Ely Culbertson:  A Profile


Ely Culbertson was born in the Cossack region in the Caucasus mountains, (then a part of the Russian Empire), in 1891.  His father was an American who had gone to that country to find oil and became wealthy as a result.  His mother was Cossack, a member of the proud warrior race of southern Russia.


Young Ely was a child of privilege living in what was then a savage land.  But he never felt he "fit in."  Perhaps it was his half-American parentage, perhaps it was his unbending ego, but Ely felt apart from "the masses" and always kept himself aloof.


In spite of his wealthy background, Ely become a Social Revolutionary and participated in the Russian revolution of 1905.  With its failure, he became a wanted man, and then a political prisoner.  While awaiting possible execution, he first became proficient at cards, playing the Russian game Vint (Vint is a trick-taking game remniscient of Whist).


Ely Culbertson . . .  


After his parents secured his release, Ely traveled the world.  He spent many years engaged in self-directed study at some of the best universities of Europe.  His major interests were philosophy, the psychology of mass movements, and cards.  It was in France that he learned Belote when that game was first becoming popular, just prior to the First World War.  Jo-Jotte is based closely on Belote, and is essentially an elaboration of that game.  Belote is still today considered the "national game" of France.


The fall of the Czar in 1917 left Ely suddenly penniless: his father had failed to diversify his wealth and had invested all of his money in Imperial Russian bonds.  When Ely came to the United States to live about 1920, his financial position was precarious.  He decided to make his living playing cards.  He met his wife, Josephine, through cardplay at a New York club in the 1920's.


Ely tried unsuccessfully to make a living at card-playing and teaching (Auction) Bridge after marrying.  When Contract Bridge arrived on the scene in the mid-1920's, Ely immediately saw its potential.  He tried  to convince the leading card experts to let him work for them in popularizing Contract.  Milton Work and Wilbur Whitehead were little interested his offer.  They were the recognized authorities at Auction and their Auction books brought them significant income. When both rejected his entreaties, Ely realized he would have to popularize Contract Bridge -- and himself -- alone.  At this point, his varied background came to full fruition.  His knowledge of revolutions and mass movements translated easily into what we today call "mass marketing;" his study of psychology reinforced the same; and, his knowledge of card play and statistics made him one of the better players in the country. In short order, Ely backed the greats of bridge into widely-publicized matches against him and his wife.  He utilized the new medium of radio to ensure a nationwide audience.  And in 1931, he sealed his reputation as the foremost expert on Contract Bridge (as well as the popularity of the game itself), when he and Josephine defeated Sidney Lenz and Oswald Jacoby in a highly-publicized match.  The match seized public interest in the U.S. and was reported on daily in the newspapers and radio.


Ely was a supreme salesman, for Contract Bridge and for himself. The popularity of one buttressed the other.  As Contract Bridge became ever more popular, Ely made more and more money from his Bridge books, his endorsements, and similar activities.


A key part of Ely's success was in selling himself and his wife as a "human-interest" story for the media.  He painted himself as an egotistical, but misunderstood, card genius.  He took full advantage of the prejudices of the day, when most people saw women as intellectually inferior. Josephine was an excellent bridge player and their "partnership understanding" was unique in its day.  Culbertson played up every angle to maximize interest in the "Bridge showdowns" he orchestrated.  In many ways these contests were much like the boxing matches of the day.   They were challenge matches that lacked any official imprimatur, yet  the public accepted them as definitive.  All achieved national publicity and interest.


In the late 1930's, Culbertson faced a midlife crisis. His interest in card play wavered, and he wrote his autobiography: THE STRANGE LIVES OF ONE MAN (Winston: Chicago, 1940).  He divorced his wife and left his two children to her care.  He tried to find meaning in his old haunts in France, but to little avail.  Eventually, he settled back in the U.S..  He wrote several books on card play and games and married a college-age woman. The May-December marriage didn't last long.


Ely devoted much of his time and fortune to publicizing and promoting his personal plans for world peace in the late 40's and early 50's. At a time when cold war tensions were at their height, he felt uniquely qualified to show how to achieve peace.  After all, he had grown up in Russia, lived in several countries, resided in the U.S., mastered several spoken languages, and studied politics and philosophy at leading European universities.  Ely published widely-read articles on his peace plans in READER'S DIGEST magazine, wrote two books, and testified before the U.S. Congress.  But his plans were not implemented as American foreign policy.  He achieved much by getting a hearing for his ideas, but ultimately he didn't have the same success in influencing U.S. foreign policy as he had in getting the world to play Contract Bridge.


Culbertson died in 1954.  He was a complex man, one thought far too egotistical by some, while others believed it was all an act, a clever media-manipulation ploy created to achieve renown and financial success.  Ely seems to have failed as a family man, divorcing his wife and negatively impacting his daughter's life.  Yet he truely believed he could give back to the world through his peace plans during the cold war, and he backed up this belief with the totality of his fortune.  And while a few may argue it would have happened without him, there is no question that he single-handedly popularized Contract Bridge.


For more information on Ely Culberston, read his autobiography, which is available at many big-city libraries in the U.S.  Or see CULBERTSON: THE MAN WHO MADE CONTRACT BRIDGE by John Clay (Weidenfield, 1983) or THE GOLDEN AGE OF CONTRACT BRIDGE by David Daniels (Stein & Day: NY, 1980).