Friday, December 3, 2010

Global 2010: Buffett and Osberg's Like a Marriage, Only More Enduring

Alice Schroeder with Warren Buffett.Image via Wikipedia
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."

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