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Cards just one bridge between execs

Friends for nearly 10 years, billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett share many passions including playing bridge.

Wall Street Journal

Money is famous for its inability to buy love. But can it buy a bridge championship?

It stands to reason this question would arise here, of all places. Omaha's annual bridge tournament isn't unusually prestigious or competitive. But this is the home of Warren E. Buffett: billionaire investment czar, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chairman and fervent bridge buff.

The tournament earlier this month featured 59 teams of four players each, the majority of them locals belonging to the Omaha Bridge Club. Then there was Buffett's team. Its three other members included the reigning world champion, Robert D. Hamman (recruited from Dallas), and a two-time former world champion, Sharon Osberg (recruited from San Francisco). The fourth player was William H. Gates, Microsoft Corp. chairman and determined student of bridge. He, of course, came from Seattle.

"On the plane flying out I was studying my bridge books when I was supposed to be sleeping," Gates says.

This elite team's arrival at the tournament the morning of Dec. 3 raised countless questions: Would the prize here _ master points that count toward a national event _ go to this bunch of mostly interlopers? How well would Gates' technological brilliance translate to bridge? Was Buffett having a better year at bridge than in the stock market? Would the Jewish Community Center in Omaha be fancy enough for two of the world's richest human beings? Most perplexing of all, how did America's technology prince become bridge partners with an investment guru famous for eschewing technology stocks?

A visit with Buffett and Gates sheds light on these and other questions, starting with where they choose to eat lunch late morning Saturday, the day before the tournament. Buffett has just pulled up at the Omaha hotel of Gates _ who arrived too late the night before to accept the offer of a room at Buffett's house _ and instinctively they understand that the next stop will be McDonald's. "He and I live the same way," Buffett says. Neither eats breakfast. For lunch and dinner, "we both eat hamburgers."

It's a small thing, a shared love of burgers, but one of many that help explain the years-old friendship between Gates, 45, and Buffett, 70. Another is personal style. Both take pride in neither dressing nor acting like billionaires. "We don't want to be what rich people (are expected) to be like," says Buffett, whose favorite weekend outfit is a baggy, navy blue sweat suit with the Securities and Exchange Commission logo on it.

Here in McDonald's, when a stranger walks up and says, "Are you guys who I think you are?" Buffett responds: "Well, probably. But gosh, you sure look familiar to us." Gates, chewing a bite of a Quarter Pounder with cheese, nods in agreement.

It wasn't always like this. In July 1991, when Gates' mother called to invite him to a Seattle-area social event involving Buffett, Gates declined. He had little interest in meeting Buffett. "I didn't have time to go meet people and just talk randomly to people," Gates recalls.

But then Mrs. Gates said Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham also would be present. Gates, eager to meet Mrs. Graham, changed his mind and came to the party on his helicopter. He quickly encountered Buffett, who solicited Gates' opinion about changes and challenges facing IBM Corp. Gates recalls: "I was dying for someone to ask me about that."

They ended up talking and laughing that day for hours _ about politics, industry, society, sports. Buffett asked Gates to recommend two technology stocks, and days later Buffett bought 100 shares of Microsoft and Intel Corp., which he still owns. "I bought them just to keep track of them," Buffett said.

But importantly, that first day neither billionaire made a sales pitch to the other, and this became an important component of their friendship. "It is hard to have friends when everybody around you wants money," Buffett says. "Bill hasn't sold me a computer, and I haven't sold him candy. Neither one of us wants anything from the other."

A friendship developed. Gates invited Buffett to his wedding in Hawaii in 1994. A photograph of Gates and his daughter now sits on Buffett's bookshelf at home. Gates keeps his guest bathroom stocked with University of Nebraska toilet paper for when Buffett comes to visit. They don't often talk on the phone but get together about four times a year, sometimes to play golf. They have vacationed together, including a climb up the Great Wall of China, where Gates had arranged for champagne and Cherry Coke to be awaiting them.

