In the fall of 1996, when The Bridge Bulletin published a list of the top 25 bridge players of all time based on their performances in major events, some readers may have been surprised to see the name of George Rapée in the No. 5 spot, ahead of such luminaries as Oswald Jacoby, Sam Stayman and Charles Goren.
Rapée, after all, is not well known to many of today’s tournament players. In later years he played bridge only three times a year in the NABCs – and did not seek publicity.
Those in the know considered Rapée – owner of three world championships and 25 North American titles – a natural choice for any list featuring all-time greats.
Rapée’s record of success in major tournaments went beyond outstanding. In addition to three Bermuda Bowl victories, Rapée fashioned an amazing record in the three major ACBL team championships – the Vanderbilt, Spingold and Reisinger. Between 1942 and 1971, Rapée was on the winning team 21 times and placed second 15 times.
Hall of Famer Bobby Wolff said Rapée was the best of a strong group of players in the 1940s. “George was by far the most consistent," Wolff said. “He made very few mistakes, and he was usually playing with a partner who was hard to play with.”
In an analysis of the U.S. team’s performance in the 1958 Bermuda Bowl, Rapée was judged to be the best, ahead of teammates B. Jay Becker and Tobias Stone. Edgar Kaplan wrote in The Bridge World: Rapée’s performance was most impressive. He was the only American to play up to his potential, and his potential is considerable.”
Rapée was born in New York City, the son of Hungarian immigrants. His father, Erno, was a concert pianist and orchestra conductor.
Although he earned a law degree, Rapée never practiced. Instead, he became a real estate investor.
One of Rapée’s most important contributions to bridge is known by another person’s name.
Rapée and Sam Stayman were regular partners when Rapée came up with the idea of using 2*C* responses to a 1NT opener as an artificial bid to try to uncover a four-four major fit. Prior to that, players had extreme difficulty finding the right contracts after 1NT openers.
Rapée’s creation was named for Stayman because Stayman wrote about it in The Bridge World.
Today, Stayman and Blackwood are the two most popular bridge conventions in the world.
John Solodar, Rapée’s regular partner during the latter part of his life, admired his diminutive friend --- for his bridge acumen and as a human being. Said Solodar: “George was one of the all-time gentlemen of the game. His word and his handshake were better than any contract.”
In 1990, Rapée and his team finished third in the Rosenblum Knockout Teams at the World Bridge Championships in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1998, his squad made it to the round of 16 in the Vanderbilt.
Former partner Sidney Lazard was around when Rapée was making his mark.
Said Lazard: "In my opinion, George Rapée was the best of the bunch, including John Crawford and Howard Schenken. If you listen to him, you can learn a lot.”