Not long ago, at the Pacific Northwest Regional Championships in Seattle, Hermine Baron of Los Angeles, an attractive redhead who admits to being "over 30" but could easily get away with shading that a trifle, collected 35 master points with a strong performance in several events. The result boosted her total winnings for the year above the 1,060 mark, well ahead of the record-setting and supposedly unmatchable 1,034 scored last year by Oswald Jacoby. It also gave her a clear lead in the annual race for the McKenney Trophy, which goes to the year's top master-point winner.
Only one woman has ever won the McKenney Trophy. That was Helen Sobel, who three times topped all the other experts, in 1940, 1942 and 1943. But despite Hermine's remarkable performance thus far—breaking the previous record with two full months yet to go—she is by no means sure of winning the 1964 trophy. Earlier in the year most of her bridge triumphs were in partnership with TV Production Executive Barry Crane, whose total now stands near the 1,000 mark with the high-scoring events of the Fall Nationals still to be played. Crane, a perennial runner-up, beaten each year despite a point total that would have won the McKenney the previous year, seems destined once more to occupy the bridesmaid's post, but he is still very much in the race.
What makes Hermine Baron's performance truly remarkable is that she has been forced to win her way to the top while playing in a wheelchair—the result of a polio attack at 13. Nevertheless, Hermine leads a full and active life. She dates—though never with anyone from the world of bridge—plays poker, drives a car and walks with the aid of crutches. In fact, she jokes that she uses a wheelchair for tournaments as a sympathy-getter to soften up her opponents for the kill. Not that she needs to rely on such devices, as you can see from her highly skillful manipulation of the play on the following two hands.
Sitting South, Hermine bid smoothly to the heart game. After winning the opening lead with dummy's ace of diamonds, she took stock of her chances. The only thing that could threaten the contract was a combination of bad breaks in both trumps and clubs. But as you will see, both these bad breaks occurred and the slightest bit of carelessness would cause declarer to lose two spades, a heart and a club trick.
Hermine's fine play nullified these misfortunes. She promptly ruffed a diamond, cashed the ace-king of trumps, took home her king of clubs and her ace of spades and then threw the opponents on lead with a spade. After that, it didn't matter how the opponents defended. Eventually somebody would have to lead a club, insuring that Hermine would not have to lose a club trick, or lead a diamond or a spade, giving her a ruff in one hand while she sluffed a losing club from the other.
East did the best he could. He stepped in with the king of spades to win the second spade trick, cashed the high trump and exited with the jack of spades, hoping that partner could win the trick and would hold the queen-jack or the J-10-9 in clubs. But, though West could win the third round of spades with his queen, he could not lead a club without giving Hermine all the tricks in that suit.
Like most topnotch players, Hermine brings in her good scores by honest excellence. This makes her occasional artful plays all the more devastating. For example, here is a hand from another tournament with Hermine collecting a hatful of match points by creating an illusion. After winning the first trick. West shifted to the queen of diamonds. Obviously, with two sure losers in spades and one in clubs, making the contract was going to depend on not losing a trump trick. West could have plenty of values for the opening bid without the queen of hearts, so most declarers followed the comfortable rule regarding finessing for a queen: "eight ever, nine never."
This is a reasonable guide when there is no other clue pointing to the contrary, but Hermine, with the South hand, saw a chance to tip the odds in her favor. Instead of banging the top trumps, she won the trick with the diamond king and promptly returned the jack of spades. West won and knocked out dummy's ace of diamonds. Now, having given every indication that she was scrambling to get rid of a loser, Hermine led a good spade from dummy. East was happy to find a possible use for his worthless trump. He ruffed the spade, and, of course, declarer overruffed. Now Hermine played the ace of hearts, and when East could not follow suit West's queen of hearts was exposed to a marked finesse.
Hermine made four hearts where all those who played to drop the queen dropped the contract instead.