Michelle Brunner: Bridge player regarded as one of Britain's finest

By Maureen Hiron
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:21

Michelle Brunner's life revolved around bridge.

She was a World Bridge Federation Life Master and an English Bridge Union Premier Grand Master – and arguably Britain's best woman player.

She was born in 1953, the middle of three daughters of a north London Jewish family. Her initiation into bridge came from her family, and she spent many happy hours honing her newly acquired skill in the sixth form at the Henrietta Barnett School, before going to Manchester University to study Italian. The university had a thriving bridge club, which interested Brunner rather more than her Italian studies, and she left university before completing her degree to work for Thomas Cook, where she gave sterling service for 17 years.

In the 1970s Brunner and John Holland became partners, in life as well as bridge, though they did marry some three years ago – a closely kept secret, only revealed during the last few days of her life. In 1977 she entered the Women's Trials, partnering Rosie Hudson, and their third place brought her first "cap". Later that year they took the bronze medal in the Common Market Ladies Pairs, and the Gold Medal in the Ladies Teams.

Brunner went on to represent Great Britain and England in some 40 international events, bringing back a host of medals of assorted hues. The highlight of her illustrious career was winning the Venice Cup – the Women's World Team Championships – in 1985, partnering Gill Scott-Jones. She also twice won the European Women's Teams Championship, first in 1979, partnering Rosie Hudson, and then again in 2000, with her close friend Rhona Goldenfield. They were adjudged to be the best pair from all participating countries.

Brunner also played four times for the England Open Team in Camrose matches (the home countries internationals) in partnership with John Holland. And when the Commonwealth Games were held in Manchester in 2002, she and Goldenfield played on England's Open Team. As would be expected from a player of her stature, Brunner won many national titles, including the Hubert Phillips Bowl (six times) and the Portland National Mixed Pairs Championship three times – a record – all in partnership with Holland.

In 1995 she turned professional, forming a successful mobile school with Holland and Kevin Comrie. She was an excellent teacher, and her classes and seminars were hugely popular. As well as writing a regular column for Bridge Plus, she wrote the books Bridge With Brunner, Acol Bidding for Improvers and Acol Bidding for Budding Experts.

Michelle never let her successes go to her head; she was outgoing, bubbly, friendly and helpful to all, had a great sense of humour and was always buying presents for her friends. In 2001 she overcame breast cancer, but it seems that a residue remained undetected in her system. Although unwell before the World Championships in Shanghai in 2007, she insisted on going, and there, produced a defence that has been the talk of the bridge world ever since. This won her the International Bridge Press Association's Defence of the Year Award, which she also won the following year.

On her return from Shanghai, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The initial prognosis was for six months – but Michelle fought for her life like the champion she was. She gave up work and lived life to the full, taking in concerts and the theatre, and rekindling her interest in playing the piano – she had an excellent ear. She continued to play in bridge events, at home and around Europe, going to Australia this year to play in the 50th Gold Coast Congress, where she reached the teams final. Since her diagnosis she won two further Camrose caps, in partnership with Holland, and was thrilled when he won two World Seniors Teams Championships in the past year.

In each issue of the English Bridge Union's bi-monthly magazine English Bridge there is a feature, "A day in the life of..." The April 2010 slot featured Brunner. She wrote: "If, at the tender age of 56, you could get up at any time of the day you fancied, go to bed when you felt like it, watch television during the night if you really wanted to, spend the afternoon reading or seeing a film, play duplicate [bridge] or go to the theatre every evening, go on lots of holidays, meet your friends for lunch every day and be able to eat whatever you desired, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in heaven.

"Alas, retirement did come to me early but with a heavy price to pay. In 2007 I was diagnosed with breast cancer metastases ... Since then my daily routine has changed dramatically and I was advised to reduce my workload and live every day to the full. That is exactly what I have done and although my days are often governed by my state of health, and the necessity to visit the doctor or hospital for regular tests and scans, I am actually having an amazing time!" There are those that you feel honoured to call friend, and Michelle Brunner was right there at the top of my list.

Michelle Brunner, bridge player: born London 31 December 1953; married John Holland; died Manchester 24 June 2011.

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