Willard S. Karn Lawsuit

As reported in The New York Times

Published March 19, 1938

Published May 8, 1938

Written by: Albert H. Morehead


One of the first stories about cheating in the game of bridge was in the very early days of the game when certain groups were attempting to gain control of the growing popularity of the game. The philosophy was that whoever dominated in the period of evolution stood to gain financially and also in stature. Thus began the feud among many of the leading, and mostly self-annointed bridge authorities, which had turned their backs on the game of Whist and Auction Bridge, and strove to gain control of the game of Duplicate and Contract Bridge.

In this power struggle no means were deemed off limits as long as such actions did not interfere with the promotion of this evolving game called bridge. Mr. Ely Culbertson recognized the advantages of being named titular head of all governing bodies on the North American continent and promoted himself as the best authority on the subject.

Other members of the ever-growing bridge community, however, deemed such independent actions as irresponsible and undertook actions to wrest control away from Mr. Ely Culbertson.

Mr. P. Hal Sims formed a group of expert bridge champions in the year 1931 and this group of players became known as The Four Horsemen. Several members of this bridge team were Mr. Mr. Willard S. Karn and Mr. David Burnstine (Bruce). Mr. P. Hal Sims formed this group of bridge players for one reason and that was to challenge the authority of Mr. Ely Culbertson. The early successes of The Four Horsemen were impressive. They won two major team championships in the year 1932, shortly after their announcement of the formation of such a team. The won the prestigious Vanderbilt trophy, donated by the so-called father of bridge since Mr. Harold Stirling Vanderbilt created the new scoring method for the game.

They also were victorious at Asbury Park, which was the scene of many of the most important national championships in the early days of the evolving game of contract bridge. The event was conducted as a nine-day Summer National of the American Bridge League, which later became the American Contract Bridge League, from the year 1930 to the year 1941. Winning the Asbury Park Trophy was tatamount to being named the best player, and thus the best person or group to lead the governing body of the game, which oversaw all aspects of the game.

The Four Horsemen also were victorious at Reisinger Championship games, which also consituted the highest form of play.

These achievements were a source of agitation to Mr. Ely Culbertson, who saw his empire becoming less and less authoritative despite his efforts to the contrary. Among his perhaps most notorious actions to counter-attack, as it were, the efforts of The Four Horsemen and also the efforts of Mr. P. Hal Sims, it became aware to Mr. Ely Culbertson that he should attack the weakest link in the chain, and this weak link became Mr. Willard S. Karn.

Mr. Willard S. Karn, of notable means, had donated a trophy for an event called the Masters Individuals. He started this event in the year 1931 and it was an independent bridge event not governed by the American Bridge League. However, in the year 1933 Mr. Ely Culbertson publicly accused Mr. Willard S. Karn of cheating, an accusation which could not go unanswered among the members of the elite New Yorker society, where reputation was a most important feature in any business.

Mr. Ely Culbertson had hired a card detective to observe Mr. Willard S. Karn in action and at the bridge table. The name of this so-called professional card detective was Mr. Mickey MacDonald. It was immediately obvious to the knowledged few that it was Mr. Mickey MacDonald, who accused Mr. Willard S. Karn of cheating at cards, and not Mr. Ely Culbertson. To the credit of Mr. Ely Culbertson this action, which left him judicially blameless, became successful in achieving his goals. The public and the bridge community believed the accusations and sided with Mr. Ely Culbertson. In such a society it became the responsibility of the accused the prove his or her innocence, which could take years and strong financial support. But, whatever the outcome in the judicial system, the damage was accomplished and the reputation of Mr. Willard S. Karn had been permanently blemished.

Mr. Willard S. Karn removed himself, as any gentleman would, from the bridge community to devote himself and his time to prove his innocence and that he had committed no act, which could be conceived as cheating in the most broadest sense. He even withdrew the Karn Trophy from the Masters Individuals, which was replaced by the Steiner Trophy donated by Mr. Albert Steiner and Mr. Philip Steiner of Cincinnati, Ohio, United States.

Following are two articles published in the New York Times regarding the lawsuit initiated by Mr. Willard S. Karn against Mr. Ely Culbertson, against Mrs. Josephine Culbertson, against Mr. Oswald Jacoby, against Mr. William J. Huske, against Mr. Lee Langdon, against Mr. Walter Malowan, and against Mr. Waldemar von Zedtwitz. The first article was published on March 19, 1938, five years following the actual accusation made by Mr. Mickey MacDonald. The second article was published on May 8, 1938, fifty days later.