ACBL Bridge Beat #97: Vugraph

In the beginning*

It should be no surprise that the first bridge exhibition to be staged for a large audience should have as its producer Ely Culbertson. More than a bridge player, teacher and author, Culbertson was first and foremost a showman — bridge’s own P.T Barnum. Determined to make bridge a spectator sport, Culbertson challenged an English squad captained by Lieutenant-Colonel H. Beasley to a duplicate match for what he decided would be titled the World Championship. He planned to stage the London event on a spectacular scale.

Gordon Selfridge made his fabulous department store available for the match, providing the scale. Culbertson provided the spectacle:

I saw in my mind’s eye a gigantic electric board where every bid and play could be followed as clearly as though they were sitting the room around the players. I have tried many such boards and brought one from America to London. Just imagine! While we experts battled in sound proof rooms, several thousand people in an adjoining hall followed every bid and play. I can foresee the day when such a board will automatically be connected by wire with hundreds of similar boards so that every bid made will be heard around the world. (The Bridge World, August 1933)

Rex Mackay further describes the 1933 scene in his book, The Walk of the Oysters:

By an ingenious system of periscopes, and an even more ingenious arrangement of refracting mirrors, the actual contestants themselves could be seen playing at the table. There was at all times a commentator standing at the score-board — himself an expert — who gave a running explanation of the bids and plays as they were made and comment on each hand when it was finished.

The six-day match drew more than 27,000 kibitzers to Selfridges; so many more people were left outside that traffic had to be rerouted. Newspaper headlines cried “Street Crowds Cheer Scores” and “Scorers Mobbed by Excited Spectators.” The Daily Express called it “The Most Amazing Bridge Match Ever Played.”


In the years following the 1933 match, a similar, non-electronically operated display board with jumbo playing cards was employed to broadcast major matches to large audiences. Rather than periscopes and mirrors, however, what Terrence Reese calls “a fishbowl (a glass-fronted panel in which the players were visible to the audience)” was used. (Bridge at the Top).

Though he wasn’t alive to take credit for it, Culbertson’s innovation was the prototype for Bridge-O-Rama (or bridgerama in Britain), the chosen means of broadcasting bridge to live audiences at major bridge events through the mid-Sixties.

Devised in Italy and first used in the 1958 World Championship, Bridge-O-Rama played out on a huge electronic board placed center stage in a theater setting. The display board held frames in which the four hands were placed and the representations of the individual cards were lighted.

The board also included devices for indicating which card won a trick, tricks won by declarer or defender, the contract and other information.

The bidding was posted manually on smaller boards off to the side. A director in the open room used a microphone to communicate bids and card play. The lights on the display board were controlled by a bank of switches, and as cards were played, they were dimmed. The Bridge-O-Rama auditorium also featured fish bowls for the players so that the audience could watch them at work.

When he wasn’t playing, Reese was amongst the most sought-after commentators from the mid-50s through the mid-70s.

The invention of the overhead projector in the early Sixties ushered in the vugraph era, and the unwieldy Bridge-O-Rama eventually went the way of the dinosaurs.


For the 1991 World Junior Championships in Ann Arbor, Fred Gitelman (founder of Bridge Base Online) took it upon himself to develop a vugraph program written for DOS (the operating system PCs used before Windows). “To the best of my knowledge, that was the first time software had ever been used to present vugraph at a major tournament,” he says. “Before that, technologies like overhead projectors were used.” Impressed with the possibilities the software offered, the ACBL — funded by a bequest from the estate of Peter Pender — contracted with Gitelman to develop the program further, improving both the function and the graphics, and eventually, to rewrite the program as a Windows application.

“As far as I remember, Pendergraph was used at the ACBL NABCs through most of the Nineties and at the 1994 World Championships in Albuquerque,” Gitelman recalls.

Gitelman describes BBO and Pendergraph as two completely different applications. Pendergraph was designed only for onsite vugraph presentations. The only commonality the two programs have is the programmer. While Pendergraph has been retired in favor of BBO to broadcast NABC matches, the vugraph hall at all NABC sites is now called the Peter Pender Memorial Vugraph Theater in honor of the player whose grant helped advance vugraph technology.

The advent of the computer age led to a number of vugraph innovations. One such advance was Bridgevision. In addition to the computerized presentation of the bidding and hands and the live commentary, roving cameramen filmed the players and televised the images to an avid audience.

In issue no. 13 from the 2001 World Championship (Paris) Daily News, Jean-Paul Meyer wrote “Thanks to the VuGraph”:

You cannot hold a good championship without a VuGraph. The more efficiently it works, the better it is for players, spectators and journalists. . . . Perhaps it’s not for me to say, but the French Bridgevision gave a brilliant performance producing thousands of results and startling images. The cameramen often got laughs from the audience with well thought out and amusing shots.

Masters at the mike

Many well-known players have made their mark as vugraph analysts. Barry Rigal is considered one of the top commentators in the world. Larry Cohen and his pre-retirement playing partner David Berkowitz make a vugraph presentation a show worth paying to see; their collaboration has been likened to Abbott and Costello with vast bridge expertise. Eric Kokish, Kit Woolsey, Michael Rosenberg, Billy Eisenberg, Karen Allison, Chris Compton, Bart Bramley and George Jacobs have all added vugraph analyst to their list of bridge accomplishments. Before his death in 1997, Ron Andersen was widely admired as a panel show host, NABC moderator and chief vugraph commentator for WBF and European championships.

However, discussion of vugraph commentators would be incomplete without singling out “the grand daddy of them all,” Bridge World editor/publisher, multiple NABC champion, 1979 International Bridge Press Association Personality of the Year and ACBL Hall of Famer Edgar Kaplan.

“Beyond all of Kaplan’s other accomplishments, what made him the idol of the masses was his peerless work as a vugraph commentator,” reads the tribute to Kaplan that appeared in a 1997 World Bridge Championship Daily Bulletin (ed. Henry Francis). “His dry wit and flawless timing kept vugraph audiences enthralled around the world. He was droll without being aloof and projected a deep knowledge of the game without being pedantic.”

An Internet search of Kaplan turns up dozens of pages of his quips and quotes. Here are but a few from the 1980 Olympiad in the Netherlands:

“I don’t think anyone in this tournament can bid diamonds to show diamonds. We lost the club suit in the 1950s. Now diamonds are gone and hearts are sinking fast.”

“He may bid and he may not. I believe that covers all the possibilities.”

“When in doubt, put the opponents on lead. Why should you make the mistakes?”

“He’s preserving his options to misguess the diamonds.”

“East is wondering why he didn’t pass one spade. So am I.”

* As noted in Bridge Beat #95:Teaching Bridge, Kate Wheelock invented the forerunner to the vugraph – the Whist-o-Graph in 1886 for use in her classes.

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