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Barry Crane and the Barry Crane Top 500 "Race"

by Grant Baze, San Diego, CA, USA


Barry Crane was the best matchpoint player of all time. He was also the most flamboyant character I have known in the bridge world. On the minus side, he was a terrible partner; volatile, mean, narcissistic, vindictive, petty ... all of these characteristics (except narcissistic) he used when he described himself.

On the plus side, he was good for bridge. He created a lot of action at and away from the bridge table, he was a celebrity in and out of the bridge world (He was a Hollywood producer, best known for the television shows Mission Impossible and Mannix), he had a strong mystique, a strong life force, and he was interesting, the subject of continuous gossip and "war stories" (and he loved it that way). It seems almost inevitable, in a tragic sense, that his brutal murder in 1985 is still an unsolved mystery.

Barry loved a McKinney race. He loved to be a part of it; if he was not going for it himself, he loved to be kingmaker, and usually he was kingmaker. There were three reasons Barry could do this. One, he was a great player. Most years he worked very hard during the week; he finished his productions on or under schedule because he drove his people hard to make sure he was free to play bridge on the weekends. He then would play with whom he had decided should win the McKinney that year. Two, he had a lot of important connections within the bridge world, and by connections I mean with other good and great players, with many important sponsors, and within the ACBL organization itself. Third, and probably most importantly, he was quite wealthy. He came from a wealthy family, and he made a lot of money in his own right in Hollywood. Therefore he chose not to play professionally unless a professional team was the best one available; his partners and teammates were invariably good or great players. Because professionals need to pay our bills, we could not really compete over the course of a year under those circumstances. This did not sit well with many of the great players, as you can imagine.

Barry wanted the race to be acrimonious, and did what he could to make sure it would be acrimonious. This made the year more exciting and therefore more fun for Barry, and frankly it made it more fun and exciting for the rest of us, whether we were directly involved or not. It also meant Barry created a lot of ill will amongst his McKinney opponents and their supporters, but he seemed to thrive on that. That worked to my advantage in 1984, the year I was directly involved against Barry, because I received support from many of the other great players in the country, who were basically fed up with him.

For three days I have been trying to think of a Barry story that would put him into a good light. I have not been able to think of a single one. So I will choose some stories that I know firsthand.

Barry was a partner killer. At the Hawaii Nationals in the Spring of 1985 Barry played with Mike Passell in the Open Pairs. They had a fabulous last session and won the event easily, the umpteenth time that Barry won that event (he was particularly good against non-expert competition). Mike is a friend of mine; after the event I congratulated him on the win. Mike said, "Ah, I play with Barry once a year just to remind myself of how much I hate playing with him."

Jeff Meckstroth went one better. He played with Barry in a two session regional event just because he thought he should play at least once with "Mr. McKinney." At the end of the event Jeff tore their convention card into ribbons and threw the pieces at Barry, making it very clear that he would never play with Barry again.

At the Sacramento regional in 1983 I was playing with Barry. Barry had several superstitious rules that he followed always, and his partners better follow them or all hell would break loose. One of these was that if you had a two way guess for a queen, you did not have to think about it -- the queen was over the jack in the minors, and under the jack in the majors. So if you held Axxx and dummy had the KJ109, you would lay down the ace and lead to the J if the suit was a major, and lead to the King and finesse coming back if the suit was a minor. Barry and I wind up in 7NT and that was our club holding, with only 12 top tricks; we each had balanced hands so I did not expect to get a count on the hand. No problem, I'm thinking to myself, I will not be able to get a count on the hand so I will just follow Barry's rule; if it does not work at least he will keep his mouth shut. I cash a few side suit winners; to my annoyance the suits split crazy and I do get an exact count on the hand. LHO has three clubs and RHO two clubs, which makes it a 50% better play to ignore Barry's rule. Meanwhile, at the same time, downstairs in another section, Mike Smolen is playing this hand at the same moment; he knows he and I are playing this hand simultaneously. Mike also gets a count on the hand, but decides to follow Barry's rule. Sure enough, the Queen was doubleton and Mike makes the hand. Mike knows I am going to guess the hand the technically correct way, regardless of Barry's superstitions; Mike tells his partner "Listen closely, you are about to hear an explosion from upstairs." How right he was. I misguessed the Queen and Barry went ballistic, screaming like a lunatic and then running out of the room. When he came back he deliberately threw the next six boards in a row (we lost the event by one-half of a matchpoint, and of course he blamed me). Parenthetically, for the rest of the day Barry and I kept track of how often his rule was right; to my shock, in the relevant situations, it was right five of six times. I am telling you, Barry was mystic; there is absolutely no reason it should not be a 50-50 proposition. Nevertheless, to this day, if I have no clues as to which way to finesse in these situations, I just follow Barry's rule.

After Barry's death the McKinney was renamed the Barry Crane Top 500; most of us old-timers still refer to the Barry Crane Top 500 as the McKinney, partly because it is easier to say, and partly due to habit.

Also since Barry's death, there has not been a real race for the McKinney. Sometimes the winner more or less falls into it; sometimes some great or very good player decides he wants to win and no one else is willing to invest the money, time, energy, and possible ill will to contest him; occasionally a good player will decide he wants to win and hires professional support.

This year is somewhat typical. Ron Andersen decided he would like to win the McKinney, and no one wants to contest him. However, Ron is not Barry. He is not wealthy, and must play professionally at most of the tournaments. Also, his health is not good, and a McKinney run is usually a physically draining experience. This means that one of the other great professionals who is getting a lot of work and is having a good year could beat him. This year Jeff Meckstroth is having a very good year and would be the player most likely to give Ron serious competition for the McKinney. I think that will not happen.

When Jeff first began playing professionally, the player who gave him the most help was Ron. Jeff owes Ron for that, and therefore I think Jeff is not going to get in Ron's way -- deliberately. Jeff plays so well, and has such great teammates and partners, that he could win accidentally, but I am sure he will try not to do that. Jeff always plays to win, but if it gets close, I'm guessing Jeff might take a few tournaments off that he otherwise would play. As long as Ron can stay relatively healthy, he should win.

Next year will be somewhat typical as well. Lynn Deas has decided she would like to win. Lynn is one of the great players in the world, and a sweetheart to boot. No one is going to contest, so far as I know, and I would be very surprised if somebody decided to make a race of it. So look for Ron to win this year, and Lynn to win in 1997.


Editor's note:

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