The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - THOMAS HEATH thomas.heath@wash­

Want to re­ally get War­ren Buf­fett talk­ing? Ask him about his bridge game.

War­ren Buf­fett doesn’t spend all his time think­ing about Berk­shire Hath­away, money, Coca-Cola and ham­burg­ers.

At least four times a week, he buries him­self in another pas­sion: the game of bridge.

I learned about Buf­fett’s love of the game re­cently when I called the 86-year-old bil­lion­aire. I wanted to get some in­sight for a fea­ture story I was writ­ing about his bridge part­ner/teacher, Sharon Os­berg, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive with Wells Fargo who also hap­pens to be a world-class bridge player.

The Or­a­cle of Omaha — as the chair­man of Berk­shire Hath­away is af­fec­tion­ately known — was ex­pan­sive on the sub­ject of bridge. In fact, he was quite chatty.

It gave me in­sight into Buf­fett that I never had from the bi­ogra­phies and end­less fea­tures, pro­files and news re­ports that we Buf­fett junkies have read.

Spoiler alert: We did not dis­cuss in­vest­ing, Berk­shire Hath­away or money.

Buf­fett said he didn’t get re­ally se­ri­ous about bridge un­til two things came along: Os­berg and com­put­ers.

He met Os­berg at a bridge tour­na­ment in New York back in the early 1990s.

“I love the game, and I love my part­ner,” Buf­fett said of Os­berg. “She’s a fab­u­lous teacher, ex­tremely smart and very pa­tient.”

Com­put­ers are a dif­fer­ent story for Buf­fett, who his­tor­i­cally stayed away from in­vest­ing in tech­nol­ogy. That has changed re­cently, with big bets in IBM and Ap­ple.

“Be­fore com­put­ers, I would have to get three, usu­ally guys, and get them to­gether in one place on a Satur­day,” he said. “There was a lot of phys­i­cal ar­rang­ing. With a com­puter, you can be play­ing in 15 sec­onds.”

Now, he said, “I play a lot. . . at least four ses­sions a week, about two hours a ses­sion.”

Buf­fett was re­luc­tant to buy a com­puter at first, even af­ter he was urged on by his close friend, Mi­crosoft co-founder Bill Gates.

“Bill said, ‘You’ve got to get a com­puter to do your in­come tax,’ ” Buf­fett re­called. “I said, ‘I don’t have in­come. Berk­shire doesn’t pay a div­i­dend.’ He said, ‘You can keep track of stocks.’ ‘I only have one stock,’ ” Buf­fett said he told Gates.

Os­berg even­tu­ally per­suaded Buf­fett to get a com­puter so he could play bridge.

“I was trav­el­ing on busi­ness in the Mid­west, and he stopped his jet on his way to Omaha and picked me up,” Os­berg said. It was her first time on a pri­vate jet. Os­berg helped Buf­fett buy the desk­top com­puter in 1994 through the Ne­braska Fur­ni­ture Mart, one of Buf­fett’s many com­pa­nies. “It was wait­ing for us when we got to his home,” she said.

I asked Buf­fett what he likes about bridge.

The Or­a­cle said he en­joys the game for the in­tel­lec­tual stim­u­la­tion. It’s nei­ther re­lax­ing nor ten­sion-filled. Just good mind ex­er­cise. Fel­low bil­lion­aires War­ren Buf­fett, right, and Bill Gates play bridge at the end of the 2017 Berk­shire Hath­away in­vestors meet­ing. Buf­fett plays at least four times a week.

“It re­ally is a game that you are never go­ing to see the same hand twice,” Buf­fett said. “You can play a hand ev­ery six or seven min­utes ev­ery day for the rest of your life, and you will never see the same hand. It’s a game you can en­joy when you are in your 90s, and you are see­ing a dif­fer­ent in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenge ev­ery seven min­utes. It’s the best ex­er­cise there is for the brain.”

Buf­fett said he en­joys and is chal­lenged by the var­i­ous sys­tems — or strate­gies — bridge part­ners use to com­mu­ni­cate with each other.

“Ev­ery sin­gle ac­tion taken by your part­ner or your op­po­nents, you have to keep draw­ing in­fer­ences from,” he said. “They keep get­ting mod­i­fied. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing game. You are learn­ing from ev­ery word spo­ken and not spo­ken.”

I asked Buf­fett whether he plays of­ten with his al­ter ego, Char­lie Munger. The bluntspo­ken, cur­mud­geonly Munger is Buf­fett’s long­time friend and busi­ness part­ner.

At 93, Munger is vice chair­man of Berk­shire Hath­away, the cor­ner­stone of his and Buf­fett’s for­tunes.

“I have played with him in Los An­ge­les,” Buf­fett said. “Char­lie had a reg­u­lar bridge game for 40 years.”

Buf­fett said Munger may not be a stu­dent of the var­i­ous bridge sys­tems, but Munger suc­ceeds be­cause “he’s just so damn smart.” (Munger and Buf­fett are known for smart con­trar­ian in­vest­ing ap­proaches that em­pha­size the avoid­ance of mis­takes rather than mak­ing bril­liant moves.)

Gates, on the other hand, is a Har­vard dropout who made one bril­liant move: co-found­ing Mi­crosoft, the pow­er­house soft­ware com­pany that has cre­ated an enor­mous amount of wealth for mil­lions (in­clud­ing the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion) over the past 42 years.

Gates loves bridge and is a reg­u­lar tour­na­ment part­ner of Os­berg’s.

“Bill doesn’t get a chance to play a lot,” Buf­fett said. “I spend way more time play­ing than Bill. He loves play­ing bridge. He likes to play in tour­na­ments. But he has a way busier sched­ule than me.”

Os­berg re­called Buf­fett’s first bridge tour­na­ment, in Al­bu­querque. They made it to the fi­nals af­ter two gru­el­ing pre­lim­i­nary rounds — a “mirac­u­lous” achieve­ment, Os­berg said. But Buf­fet had had enough. “He said, ‘I can’t do it any­more.’ It was so stress­ful, he didn’t want to play in the fi­nals,” Os­berg said.

“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 USAir 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.”

Os­berg said Gates and Buf­fett have dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to bridge.

“Bill is very sci­en­tific. He reads and stud­ies on his own,” Os­berg said. “War­ren en­joys play­ing. War­ren has good in­stincts.”

Buf­fett said Gates has a leg up be­cause of his read­ing speed: “Bill reads very fast, so he would cover a lot more ground.”

Buf­fett re­called a 1995 trip to China or­ga­nized by Gates and his wife, Melinda. About seven cou­ples par­tic­i­pated. Gates showed up with a hand­ful of bridge books. The ob­sessed bil­lion­aires pro­ceeded to play through­out the jour­ney.

“We were play­ing bridge while every­one was look­ing at the scenery,” Buf­fett said. “We played on the bus while bal­anc­ing cards on our knees.”

Buf­fett said he even­tu­ally re­ceived a scenic photo of the trip from Gates. The Mi­crosoft co-founder had scrawled a note across the bot­tom: “A great place for a bridge game.”

Bridge is em­bed­ded in their friend­ship. It even came up dur­ing a dis­cus­sion on ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence dur­ing their first meet­ing in the mid-1990s.

“This was a hot sub­ject at the time, with all those things on chess, IBM, Deep Blue,” Buf­fett said. “When I met Bill on July 5, 1991, I said to him, ‘Will a com­puter be built that can beat the best bridge play­ers?’ Bill said a com­puter will win at chess even­tu­ally. But it won’t win at bridge.”

IBM’s Wat­son may have some­thing to say about that.


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