Bridge with Bill
This item first appeared in Bridge Today and is reprinted here with their permission.
Bill Gates, where are you? There's a board meeting at Microsoft, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is hosting a dinner, you're scheduled to talk to computer grad students at MIT ... But Bill can't be found. That's because he's at a bridge tournament and even his cell phone is disconnected, and he's not going to be reachable for 4 hours, or until all 28 bridge hands of the day have been completed. And even then, he may not reconnect to the real world until he's rehashed the hands with his partner and teammates over dinner. In short, Bill is engrossed and captivated: He has escaped to another world - the bridge world.
Perhaps it's Warren Buffett's fault. Buffett has played bridge for years and is the guy who recently hooked Gates on the game. Buffett even gave Gates his world champion bridge partner, Sharon Osberg, to teach him and play bridge with him at national tournaments. Since Gates entered a team championship a few years ago, and made the cut in the qualifying rounds, he's come back time and again for more. Why? Because the challenge is great, and the game is fun!
Perhaps it's Harold S. Vanderbilt's fault. He was also a rich guy, and he invented the game back in 1925 while taking a cruise aboard his ship, the Finland. The game was called contract bridge, based on an old game called whist, which (it is said) even George Washington played at Valley Forge, when his troops were held up there. Today the game is simply called bridge, and often rings a bell for young people as something my grandmother used to do. Bridge today, however, is nothing like the game grandma played. It's still played with four people at a square table, two against two, with partners facing each other, but by the time a session of bridge is over, a recent study showed, most participants have a faster heart rate and have lost more weight than a professional football player in one game. Of course, we shouldn't underestimate grandma - she got us here, and bridge probably helped relieve the stress even back then. Yet bridge creates stress, too.
And that's part of the fun.
Have Deck, Will Travel
At the Spring North American championships this March, in Reno, Nevada, I played seven bridge hands against Bill Gates. Since I have been playing bridge for 41 years (since I was 12), and Bill has been playing for less than five years, readers might wonder why we were opponents in a tournament? Have I not improved over four decades or is Mr. Gates a natural genius at the game? The answer is that most bridge events are open to anyone who knows how to play, and it takes only about nine minutes to learn the game. Some of the most exciting memories for me are playing bridge as a teenager against the all-time great players of the early Twentieth Century, like Oswald Jacoby and Alvin Roth. Getting your head handed to you is also part of the fun (for awhile), because you can learn a lot from your expert opponents, and in some cases, even losing can be fun. This doesn't mean that Bill Gates likes to lose, but he can take the punches and that's a sign he may have what it takes.
In tournament bridge, bridge pros are like hired guns. Wealthy people, who want to improve their game fast or simply want to enjoy the game more, and occasionally win, hire top-of-the-line bridge players as their partner and teammates. Prize-money bridge games, in which the players win large sums of cash, have yet to realize their potential, mainly because a corporate sponsor has not yet ventured into the field. Larry King, a former tennis promoter, who with the help of his ex-wife, Billie Jean King, put women's tennis and Virginia Slims on the map, is now trying to do for bridge what he did for tennis in the 70's and 80's. The game of bridge is far more interesting to watch and play than women's tennis ever was. For the last three years, King has run a prize-money bridge tour around the USA, and is closing in on the right sponsor to make the tour into a successful tool for inspiring people to take up the game. King has yet to talk with Gates about this (despite the fact that Microsoft would be an obviously perfect sponsor), possibly because Gates is very well ... protected.
By protected, I don't mean that he has a bodyguard. He hardly needs one. At the bridge table, among the seasoned tournament players, Gates is considered a novice, and in the tournament bridge world everyone is solely judged by his skills. When we draw the Gates team and my partner and I come to his table for a seven-hand team match, there is only one kibitzer, a fellow with his chair about eight feet from the table, on Gates' partner's side. Meanwhile, various people around the room with about 50 cents in their bank accounts (combined), have half-a-dozen or more kibitzers each, because the kibitzers are interested in watching fine bridge. Our sole kibitzer was probably interested only in staring at Gates in the flesh. Gates' partner doesn't like to make a big show of it either. She protects Bill by keeping a low profile when they're at the tournament together, not wanting anyone to step too harshly on her Microsoft turf. This may be a good thing at first, to keep Gates coming back to tournaments, where he can blend into the crowd and relax with his hobby. But one day soon, he's going to come out of his shell and, I hope, for the sake of bridge, he will strike up a friendship and business partnership with Larry King.
So there I am with Bill Gates on my right, and seven bridge hands to be played, and all I can think of is how to make friends with the man, introduce him to King, and get bridge back in the national limelight, where it deserves to shine. But then the bridge hands get in the way. Once the hands are dealt and put into duplicate boards (so they can be passed to another table where our teammates and his teammates sit), we must think about the game. We are on my turf now, not his, so it's not a difficult task for me. In my sleep I can play out the 52 cards of a bridge hand just as easily as he can count a computer row of binary numbers. Nothing dramatic takes place on the first three hands, but then my partner, Sparky Rosenbloom, from New York, opens the bidding with four spades (contracting for 10 tricks with spades as trump). This buys the contract and when, early in the hand, Gates ducks his ace of diamonds (fails to win the trick), Sparky has sneaked through the tenth trick and stolen the hand for a swing for our team. There are no harsh words from Gates' partner (as is usual under more normal circumstances, where partners are of equal caliber), and the next hand is picked up from the duplicate board. Sparky is at the helm again, with me as dummy (which means my 13 cards go face up on the table and Sparky plays them as well as his own cards, while I just sit there and watch). This time I notice something very interesting about Gates' manner. He's a studious bridge player, no doubt, but not yet relaxed at the table.
To be a winning player, you must not only concentrate well but also relax to some extent - a winning psychological strategy for most games and sports. When Gates has a difficult decision to make about which card to play, I notice that he pulls the card out of his hand and flips it to the table in a spinning motion, which is quite unique. For example, at one point in the hand, Sparky leads the 9 of spades toward dummy's ace-king-eight-seven. Gates, next to play, suddenly produces the Gates flip, wherein the card vaults into the air, hits the table face up and spins around clockwise for two or three circles. When it stops spinning, Sparky eyes him suspiciously but fails to take full advantage of the inference that Gates is nervous and has played his card this way because he holds the queen, jack and ten of spades. Sparky grins when he later sees what has happened, and Gates happily smiles, too, having successfully made a tricky play.
Since Gates is in a good mood at this point, and the tension is broken, Osberg takes a moment to introduce me to her famous partner and I take the opportunity to give Gates a present, a book I have written with my wife called How to Play Bridge in 9 Minutes. The book is a rare item, since it is the last book ever illustrated by Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. Gates puts the book on the floor next to his chair; he isn't impressed. He's hungry for another bridge hand and another opportunity to compete against the big boys. I end up as dummy again, and drift off in my favorite fantasy that one day soon a little learn-bridge booklet, with a few Snoopy cartoons, will be packed inside every Microsoft Windows upgrade. Perhaps Larry King's tour will be called the Microsoft Bridge Tour. When that happens, the world's greatest game, bridge, will be exalted to its rightful place as the hottest hobby out there.
Bridge Today University, which Matt and Pam run, hosts many email lessons from top players as well as an electronic version of Bridge Today and a weekly quiz for various prizes. Check www.bridgetoday.com for more info.