Meet the woman who coaches Buf­fett and Gates at bridge

The Washington Post Sunday - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - Thomas.heath@wash­

Most of the en­trepreneurs I write about use busi­ness as a way to pur­sue their pas­sions, whether it’s phi­lan­thropy, cul­ture, sports or pol­i­tics.

Sharon Os­berg is the other way around.

Her pas­sion is play­ing bridge, a card game for math whizzes that led her into a rar­efied world most oth­ers would kill to be a part of.

Os­berg par­layed a gift for the game into a se­ries of busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties and high-pow­ered “ele­phant bump­ing” that in­cludes War­ren Buf­fett and Bill Gates, bil­lion­aires whose net worths clock in at $74 bil­lion and $90 bil­lion, re­spec­tively.

“Bridge is my world,” said Os­berg, who lives in Marin County out­side San Fran­cisco. “Every­thing in my adult life is a re­sult of bridge, one way or an­other.”

Os­berg even makes money from the game. She owns a piece of an on­line bridge com­pany called Bridge Base that earns her a div­i­dend and gives her a root­ing in­ter­est in the game’s pop­u­lar­ity.

In­deed, she has been a bridge teacher and part­ner to both bil­lion­aires. Re­cently, she part­nered with Gates — the founder of Mi­crosoft — at a Toronto bridge tour­na­ment where they took sec­ond and then re­laxed over a glass of wine and chips.

“In pho­tos of Bill and War­ren play­ing bridge,” she said. “I am al­ways the one whose back of the head is fac­ing the cam­era.”

She calls Gates and Buf­fett “solid” bridge play­ers and plays with them reg­u­larly. “They are not in the up­per ech­e­lon of na­tional or world play­ers,” she said. “They are very solid, ev­ery­day play­ers.”

“I love the game, and I love my part­ner,” Buf­fett said. “She’s a fab­u­lous teacher, ex­tremely smart and very pa­tient. They talk about bridge part­ners who were asked how they should have played their hand, and the part­ner says, ‘Un­der an as­sumed name.’ Sharon doesn’t do that.”

Still, the way each tack­les the game may of­fer a clue to how they do busi­ness.

“There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween Bill’s and War­ren’s ap­proach to learn­ing the game,” Os­berg said. “Bill is very sci­en­tific. He reads and stud­ies on his own. War­ren en­joys play­ing. War­ren has good in­stincts.”

“When I first met War­ren, his game was ragged around the edges,” she said. “We would play in the evening, and I would go through teach­ing points. He ab­sorbed it like a sponge. Bill is the same way. Pretty big brain ca­pac­ity.” No kid­ding. Os­berg has her own chops in busi­ness. She spent 18 years at Wells Fargo, the San Fran­cisco bank that is one of Buf­fett’s big­gest eq­uity hold­ings. (She was at Wells Fargo be­fore she knew Buf­fett.)

I called Os­berg while re­search­ing a story on a mu­tual fund I am writ­ing about. Our con­ver­sa­tion quickly turned to­ward bridge, Buf­fett and the in­ter­est­ing world she in­hab­its thanks to the game she loves.

Some peo­ple have paid mil­lions just to have lunch with the Or­a­cle of Omaha. Os­berg trades gos­sip with him on the phone and plays bridge re­motely with him three to four times a week.

She at­tends an­nual meet­ings in Omaha of Berk­shire Hath­away, the sprawl­ing con­glom­er­ate Buf­fett built. On Sun­days, af­ter the meet­ing winds down, Os­berg will play bridge with share­hold­ers as “part of the week­end ex­pe­ri­ence. I play with ev­ery­body.”

Buf­fett re­called one hi­lar­i­ous mo­ment in par­tic­u­lar.

“I have a younger sis­ter, Ber­tie, who likes to play bridge,” Buf­fett re­called. “She hap­pened to be in [Omaha] with her hus­band for our an­nual Berk­shire meet­ing. So the four of us play. By some mir­a­cle, my sis­ter and her hus­band beat me and Sharon. My sis­ter reached for the score pad, so I tore the sheet off and ate it. Not that it is a com­pet­i­tive game or some­thing.”

Os­berg has also bumped with the swells in Buf­fett’s or­bit: She was an oc­ca­sional guest at the Ge­orge­town home of Katharine Gra­ham, then the owner of The Wash­ing­ton Post, when Os­berg vis­ited the city dur­ing the 1990s.

This ac­tu­ally has an in­vest­ing com­po­nent to it: The sub­cul­ture of bridge goes be­yond Forbes bil­lion­aires, reach­ing into ex­ec­u­tive suites and board­rooms. Hedge fund star David Ein­horn is a tour­na­ment bridge player. Bear Stearns, the in­vest­ment firm that failed in the 2008 crash, was known as “the bridge firm” be­cause its top man­age­ment and many of its quant geeks were play­ers.

“I just kissed [for­mer Bear Stearns chief ex­ec­u­tive] Jimmy Cayne on the cheek last week,” Os­berg said.

Famed value in­vestor and Buf­fett men­tor Ben Gra­ham re­port­edly com­pared the strat­egy of bridge to the dis­ci­pline of long-term in­vest­ing.

This is from a 2013 re­port in the Globe and Mail in Toronto:

“As Gra­ham pointed out, play­ing your hand right — in bridge or in the stock mar­ket — gen­er­ally leads to suc­cess in the long term. It doesn’t, how­ever, guar­an­tee you suc­cess right now. Some­times, play­ing a hand the right way leads to fail­ure; some­times pick­ing a stock for the right rea­sons re­sults in a loss.

