NEBridge - Hacker: A Bit of History

A Bit of History

by Frank Hacker

Originally printed in the U175 Table Talk

Just about all bridge players have something in common. Their first act after sorting their hand is to count their points – 4 for an ace, 3 for a king, 2 for a queen, 1 for a jack, 3 for a void, 2 for a singleton, 1 for a doubleton. Subject to minor variations, we pretty much all count our points that way.

Who deserves the credit or blame for all of this?

Contract bridge (as opposed to auction bridge) was invented in the late 1920s. There were two transcendent stars during the first 40 years of contract bridge: Ely Culbertson (1891 – 1955) and Charles Goren (1901 -1991). It’s of interest to note that Culbertson died in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Culbertson came first. He did not use points to evaluate hands. Instead he used honor tricks. Goren and Culbertson overlapped somewhat, and Goren popularized the point count with his 1949 book Point Count Bidding in Contract Bridge. This book sold three million copies and went through twelve reprintings in its first five years.

Charles Goren does not deserve the credit for introducing or developing the point count. Bryant McCampbell (1877-1927) introduced the 4-3-2-1 point count in 1915, not for auction bridge, but for auction pitch.

Auction pitch in 1915 was very much like the game of Pitch (sometimes called Smear or Hi-Lo-Jack) that many of us used to play in our college dorm rooms or student unions. Bryant McCampbell was also an expert on auction bridge and he published a book on auction bridge in 1916. This book is still in print and available from Amazon. 

Milton Work (1864 -1934), who was an expert on whist, bridge whist, auction bridge and contract bridge, gets credit for popularizing the point count for bridge with a 1923 publication.

In its early days the 4-3-2-1 point count was used for hand evaluation primarily for no trump contracts. Most players still used the Culbertson honor trick method of hand evaluation for suit contracts.

The credit for distributional point count goes to Canadian bridge expert William Anderson (1905 -1969).  Anderson was one of Canada’s leading actuaries who rose to be president and later chairman of the North American Life Assurance Company. He was also president of both the Canadian Institute of Actuaries and the US based Society of Actuaries.

In the 1940’s William Anderson spent two years to verify the accuracy of the 4-3-2-1 point count method. He determined that a small mathematical improvement was possible, but that the simplicity of the 4-3-2-1 method made the results about as good as one could get. Anderson then developed the 3-2-1 distribution evaluation.

Goren acknowledged Anderson’s contribution in his point count bidding book and in 1981 in one of his columns. Bill Anderson was recently inducted into the Canadian Bridge Federation Hall of Fame.