Bridge Battle of the Century

The Bridge Battle of the Century, as it was called when it took place between December 1931 and January 1932, was a genuine milestone in the history of the development and promotion of bridge as it is known today. Combining as it did every feature designed to capture and hold the interest of the then bridge-mad multitudes, and starring the greatest celebrities then prominent in bridge, it was predestined to be an exciting and long-remembered event. These were the years when bridge was making its impact felt keenly in the United States for the first lime.

During the previous decade many new styles of bidding and play had come to the forefront, and most prominent among these was the Culbertson System. Conceived and popularized by a man who was a born a shaper and molder of opinions and customs, and who was a superbly talented and practical psychologist as well, the Culbertson System took the nation by storm, and was indeed original in concept and, as practiced by its leading exponents, a successful and highly practical method of bidding in bridge. Naturally its success caused many rivalries and feuds among those players who were at the very top rungs of the bridge ability ladder. This resulted in a strange war, a Systemic War in which 12 leading authorities. including Mr. Sidney Lenz, Milton Work, Wilbur C. Whitehead and Edward V. Shepad, gathered together and organized a corporation, Bridge Headquarters, all forces joined to combat Culbertson's domination of Contract Bridge.

The principal leader of the various groups in opposition to the Culbertson methods was Mr. Sidney Lenz, a veteran of Auction Bridge. In his camp were other great luminaries of the game, who also felt that their methods were superior to the Culbertson System. The name by which the Mr. Sidney Lenz forces' system was called was the Official System. A book on this system, which acknowledged its debt to Culbertson in that much of it was derived from his concepts, was later to be written by Milton Work. The actual match was the result of a challenge made earlier in 1931 by Ely Culbertson to the faction Mr. Sidney Lenz.

There were many complications to be ironed out and negotiated before agreement as to any and all conditions could actually be achieved, but essentially the match was finally played on a pair-against-pair basis, with Ely Culbertson wagering $5,000 against Mr. Sidney Lenz’s $1,000 on the outcome, with the money going to charity no matter who won. Ely Culbertson promoted the match as the struggle of a young loving married couple against the forces of adversity with 12 jealous authorities, the establishment, combined against them. Of course it was also billed as a grudge fight and a battle of systems. As a result the match was a topic of conversation at every bridge table and at many dinner tables long before it began. In all, 150 rubbers were played, and during 88 of them Ely Culbertson played with his wife, Josephine. His partners for the balance of the encounter were Theodore A. Lightner, Waldemar Von Zedtwitz, Howard Schenken, and Michael Gottlieb.

Mr. Sidney Lenz played the first 103 rubbers with Oswald Jacoby, who then resigned because of a difference of opinion on the play of a defensive situation. Mr. Sidney Lenz's partner for the remainder of the session was Commander Winfield Liggett Jr., and Alfred Gruenther, then a lieutenant instructor at West Point, was chief referee of the match.


The Culbertson team won by 8,980 points. Careful and accurate records of cards held for each deal were kept, and at the conclusion it was determined that each side had held fairly much the same number of high cards as the other. The first half of the match was held at New York's Chatham Hotel, and the second part at the newly opened Waldorf-Astoria. The conditions of play and of protocol in general were governed by an agreement, to which both Ely Culbertson and Mr. Sidney Lenz were signatory, and the bridge laws under which the match was conducted were those published by the Whist Club of New York.

Bridge Match Culbertson Lenz
Points Won 122,925 113,945
Rubbers Won 77 73
Number of two-game rubbers 37 32
Size of average rubber won 934 866
Largest rubber won 2,590 2,825
Games 195 186
Small Slams bid and made 9 8
Small Slams defeated
(not including sacrifices)
9 5
Grand Slams defeated 0 1
Opening Suit bids of one 366 289
Opening 1 No Trump bids 43 45
Opening forcing bids 5 5
Small Slams made but not bid
(many owing to lucky breaks)
20 19
Games made but not bid
(many owing to lucky breaks)
15 13
Successful Contracts 273 273
Defeated Contracts 142 162
Number of exact game Contract
voluntarily bid and defeated
48 49
Number of Penalties of 600 plus 7 14
Points lost in Penalties of 600 plus 5,900 11,500
Aces 1,745 1,771
Kings 1,775 1,771
Honor Tricks 3,649 3,648
Points (4-3-2-1) 18,091 17,898
Value of average rubber: 899
Hands dealt: 879
Hands passed out: 25

Coverage by the press of the nation was stupendous. Stories about the match were on the front pages of newspapers all over America. Regular correspondents were dispatched to the scenes of play, and some of the great newspaper personalities of the time wrote articles for their papers and for syndicates. The Associated Press laid heavy cables right into the Culbertson apartment at the Chatham Hotel, assigned reporters to the match and gave play-by-play coverage while Western Union and Postal Telegraph established branches in a spare room.

A continuous line of the rich and famous moved into the drawing room and out of it, viewing the action through cracks in a large leather screen, and trying to catch a glimpse of the players' faces or the flash of a card being played. Ely Culbertson called it the greatest peep show in history. A 438-page book, Famous Hands of The Culbertson-Lenz Match, was published in three sections with bidding and play analyzed by Ely Culbertson and his partners, Oswald Jacoby, and Lt. Gruenther. Complete statistics were collated and records of every phase of the match carefully kept. However, the single most significant feature of the entire proceedings was the enormous impetus it gave the game of bridge when the game's popularity was already great.