced twice in the intervening years, is today giving much of his attention to a system whereby he hopes to bring permanent peace to the world. So far as I know, he doesn't intend to head up the project himself.






H. Allen Smith has delighted millions with such sprightly books as Rhubarb and Low Man on a Totem Pole. The Culbertson-Lenz match was an event among many which he covered as a feature writer for the United Press. He revives it here because it abounded in the humorous subtleties which Smith appreciates so well.