Goren, Charles Henry

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Goren, Charles Henry

(b. 4 March 1901 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 3 April 1991 in Encino, California), champion and theorist of contract bridge whose numerous books and syndicated newspaper column helped to create a popular following for the game.

Goren was one of two children of Jacob Goren, a writer, and his wife Rebecca, a homemaker, both Jewish immigrants from Russia. Goren excelled academically and was involved in a wide variety of extracurricular activities at Philadelphia’s Central High School, which awarded him a diploma in 1918. After working briefly as a furniture salesman, he studied law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, receiving his LL.B. in 1922 and his LL.M. in 1923. At McGill he learned to play whist and auction bridge. He was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1923, then practiced law in Philadelphia.

After Harold S. Vanderbilt invented contract bridge in 1925, and especially through Ely Culbertson’s whirlwind publicity campaign in the late 1920s to supplant auction bridge with contract, Goren became fascinated with the game. He read the books of his fellow Philadelphian Milton Work, an auction bridge expert then engaged in establishing the theory of contract. Impressed by Goren’s diligence, talent, and enthusiasm, Work hired him as his assistant. By 1931, Goren was playing in tournaments.

Goren won the first of his forty-three national bridge championships in 1933, his first major national championship in 1937, and his only world championship, the Bermuda Bowl, in 1950. He won each of the major national events at least once. Perhaps most amazing are his eight wins and two seconds in the prestigious Reisinger Board-a-Match Team Championships. His favorite partner was Helen Sobel.

Bridge is a communication game. Much depends on the accurate evaluation of the strength of the thirteen cards one is dealt and the clear conveyance of that information to one’s partner through established bidding conventions. The earliest contract bridge theorists wrestled with the enigma of hand evaluation. Culbertson’s method, the honor trick count, was popular but flawed. Work and Goren preferred a point-count method, whereby high cards are assigned progressive numerical values. Several point counts are possible, and to be useful they must also make quantitative allowances for suit distribution; it can be advantageous to have few cards in a given suit because an opponent’s otherwise winning card can be trumped once the hand is void in that suit. Goren, after experimenting with refinements of Work’s point count, finally settled on the simplest: Ace = 4, King = 3, Queen = 2, Jack = 1, Void = 3, Singleton = 2, and Doubleton = 1. With 40 high-card points in the deck, an average hand is 10, a borderline opening bid hand is 12 or 13, and a mandatory opening bid hand (using Goren’s strategy) is 14.

Goren’s reputation as a bidding theorist was firmly established by his first book, Winning Bridge Made Easy: A Simplified Self-Teaching Method of Contract Bidding Combining All the Principles of the New Culbertson System with the Principal Features of the Four Aces System (1936). With the success of this book he quit practicing law in 1936 to devote himself full-time to bridge and writing. His other books include Better Bridge for Better Players: The Play of the Cards (1942), Contract Bridge Made Easy: A Self-Teacher (1948), The Fundamentals of Contract Bridge (1950), Contract Bridge for Beginners (1953), New Way to Better Bridge (1958), An Evening of Bridge (1959), Elements of Bridge (1960), The Sports Illustrated Book of Bridge (1961), Goren’s Easy Steps to Winning Bridge (1963), Bridge Is My Game: Lessons of a Lifetime (1965), Bridge Players Write the Funniest Letters (1968), Charles H. Goren Presents the Precision System of Contract Bridge Bidding (1971), Precision Bridge for Everyone (1978, with C. C. Wei), Play as You Learn Bridge (1979), and Introduction to Competitive Bidding (1984, with Ronald P. Von der Porten).

Three of his books became standard instructional texts, each appearing in many editions: Contract Bridge Complete (1951), Contract Bridge in a Nutshell (1946), and Point Count Bidding in Contract Bridge (1949). Especially by virtue of Contract Bridge Complete (published as both Bridge Complete and New Bridge Complete), the phrase “according to Goren” became for bridge players more authoritative than “according to Hoyle.” The tenth edition of Contract Bridge Complete (1985) replaced Goren’s standard four-card major bidding system with the five-card major system that had come to be preferred by most experts. This was considered an important concession and kept Goren in the mainstream of bridge theory. He also wrote books on subjects other than bridge: Complete Canasta (1949, with Ralph Michaels), Canasta Up-to-Date (1950), New Canasta and Samba (1951), Hoy le Encyclopedia of Games (1961), Go with the Odds: A Guide to Successful Gambling (1969), and Modern Backgammon Complete (1974).

Goren began writing a daily newspaper column in 1944, succeeding Culbertson at the Chicago Tribune. With Alex Dreier he cohosted the national television show Championship Bridge from 1959 to 1964. Along with Vanderbilt and Culbertson, he was one of the three original members elected to the American Contract Bridge League Hall of Fame in 1964.

Because of his health, he retired from playing tournament bridge in 1966 and became a virtual recluse, living mostly with his nephew Marvin Goren in Encino, California. After his eyesight began to fail in the 1970s, he relied more on ghostwriters and coauthors. Omar Sharif and Tannah Hirsch ghostwrote his newspaper column. He died at home of a heart attack and is buried in Trevose, Pennsylvania, near the residence of his other nephew, Norman Goren.

Goren never married and had no children. To say he was married to the game of bridge is not farfetched. Fans called him “Mr. Bridge.” He was hard-working, friendly, tolerant, and cultured. He played golf, frequented the theater, and loved classical music. In recognition of all his accomplishments, McGill awarded him an honorary LL.D. in 1973.

The best source of further information is the archives of the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL). Feature stories are in Sports Illustrated (16 Sept. 1957), Time (29 Sept. 1958), and Current Biography (March 1959). Details of Goren’s tournament victories are in the ACBL’s Official Encyclopedia of Bridge (5th edition, 1994). Obituaries are in the New York Times (12 Apr. 1991) and Contract Bridge Bulletin (May 1991 and June 1991).

Eric V. D. Luft