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Pop History: Culbertson's Coup (Sports Illustrated, December 20, 1954)

A hyperbolic account of the 1931-32 Culbertson-Lenz "Bridge Battle of the Century", seen through the mists of 23 years when this article was published in December 1954. Given what is widely known and verifiable about the hoopla surrounding the match (check out the front pages of most of the American newspapers from December 1931 and January 1932 that can be found in the Google Newspaper Archive), the writer had to work hard to be hyperbolic. And they did, recounting all sorts of little personal and probably apocryphal anecdotes.

The battle was a one-table match of 150 rubbers set up in response to a public challenge issued by Ely Culbertson to settle once and for all whether the Culbertson system or the "Official System" touted by Sidney Lenz and a group of associates who branded themselves as "Bridge Headquarters" was superior. A month and 879 (!) hands later Culbertson claimed victory.

While people who study the match in hindsight may not believe anything technical was proven, Culbertson accomplished what he really set out to do: vanquish opponents and have the burgeoning popular bridge market effectively to himself. And until a certain Charles Goren came along (and Culbertson decided to redirect much of his energy toward international politics), that was pretty much how it was in America.

At least at the time this article ran almost all the participants were still alive to rebut if they didn't like the story, although both Culbertsons would be gone in a little over a year. By "participants" I count anyone who was in the match or running it, as opposed to kibitzers or people who covered the match for the media. Lenz played with only two partners, Oswald Jacoby and Cmdr. Winfield Liggett Jr.. Culbertson played with several different people during periods when Josephine took breaks to look after their children or for other reasons; this is not mentioned in this article but is documented elsewhere (Howard Schenken's 1973 memoir, "Education of a Bridge Player", for one).

The last three living participants were Lieutenant (later General) Alfred Gruenther (the director/referee), Oswald Jacoby, and Waldemar von Zedtwitz, all of whom passed away in 1984. The end of an era?

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