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February 7th, 2004


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04:19 am - The Greatest Living Minnesotan
Not such a great day here at home, having to cope with decreasing parental capability. Two things have cheered it up, though; the first is this fantastic icon, gratuitously posted here (*points in appropriate direction for the style of your page*) and produced by the prodigiously talented and geeky-in-a-very-good-way folk. I get to be Aldgate East! So cool; thanks, John. The lady may not be for turning, but look at me flex the Hammersmith and City with the force of my mind. (Or something.) Not quite the sharpest curve on the map (third, perhaps, after the Heathrow loop and the Olympia branch?) but a real dramatic looker. Ahem. Yes, I believe in taking my victories where I can find 'em.

The other cheering gift of the day was from quiz_master_man, a double birthday gift for 2002 and 2003. First, CDs with mpegs of his appearances on Jeopardy! last year; he appeared shortly after the answer values doubled and consequently made what might reasonably be referred to as a whooooole bundle (a one-day recordbreaking bundle, I might add) of cash in his first game. Game two showed just how capricious the show can be; although he probably answered more questions correctly than he did in game one, he didn't find the DJ! Daily Doubles, one particular opponent did and Final Jeopardy! lived up to its name. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic demonstration of just how exciting the phrase Let's make it a true Daily Double really can be.

Extremely cool, but trumped by the second half of the fantastically kind gift: five issues from late 1937 and early 1938 of Games Digest magazine, edited by Ely Culbertson. I had never heard of it before, but it's an absolute gem. Thank you ever so much, Myron. jaydlewis may remain The Greatest Living Canadian, but Myron is at least The Greatest Living Minnesotan and threatening to take more and more territory. Evidently I am extremely succeptible to interesting bribes.

History lesson: this page details the card games which preceded Contract Bridge. Mah Jong(g) had been a fad in 1920s America; the Great Depression saw a tremendous surge in popularity for games of all types. Auction Bridge mutated into Contract Bridge at the behest of the beautiful people of the day, the rich and famous; the craze spread around the Western World. Foremost personality among this movement was one Ely Culbertson, who established the first magazine, The Bridge World, and his celebrated Blue Book. 1931 was perhaps his best year; his books were two of the ten best-selling non-fiction works on any topic in the USA; personally, he challenged his main rival to the "Bridge Battle of the Century" and won, even having offered 5-1 odds.

Ely was a master self-publicist, the like of which among gaming circles may not have been seen since. His importance as a public figure probably exceeds that of Garry Kasparov today, Kasparov's political aspirations withstanding, and probably even exceeds that of Bobby Fischer at his height as a symbol of American chess might in the Cold War against the Russians. Culbertson was in the right place at the right time and very good at maximising his personal gain from the game of bridge. (Later on, he would become a prominent politician in the world of international relations.)

According to the ACBL biography, his unparalleled success continued throughout the mid-1930s, until he started to withdraw from public bridge from 1935 onwards. 1937 was The Bridge World, Inc.'s best year; it was also the year that he decided to spin off his company's success by starting the Games Digest, branding itself "the all-games magazine". It's about 5"x7", has a glossy black-and-white-and-one-other-colour cover, with 64 monochrome, fairly closely-set pages per month inside. About a quarter of the pages include art, but no photographs.

The magazine has a cover price of 10 cents, which the inflation calculators extrapolate to between $1 and $1.50 today. Nevertheless, this can best be understood in context; advertisements for board games throughout the magazine typically price them at $2 or $3, with different editions of Monopoly sets available at prices ranging from $2 to $25. (Nothing new in our fancy editions there, then.) It is interesting to see KEM brand playing cards advertised on one rear cover for $3, though, or thirty times the price of the magazine; while Kem's linen cardstock may have been revolutionary at the day, thirty times the cost of the magazine is a remarkable price. These days, a standard pack of playing cards probably costs about the same price as a comparable mainstream newsstand magazine.

Each issue follows a similar format: an introductory piece describing a new card game, a feature article or two on some wider topic, quizzes, a poker column (there's a wonderful defence of drawing one card at five-card draw!), descriptions of party games, lots of bridge, a remarkably heavy sprinkling of Pinochle, brainteasers, a not-all-that-large concentration on chess, a rather dry-looking checkers (draughts) column, magic tricks or ways to play with string, domino game discussion, a crossword, a letters column and editorial from Culbertson himself interspersed. The most frequent pieces are ones introducing new games - mostly rules and discussions of card games which now feel very familiar, but which must have been cutting-edge at the time.