“Bridge can teach an in­vestor the im­por­tance of stick­ing to a well-thoughtout strat­egy.”

Os­berg is a mem­ber of the elite ech­e­lon of world-class fe­male play­ers, but she said she is play­ing in what is widely con­sid­ered a man’s game.

Bridge has taken her to Tokyo, Athens, Chile, Aus­tralia, the is­land of Cor­sica, Verona, Paris, Montreal and vir­tu­ally ev­ery ma­jor U.S. city. Bridge is not for the faint of heart. “Ev­ery­one loses more than they win,” Os­berg said. “Los­ing is much more com­mon. You have to de­velop a thick skin.”

“It’s not easy to sit down to play in a tour­na­ment,” she said. “The way you move your cards and how you do your bid­ding, it’s very dif­fi­cult.”

She re­called Buf­fett’s first bridge tour­na­ment, held in Al­bu­querque. They made it to the fi­nals af­ter two gru­el­ing qual­i­fy­ing rounds. “That was mirac­u­lous,” she said.

But Buf­fett, the steely cap­i­tal al­lo­ca­tor who moves world mar­kets with mere ut­ter­ances, had enough.

Os­berg re­calls: “He said, ‘I can’t do it any­more.’ It was so stress­ful, he didn’t want to play in the fi­nals.”

“I had no busi­ness be­ing in it at all,” Buf­fett said. “We were play­ing peo­ple not as good as Sharon was, but a whole lot bet­ter than I was. I dropped out. I was on the board of US-Air at the time, so I said I had to get back to a board meet­ing. This was not great be­hav­ior on my part. I love the game, but play­ing in tour­na­ments is too many hours of con­cen­tra­tion.”

At her peak, Os­berg was one of the top play­ers in the world.

“I am no longer a se­ri­ous player,” she said. “I used to play just to win. Now I play for the beauty of the game. It’s the same way math­e­mat­ics can be beau­ti­ful. Your brain has to be nim­ble enough to re­com­pute on the fly when in­for­ma­tion comes in.”

Hon­estly, I have never thought of math as beau­ti­ful. But then Buf­fett and Gates, not me, are the ge­niuses trav­el­ing in the Gulf­stream jets with their bridge maven Os­berg.

Os­berg grew up near Philadel­phia in an up­per-mid­dle-class fam­ily of Ital­ian im­mi­grants. Her fa­ther was a busi­ness­man who helped run a fam­ily meat busi­ness. She learned to play bridge at Dickinson Col­lege in Carlisle, Pa., where she grad­u­ated with a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence de­gree in the early 1970s.

“Some­body a cou­ple of doors down in the dorm said, ‘We need a fourth for bridge.’ I said, ‘I will do it.’ ”

She was a nat­u­ral. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, Os­berg moved to Cal­i­for­nia and joined the large com­mu­nity of bridge play­ers around the Bay Area. “Ev­ery­one knew each other,” she said. A fel­low bridge ad­dict hooked her up with Bank of Amer­ica, where she par­tic­i­pated in a three-month tech­nol­ogy train­ing pro­gram that in­tro­duced her to a busi­ness that drew on the same skillset that made her so suc­cess­ful at bridge.

“I loved pro­gram­ming,” she said. “It’s num­bers, pat­tern recog­ni­tion, prob­lem­solv­ing. It’s just so cool. The same rea­son I love bridge.”

Os­berg was in the right place at the right time. Bank of Amer­ica was just be­gin­ning to pi­o­neer tech­nol­ogy that would lead to on­line bank­ing.

She even­tu­ally spent 18 years at Wells Fargo, where she rose to ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for tech­nol­ogy and re­tired in 2000.

Her years run­ning tech­nol­ogy at Wells Fargo brought her into con­tact with Gates and other tech­nol­ogy wheels. She re­mem­bers one meet­ing with en­tre­pre­neur Marc An­dreessen, co-au­thor of Mo­saic, the first widely used Web browser.

The stiff bankers shed their jack­ets, dress shirts and ties to make their Sil­i­con Val­ley guests com­fort­able, only to see An­dreessen and com­pany show up wearing suits.

She was in­vited to New York to play in a bridge tour­na­ment in the early 1990s and was part­nered with Buf­fett con­fi­dant Carol Loomis, at the time a For­tune mag­a­zine writer.

Buf­fett was play­ing, too, and in­vited her to stop in Omaha some time. “I said, ‘Where is Omaha?’ That was not the thing to say.”

When she fi­nally stopped in his home­town, they went to din­ner, and Buf­fett pulled out a blank map of the United States and asked her to draw an X for Omaha.

They quickly be­came close friends. As her men­tor ed­u­cated her about busi­ness and man­ag­ing peo­ple, Os­berg bought her first shares in Berk­shire Hath­away — at the then-soar­ing price of $16,050 — “a for­tune to me.” (The stock to­day sells for around $259,600. Os­berg owns a lot more of it.)

“He opened up a world I never would have been part of with­out him,” she said. “Once or twice a year, I get to sit back and just lis­ten to Bill and War­ren. They talk about com­pa­nies. They talk about trends. Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. Nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion. What the fu­ture might hold and the po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions in the busi­ness world. “I don’t know how I got that lucky.” Just look for the one whose back is to the cam­era.

Sharon Os­berg counts bil­lion­aires Bill Gates and War­ren Buf­fett as two of her bridge part­ners.


Sharon Os­berg watches as Mi­crosoft founder Bill Gates, left, is pre­sented with a medal by Al Levy of the Amer­i­can Con­tract Bridge League in Oc­to­ber 2016. “Bill is very sci­en­tific,” Os­berg said of Gates’s ap­proach to bridge.


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