Like a Marriage, Only More Enduring

WSJ Magazine

Twenty years ago, Warren Buffett invited Sharon Osberg to Omaha to play cards. It was a game that changed their lives. Now best friends, the pair chat about their relationship and the rigors of low-stakes, high-pressure bridge.

Here's how the second-richest man in America introduced himself to Sharon Osberg:

He invited her into his office, got her down on hands and knees, and had her play him in a fixed-dice game.

At the time, Osberg was an executive at Wells Fargo and a world-champion bridge player. She had briefly met Warren Buffett, an avid amateur, at a game in New York City, and the Berkshire Hathaway CEO had invited her to his Omaha headquarters.

"His theory was, this is how he would break the ice," Osberg says. "They were nontransitive dice [a sort of party trick for statistics geeks]. There I was, in my dress, on my hands and knees, rolling dice on Warren Buffett's floor, in a situation where I couldn't win. He thought it was hilarious." After Buffett finished laughing, the two went out for steak, then played bridge at his local club. The game was "terrible," Buffett recalls. "Humiliating," says Osberg. "But we had a really good time."

That was 20 years ago, and the two have been bridge partners and friends ever since. They play together an average of four times a week. It's a long-distance, platonic relationship that was founded on the card game but has evolved. Osberg lives in Marin County, outside of San Francisco, and communicates with Buffett a couple of times a day by phone, and then again via the computer, where the two chat as they play online.

"She's a very good friend now, even though we don't see each other that often," says Buffett. Osberg agrees. "He's just my best friend. He's changed my life. I'm the luckiest human being in the world."

Beyond their passion for the game, the pair relate in other ways—like the dry humor they share. Even their differences are complementary. Osberg is a professional technologist who ran Wells Fargo's online banking group, and Buffett famously steers clear of anything with a chip.

"At least two or three times a month, he'll call me and say, 'This is on my screen, what do I do?'" she says. But serving as a billionaire technophobe's IT director is relatively easy work, Osberg allows: "Whenever there's any kind of a problem with his computer, he just goes out and buys another one."

[See Think Like Warren Buffett]

In 2005, Buffett and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates—who plays bridge with both of them—pledged a million dollars to promote bridge in schools. The nonprofit effort, headed by Osberg, never gained traction and closed shop earlier this year. Buffett concedes that bridge is never going to experience the mainstream success it enjoyed 70 years ago. "There's too many different things people can do," he says. Fortunately for him, though, he doesn't lack for willing bridge mates. "There's a lot of people I could play bridge with, but there would be nobody better to have as a partner than Sharon."

Buffett on Osberg

Carol Loomis at Fortune introduced us. I was playing at some event at the Empire State Building, where Carol and Sharon were also playing.

I liked her. She was very likable, an interesting person, and clearly very smart. She had developed online banking for Wells Fargo very early; she was a pioneer in that. I invited her to play in Omaha and she accepted—we both played terribly that night. Because we were both trying to please the other one and it didn't work worth a damn.

She's an extremely good player, but she's a good partner too. Unlike chess, or unlike a lot of games, in bridge if you're a bad partner, it's going to materially affect the result the two of you get based on your skill alone. I've learned a lot from her.

When we play, I do a lot of dumb things, and then I also do some extremely dumb things from time to time. But whenever I do something extremely dumb, we usually get a good result. Don't ask me why—she can explain that to you. But that's the only thing she would find extremely irritating about me, is when I make some colossal mistake and it turns out to give us a good score.

I never want to quit. It's the opponents who want to quit. Last night we played for only an hour and a half, but I would go on forever. We play up at Bill Gates's house periodically, and those games will start at 2 in the afternoon, break for dinner, then finish at 11 at night.

We were playing in Omaha at annual meeting time and Sharon came in with my sister and her husband. We played and much to my chagrin and, I might add, my surprise, my sister and her husband actually beat Sharon and me. So my sister at that point reached to get the score pad, and I ripped it off and ate it. It's a very competitive game. It's about as competitive as you can get.

[See Buffett Recounts the Best Advice He's Ever Received]

Osberg on Buffett

I wasn't all that familiar with Warren. I sort of knew who he was. I knew he was wealthy. I knew he was an investor. And I knew he was from someplace in the middle of the country. So when I did meet him, he said, "You've got to come to Omaha." I said, "Where's that?" I could have brushed up a bit more on my facts before I met him.

We liked each other a lot. Once I got over being terrified, he's such an easy person to be with, and we have a similar sense of humor—it just clicked.

I didn't play online at the time—I was playing face-to-face, in serious tournaments—but it seemed to me that this was the way to go. That's why Warren got a computer. It took me a long time, probably six months, to convince him that what he really needed was a computer and then he could play bridge anytime he wanted. Bill Gates had tried to get him a computer—he volunteered to send people from Microsoft out to hook it up, but none of that worked. Finally, he said OK.

I was in Chicago or Cleveland or someplace, and he said, "I'll pick you up," because he was on his way home from a meeting, "and I'll take you to Omaha. We'll go to the Furniture Mart and buy a computer and you'll set it up for me." I think it was an HP.

Then there was the time he nearly cost me my world status: We'd never played together in a tournament before, let alone a world championship. We were huge underdogs to qualify for the finals, but God bless us, we qualified, at which point Warren said, "I can't do this anymore. It's so stressful. Tell them I have a business emergency. Tell them anything." So I go and try to tell the officials my partner has a business emergency—they were furious. We were probably the only couple ever to qualify for a world championship and withdraw without one of us dying.

Edited from Peter Kafka's interviews with Buffett and Osberg


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