Of course, they haven't completely avoided the subject of doing business together. But a spirit of fun has pervaded those conversations. Once, they investigated the possibility of participating in the purchase of Pebble Beach Co., owner of the renowned golf facility in Pebble Beach, Calif. But they both got sidetracked, Buffett says.

Another time, they were staying up late at Gates' home with General Electric chairman Jack Welch, and the subject turned to Welch's impending retirement. Buffett and Gates indicated they would back Welch in anything he decided to do. Gates recalls: "We were joking around with Jack saying we will give you a blank check. You can buy whatever business you want to buy when you retire." Welch, who recently announced plans to retire by the end of next year, has yet to take them up on their offer.

Finally, of course, there is bridge. After learning the game as a child, Gates gave it up until he befriended Buffett. "He really is a bridge addict," Gates says. "This year I have played about 300 hands. He has played 4,600."

Buffett says he plays about 10 to 12 hours a week, compared with Gates' three. "I wouldn't mind being in jail if I had three cellmates who were decent bridge players," Buffett said.

"If Warren goes to jail I may have to volunteer to go in with him," says Gates, not wanting to miss the chance to play bridge all day with Buffett.

Often, the two of them play bridge online from separate cities, Buffett using the code name "t-bone," Gates "chalengr." "He always was bad at spelling," Buffett quips.

The day before the tournament, Buffett proposes to gamble "my house against his house." Buffett bought his house _ which has magenta carpeting in the TV room and a Mickey Mouse phone in the kitchen _ for $31,500 in 1959. Gates' built his house in 1996 at an estimated cost of $75-million. But Gates carefully negotiates himself out of that deal.

Both men say bridge is relaxing. While he was running Salomon Inc. in 1991, Buffett used to play frequently to keep his mind off problems there. Gates has aggressively taken up the game in the past two years.

How good are they? Both Buffett and Gates have earned seats at the national tournament. But neither has come close to winning it, and make no mistake: It isn't their card-playing prowess that attracts partners as elite as Hamman, 62, the reigning world champion, and Osberg, a two-time world champion. In addition to being bridge professionals, both are business executives, and they're thrilled at the opportunity to play cards with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

"They both have the ability to focus," says Osberg, Buffett's primary partner, who teamed with Gates this year at the national tournament in Anaheim, Calif. "Bill is more of a student of bridge and has a more scientific approach. Warren is much more natural."

Gates is able to participate in the Omaha tournament because it takes place on a weekend when his wife is at Duke University attending a board meeting. "This is something I have been looking forward to massively," Gates says.

Gates spends Saturday night at Buffett's house. Then the next morning the entire team arrives at the Jewish Community Center in time for the 9:30 a.m. start of the tournament. Stationed outside are news camera crews, which usually don't cover Omaha bridge club tournaments. There is excitement inside, too. Word of the celebrity participants has helped boost the number of players to 236 from 48 last year. Hamman, the world champion, says Gates "drew a bigger crowd than Omar Sharif when we were playing against him on the national tour."

One look at the billionaires and everyone feels comfortable. "Warren oftentimes wears the same clothes for days. I was surprised to see that Gates fit right in _ he wasn't arrogant or pretentious," says Barbara Reetz, 60, a swimming teacher and bridge player not unaccustomed to seeing Buffett at the card tables.

Once the game gets going, the room falls quiet. Hamman notices that the mere presence of his partner, Gates, is disturbing to opponents. As world champion, "I would have thought that they would have been more nervous playing against me," Hamman says. "But Gates (was) a bigger intimidator."

It doesn't help. The elite team doesn't even place in the top 10. Another interloper, Hamman's wife, Petra, 56, and Peggy Kaplan, a 49-year-old bridge writer, lead the winning team. Afterward, Kaplan expresses disappointment about not playing against Gates in the tournament. "He was never doing well enough," she says.

Hamman, the world champion, takes the loss in stride. "I always expect to win but the chances were not all that good," he says. Of Gates, he says, "He is certainly not an experienced tournament player."

Afterward, Gates says, "I feel good about how I played." The important thing, he says, is that he learned from his mistakes. Buffett concludes, "I enjoy the game enormously even when I play badly."