Judy Kay-Wolff

HELEN SOBEL SMITH – a female bridge player unlike any other!

I have always been mesmerized by the accomplishments and reputation of Helen Sobel and since I could not begin to do her justice, I decided to quote verbatim an ACBL capsulation of the greatest female player of all time:

Helen Sobel Smith, the first woman elected to the Bridge Hall of Fame, is universally considered the best woman player of all time.

"In my lifetime — said Edgar Kaplan,  former editor and publisher of The Bridge World, "she is the only woman bridge player who was considered the best player in the world. She knows how to play a hand."  Smith learned to play bridge while a chorus girl in the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers and won her first national title, the Women’s Pairs, in 1934. She became Life Master #25 in 1941. Smith’s style was frisky and aggressive — so aggressive that "some of her male partners were intimidated," Kaplan said. "These guys felt they were playing in the Mixed Pairs and they were the girl."

1944 was a banner year for Smith — she won the Vanderbilt, the Spingold, the Women’s teams and the Master Mixed Teams and placed second in the Reisinger.  By 1948, she had amassed the greatest number of masterpoints of any woman, taking over the top spot from Sally Young, and holding it until 1964.  She won 35 national titles — the Vanderbilt twice, the Spingold five times and the Reisinger four times — and the McKenney Trophy ( now the Barry Crane Top 500) three times: in 1941, 1942 and 1944.

Smith was invited to play on Ely Culbertson’s team in the World Championship conducted by the International Bridge League in 1937 in Vienna . This was tacit recognition that Culbertson, like many other experts, considered her the equal of any male player.  The team, which included Josephine Culbertson and Charles Vogelhofer, finished second to Austria .

Smith and frequent partner Charles Goren won the De La Rue International Invitational Pairs Tournament in London in 1956 — billed as a world championship – and represented North America in the Bermuda Bowl in 1957 and the United States in the World Team Olympiad in 1960.

Goren was the bridge writer/promoter and Smith "was the player. She was a marvel," Kaplan said.  Smith "had a unique quality as a card player," Kaplan said. "Every deal was fresh to her and her results were beyond the reach of her fellow experts.

She was incapable of making a learned play that was wrong on a given hand. Helen was not learned. She was brilliant."  Smith had a poker face, Kaplan said, "and nobody ever knew what she was doing. Her judgment was extremely good and she would always feel perfectly free to deviate from her so-called system."

Smith was a good partner — "very tolerant of success" — who was "lovely and humorous and frisky and magnificent," Kaplan said. "There’ll never be another one like her."

The only thing I can attempt to add to this wonderful tribute was when playing with Charlie was asked by some outer space kibitzer what it feels like to be playing with the best player in the world, to which she quickly retorted something to the effect.   “I don’t know, why don’t you ask Charlie?”

The consensus of opinion half a century later still holds true …  there is still no close second female challenging her talents.  She could at least hold her own with the best of the opposite sex.


7 Comments

Judy Kay-WolffDecember 26th, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I just got a private email asking my opinion on the above. I am far from qualified to judge so I asked Bobby. The two women he mentioned were of course Edith Kemp/Seligman/Freilich, an old timer now in her nineties — and Sabine Auken. a current whiz, formerly of Germany, who is continually knocking them dead! He doesn’t feel he has played enough hands against the current crop of U.S. women players but with the improvements in bidding, most all of the present well known gals have a chance to rival the other super women players.

By the way Edith was Billy Seamon and Ann Burnstein’s sister and aunt of Janice Seamon-Molson and Michael Seamon. Good bridge genes run in that family.

I did note in our encyclopedia someone most never heard of who one did me the honor of playing with me in the sixties in some country club charity game. Her name was Sally Young, of Narberth, Pa. who died at the age of 64. She is listed as “one of the great woman players of all tme. Life Master #17, 1st woman to earn Life Master status, member of the ACBL Hall of Fame. It goes on to say between 1937 and 1958, she set a record winning the Spring Women’s Teams 7 times and finishing 2nd three times. She also won the Chicago in 1947 (now called the Reisinger) with a team of four women, the only time in history.

