Thursday, November 5, 2009

Easily the best

Before his brutal murder in 1985 (which was never solved), Barry Crane was considered the best matchpoint player in the world. He had the most ACBL masterpoints, and it wasn't until six years after his death that Paul Soloway overtook him. Crane won the McKenney Trophy, given to the player who wins the most masterpoints in a given year, six times. It's now known as the Barry Crane Top 500.

Crane won all his masterpoints basically as a weekend player. During the week, he was a television director and producer. Mannix and Mission Impossible are two of the better known shows he was connected with. He was also credited with directing numerous episodes of such series as Trapper John, M.D., The Incredible Hulk, Hawaii Five-O, CHiPs, Dallas and Wonder Woman.

Crane would work during the week, then fly on the weekend to whichever regional tournament that appealed to him. He had partners scattered around the U.S. Back in those days, they didn't have a bunch of different events. On Saturday was the Open Pairs, on Sunday the Swiss Teams. The fields were huge, and, every weekend he would win at least one of the events, or so it seemed.

There are many highlights to his bridge career, but winning the World Mixed Pairs in 1978 with Kerry Shuman Sanborn might have been the best. They demolished the international field, winning by five boards!

Crane had an aggressive bidding style. He wasn't as effective in long IMP matches because he refused to shift gears. With Crane, it was his way or else. I remember this at a regional tournament: He was playing with Gunther Polak who's from Chicago. I didn't hear the conversation, but after the afternoon session, Polak must have said something that Crane didn't like. Crane took their convention card and tore it to shreds, and then tossed in on the table.

Crane had lots of rules. He didn't believe in taking saves. He always said: "Only Jesus saves." Also, with a nine-card fit missing the queen, he believed in cashing a high honor, then finessing (most people play for the drop).

When I ask people to give me a Barry Crane story, they invariably want to give me a bridge deal that they played against him,espcially if they had a good result. It's like playing golf with Tiger Woods. Suppose you shot 82 and he shot 68. If you beat him on only one hole, that would be the highlight of your day. The same thing with Crane at bridge.

Guess what? I'm the same way. One of my favorite hands of all time was against Crane. You hold:
Q 8 3 A K Q 10 6 5 A 2 K 3.

With none vulnerable, my partner, Jeff Sparks, passed. Crane opened 2 -- what would you bid?

I tried 3NT. Q 8 3 of spades is a dangerous holding playing in hearts. Partner was a passed hand, so we weren't going to miss slam, and he rated to have a few values. It passed out, and my left-hand opponent, Tommy Sanders, led the K. These were all four hands (low cards approximate):

A 4 2
J 8 2
10 8 5
Q J 10 5
K 7 J 10 9 6 5
7 4 9 3
Q 9 7 6 4 3 K J
A 6 2 9 8 7 4
Q 8 3
A K Q 10 6 5
A 2
K 3

I won the A, drove out the A and claimed 12 tricks! Needless to say, this was a top.

Did any of you readers play against Crane? Do you have any stories? If so, leave in the comment section.


  1. I had probably only played bridge once or twice with my grandparents by the time Barry Crane passed away, so I never had the pleasure of playing against him. I did just read an article by Ron Garber that featured Crane from the Jan 1975 Bridge World. He relates a hand from the last round of the national swiss where Crane held K9xx Kx KJxxxx J. It was the 2nd-last board of the match and the last hand with his side vulnerable...he thought he needed a vulnerable game swing to level the match. Anyway, his RHO opened 1c, he overcalled 1d, LHO bid 2c, passed back to him. Still not giving up on the game swing possibilities, he bid 2 spades, was raised to 3 by Kerri Shuman, and then bid game. Long story short, Kerri's dummy was a threadbare Jxxx Axxx Qx xxx but the cards were divided luckily, the defense was slightly generous, and Crane emerged with his game swing and the event championship. The article concludes: "As SJ Simon said in the preface to his brilliant 'Design for Bidding', 'There are two kinds of bridge players. The Naturals...and the Parrots.' Barry Crane is a Natural."

  2. Never heard of Crane, which is not surprising as I know nothing of poker, bridge, etc.

    Great commentary, though. I enjoyed every bit of it! Congrats on your Tiger Woods bit!

    How'd he get murdered and why? Do you know?

  3. Yes playing Crane was always exciting. Many many years ago we won our first regional KO in Ottawa, a tourney Barry was attending with Tommy Sanders. They won two other events before the Sunday Swiss. We drew them in the final round and man there was a huge audience - like a Vu graph room but clustered around the table.

    I recall there being two or three chances to win the match, but Barry's mystique and whatever else you wanna call it resulted in us losing something like 6 imps to 2 - and he had his routine 3 event wins and we had our regrets.

    He truly was a great player.

  4. Brutal murder? Do tell and why? Did he hang out with unsavoury types or was this random?

  5. Thanks Drew, Jacob and Ross for your comments. Crane was larger than life.

    Anybody else with a Barry Crane story, go ahead and weigh in.

    @Wolynski: He was beaten to death and it was said to be gruesome. The case was unsolved, as I said - forensics weren't as advanced back then.

    There were several theories/speculations about his death. One is that he was in a gin rummy game and lost a bundle, but thought he was cheated. He was threatening to go to the police. Another is that he picked up a gay lover who was psycho. There might be others, too, but the bottom line is no one knows and is unlikely to ever be solved.

  6. The night Barry Crane was killed, he played in the Pasadena Regional, in same game as I was in, lots of sections then, Open Pairs. I didn't play against him, but saw him, always had kibitzers. Actually he lived about 3 blocks from me in Studio City (I live in sou. illinois now (saluki fan, mojo). It was quite shocking and practically closed down the regional

  7. Oh, so there was a dark side to do with rough trade.

    Probably uncouth of me to ask.

  8. @Hanni: Thanks for your cooment about your recollection of the event. Go Salukis!

    @Wolynski: Appreciate your comment(s) as always, so don't worry about anything. People always try to guess what happens in cases like this and all kinds of stories emerge. Unlikely we'll ever find out, though.

  9. It is a pity that an impressive person like him. they always died in an awful way.

  10. I played against Crane and Dr. John Fisher in a Des Moines regional in the 70's. I asked him some movie industry questions and he gladly answered. Board 1 was average. Board 2 I played a redoubled 4 Spade contract and made it. There was an obscure set of the contract if Crane led a suit Fisher was void in. Crane berated himself for not finding it. A few years ago I started the Mission Impossible series on Netflix. In one of the first 5 episodes in year 1, when Phelps was going through his MI team selection, I felt I saw a photo of Crane that Phelps discarded.