Contract bridge is little more than 30 years old, so quite a few of today's stars have played with and against every great player who ever brightened a tournament entry list. Yet if a poll were taken to select the five top players of all time, the nearest approach to acclamation would be in the choice of the foremost woman player, and here my favorite partner and recent guest columnist, Helen Sobel, would be chosen in a landslide.
There was a time in the early days of contract when the spotlight was focused on another glamorous female—Josephine Culbertson. Jo was a generation ahead of Helen, yet they joined forces in the twilight of Mrs. Culbertson's career at a time when Helen was just coming along. That was in the summer of 1937. Helen paired with Charles Vogelhofer of Brooklyn to team up with Ely and Jo Culbertson for a shot at the European Championship in Budapest. She brought back with her this hand from the Budapest Congress, a hand which well deserves a permanent place in our archives.
Culbertson held the West hand. He and Jo were defending against Johannes Bruns, ranked at the time as one of the best players in Europe. Culbertson had been among those who took an early position against the trump lead as an opening against a slam bid. Nevertheless, in the face of this auction he chose to lead a spade. Mrs. Culbertson signaled with a high heart.
North's 8 held the trick and declarer led a diamond to the king. If East had held the ace of diamonds, or if Culbertson, having won with the ace, had returned a heart in obedience to East's signal, South would have made the slam. But Culbertson ignored the come-on in hearts to continue with a trump.
Declarer won and cashed the queen and jack of diamonds, discarding a club from dummy. Now, if South had held the 7 of diamonds and West the 6, the contract would still have been made. But dummy had to ruff the fourth diamond, remaining with only two trumps to take care of declarer's three possible losers in clubs. In desperation, declarer decided to take the club finesse. When this lost, Culbertson returned his last trump, and South ended up down two tricks on a hand that should have made against almost any reasonable distribution of the cards, and would have been made in spite of the evil arrangement of the opponents' hands had it not been for Culbertson's repeated trump leads.
It would be nice to conclude this tale by reporting that the Culbertson-Sobel team went on to win the European Championship. In fact, they finished second to a strong Austrian team. That was perhaps the one and only chance the U.S. will ever have to win this event, which since that time has been open only to nations who are members of the European Bridge League.
Culbertson's opponents were using one of his own weapons against him—the Four-Five No Trump bid. His was the first of the ace-asking conventions and in the early days it was bitterly protested by players in England, who complained that it was as bad as laying one's cards on the table. Some Europeans today still prefer the Culbertson Four No Trump to Blackwood's simpler but less disciplined bid. Using Blackwood, anybody is at liberty to bid four no trump to start the asking. This sometimes places experienced players at the mercy of thoughtless partners. Culbertson imposed the restriction that the Four No Trump bidder must himself hold either two aces and the king of a bid suit or three aces. North's bid in the agreed suit—in this hand, spades-was a sign-off denying any aces.