I am sure there are many who rank right up there, but I thought Sally’s record was unbelievable and when I played with her it was like she could see through my cards.

I’d be interested in other’s opinions of bridge grande dames.

Mark LombardDecember 26th, 2010 at 6:35 pm

It was tough recruiting women players for our Wall of Fame project in Philadelphia. We were lucky to get Mary Jane Farrell, Shawn Quinn and Jill Meyers, Kerri Sanborn, Lynn Deas, and Dorothy Truscott, Audrey Grant, Barbara Seagram, Gail Greenberg, and Judy Kay herself (pictured with the great Norman Kay) featured. I’d love to have had Edith Kemp, as she is the best living female player of all time. I want to

thank you again, Judy, for your help in that project, as well as Rich Rothwarf for his vast, encyclopedic knowledge of bridge history and lore.

There may have been others, but I forgot over the last ten years….

Edith! If you are reading this, please send an autographed 8 x 10″ photo, plus a letter of inspiration to aspiring players like us!

Judy Kay-WolffDecember 27th, 2010 at 1:14 am

Dear Mark:

As I remember, that is how we first met. Rich Rothwarf gave you my number and you called soliciting my help for your Wall of Fame as you suspected I had some good contacts. That was the beginning of our love affair. I was fortunate enough to give you some good leads — and those bridge stars’ pictures adorn the walls of the CCBC.

I also remember (and I think it was Birmingham) I approached one of your idols to have him accommodate us. He hadn’t talked to me in forty years (although I suspect he knew whom I was as he and Norman were great friends). I plopped down (univited) at the table of him and his girlfriend at some Alabama restaurant and asked for an autographed picture. He was very pleasant and accommodated us. Maybe not such a cold fish after all. His name was Bobby Wolff. Funny the things one remembers.

You did a sensational job and people who visited the club during the Nationals in Philly were captivated by the collection.

Unfortunately, Edith is incompacitated and I was not able to even speak to her when I called over a year ago. So, I am afraid Philly will have to remember her in spirit only. She was great, not only as a player but a human being as well. Edith was one of my first friends in the bridge world and was always warm and exceptionally gracious to me as she and Norman were very good friends.

Thanks for recalling some exciting memories of an incredible project you mastered for posterity.

Love,

Judy

PegDecember 27th, 2010 at 4:42 pm

I never had the privilege of playing against Helen – but her record and the stories are legend. I did have the honor of having Edith on a mixed BAM in Chicago. Simply put – she was amazing.

As for Sabine? Whether open or women’s events – I hope I don’t meet her as my opponent!

All these women are the best of the best.

Judy Kay-WolffDecember 28th, 2010 at 4:27 am

Peg:

Helen was far before my time.

The brief moment we spent together was when Norman brought me to someone’s suite while waiting for the results of a match Coincidentally, she sat down beside me, smiled and introduced herself. I think I must have gaped and when she asked me my name, I was so overwhelmed, I got stuck for an answer. Eventually. I recovered. It must have been in the early sixties and the cat-got-my tongue still looms large in my memory.

Edith on the other hand was a dear friend of Norman’s and she was also a close friend of Rose Goldman who lived at the Penn Towers in Philadelphia where we resided. I spent a good deal of time with her. She was very charming — and her record spoke for itself.

Sabine, I only know as a passing ship in the night. We smile as we pass one another. I don’t recall playing against her (my good fortune) but she is a young legend of her own and no doubt the most active women champion playing today.

I am certain there were others Bobby and I overlooked, but these three were absolute standouts.

JeffApril 23rd, 2011 at 1:01 pm

The anecdote about the female kibitzer is the most well-known. But my favorite Helen Sobel quote is when a reporter asked her if she and Charles Goren would ever marry. (This was after her divorce from Al Sobel.) To which she replied, “We would – if anyone would have us!” Goren recounted this story in his Sports Illustrated column.

Bill SmithJuly 22nd, 2015 at 2:09 pm

Nominees for current female players:

Lynn Deas Judy Radin Jill Myers
Kerri Sanborn Gail Greenburg

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