Duplicate bridge: Developing your business acumen

What do Isadore Sharp, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and I have in common? No, it is not a hotel chain or a real estate deal. Rather, it is a deep passion for a card game called duplicate bridge.

Bridge had its heyday back in the 1950s when it was considered an appropriate conclusion to a dinner party. I fondly recall learning to play when I was in university in the 1970s when it seemed as if a continuous game was being played in the student union building. That game was called “rubber” bridge, where the cards are dealt and the game transpires based upon bidding, card play and, to a certain extent, the luck of the deal.

In duplicate bridge, everyone is dealt the same hand. In effect, your skill is based on comparing how you perform with the resources you have been given in comparison with the dozen or so teams playing. At the end of each round, the cards move in one direction (downward), while one pair moves in the other direction (upward), resulting in everyone eventually playing every hand. Scores are compared and points are assigned based on first, second and third place. A handicap system ranks players according to the number of points they have accumulated in their lifetime.

A “life master” has accumulated 300-plus points. This is a goal I have yet to achieve, and I have been playing duplicate bridge frequently for the past decade.

Duplicate bridge is not played for money ever. At a local club level you push your brain to its limit for three hours. If you are successful, you might take home a point or a point-and-a-half for first place. If you figure each game entry is about $10, and the odds of winning every night are slim at best, I estimate achieving life master status is a $25,000 to $50,000 expense, not including tournament travel. It sounds like a lot, but over the 20-plus years it normally takes to achieve this, it’s a minor investment.

So, why do these captains of industry (myself excluded!) relish this game?

I would like to say that, in a way, duplicate bridge mirrors your business life; you get handed a situation, and you have to make the best of it. In the 15 minutes or less it takes to assess, bid, play and score a hand, you cover the full spectrum of a business activity … something that might take years to evolve in regular operating practice.

You also work in partnership, thus learning valuable communications skills in addition to the ability to follow a series of rules that force you to balance risk versus return. Lastly, you get no time to dwell on the past; every 15 minutes, a new set of cards is dealt, and you start over again.

There are hundreds of books on duplicate bridge, ranging from beginner to ultra-advanced techniques so complex you might need a Ph.D. to figure it all out. But, the good news is this: you’re never too old or too young to get started. A local club has beginner sessions, usually for free.

Beware, though — once you start you too will be hooked for life. But given what duplicate bridge can teach you in terms of business instincts, maybe the game isn’t such a bad addiction to have.