Later issues discuss backgammon; there is a feature on go-bang (not go as such, but what we now know as go-moku - renju without the restrictions) and quite a lot about the proprietary games of the day. Monopoly is only four years old by that point, and the game's pre-development as Lizzie Borden's Phillips' (duh, 4am blogging for you) The Landlord's Game is clearly spelt out. The centrefold of the fifth issue I have is a spirited piece about Spin The Bottle - yes, that Spin The Bottle, in its context as a reasonably-innocent adult party game.

In context, this is all fantastic. The magazine has a very light tone and conveys a sense that its news really was the news of the day; new games and game discussions were a big thing to an extent that we can only dream of now and that far outstrips even the prominence of new games in German culture. There have been general games publications ever since - not least the famous Games magazine, and the British Games and Puzzles which had a good run in the 1970s, but somehow they pale in historical context. Most issues will have mention of the news of one Ely Cuthbertson listed as news rather than as personal account, but it's done in a light-hearted, self-affronting fashion. He really is the news. The third issue mentions the divorce of Ely and Josephine Culbertson, and the party games column changes ownership from Mrs. C to another new columnist next month. A sample from "Games in the News":

MEANWHILE, in the Netherlands, Dr. Alexander Alekhine was trouncing Dr. Max Euwe to regain the world's chess championship. Dr. Alekhine had held the title once before, having won it from the Cuban master, Jose R. Capablanca, only to lose it in 1935 to Dr. Euwe.

BIG NEWS of the month was the impending divorce of Ely and Josephine Culbertson, most famous couple in the world of games since the days of Hoyle 250 years ago. Mrs. Culbertson left for Reno, Culbertson for Europe, almost simultaneously. They remain friends and business partners, however, dividing care of their children and splitting an annual income of $200,000. Said Culbertson, "I'm a solitary animal. I'm surprised Jo lived with me 14 years. She's still my favorite partner." Mrs. Culbertson blamed Culbertson's temperamental moods, but said that he is a good father and her favorite bridge partner.


I hadn't heard of the existence of Games Digest beforehand, not even in the context of games history; I never knew that anything as quintessential in its field at the time ever existed. There's only one passing reference to the magazine elsewhere on the Web and no indication of how long it lasted, so who knows just how rare these pieces are these days? (Where did you find them, Myron, and were you aware just how remarkable within their field they are?) Three of the five magazines are in very good condition; the fourth has some charming pencil defacement on the front and the cover of the frail fifth has been coming away in my hands despite appropriately delicate handling.

This is a remarkable present to receive - a treasure, a lost episode of Doctor Who. Thanks, Myron.
Current Mood: enthralledenthralled

(7 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


From:kearie
Date:February 6th, 2004 11:47 pm (UTC)
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yay Yours incon is vergty cool!!
From:kearie
Date:February 7th, 2004 02:47 pm (UTC)

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Oops. Ignore drunken stupidity. Icon is nice though :)
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:February 8th, 2004 05:02 pm (UTC)

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Drunken stupidity always welcome on this journal, as a nice counterpart to my sober stupidity. :-)
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From:bateleur
Date:February 7th, 2004 01:17 am (UTC)

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edited by Ely Culbertson

Now I'm impressed ! A real piece of history !
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From:addedentry
Date:February 7th, 2004 02:04 am (UTC)
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Fascinating! Especially that it sounds so inclusive, rather than concentrating on card games. I'd love to see such an early crossword.

You don't mean Lizzie Borden, do you? (-:
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:February 8th, 2004 05:08 pm (UTC)

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Axe-bearing whack-giver in "invents board game" shock!

Elizabeth Phillips, I mean. Ahem. Corrected, thank you.

I will be getting my scanner out and scanning away for the records and will try to get you a 1937 crossword. To whet your appetite, the preamble:

The December Crossword Puzzle

In most cases, clues rather than definitions are given. Anagrams and phonetics are used freely. Wherever possible there are two clues for each word. (By the way - there is a word square in one of the corners.)

Horizontal

1. In the bag for old dobbin (4)
5. Led by Ralph to a sage (5)
9. Escape a mixed sensation (4)

Vertical

1. Distant exclamation for a game (4)
2. The bell sounds after the ore is overturned (7)
3. Girl outstanding for her teas (4)

(etc.)
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From:folk
Date:February 8th, 2004 04:24 am (UTC)
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Glad you like the icon!

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