|Sharon Osberg, in her home overlooking Richardson Bay near San Francisco, is a retired banking executive who enjoys exotic travel to Antarctica and Africa, where she photographs wildlife.
Sedate and civilized, a bridge tournament is not an event that normally attracts screaming, shoving fans worthy of a rock star. But if a player of the four-hand card game happens to be the world’s richest man, all bets are off.
Sharon Sozio Osberg ’71, who often partners with her friend Bill Gates at bridge tournaments, overseas and online, can attest to that. Last June, at the World Championships in Verona, Italy, Osberg found herself party to that scene.
“When we played in Italy, I had never seen a feeding frenzy like this in my life,” she says. “I couldn’t get into a car. It gave me a small idea of what it’s like to go through life as a celebrity. I was just someone they had to knock out of the way to get to him.”
She’s had similar experiences accom-panying another of her bridge partners, the man she counts among her two best friends and the second richest person in the world—the investor/businessman/philanthropist Warren Buffett.
“The low point in my life, in terms of Warren and Bill, was when I was at an annual meeting [for stockholders]—that’s another circus. It was just Warren and me going someplace. The next day there was a story in the newspaper that read, ‘Warren Buffett was accompanied by a small, nervous woman.’ ”
Of course she didn’t look relaxed, since she was crouching down in his car trying to avoid the mob around her, Osberg explains.
Playing a game (where no money is exchanged, incidentally) with billionaires can be risky and nerve-racking.
“Every time I sit down, I’m risking something—my reputation, my self-esteem,” says Osberg. “It’s a very difficult thing to play. You never know it all.”
A retired banking executive who lives in Tiburon, across the bay from San Francisco, Osberg didn’t get to know the two tycoons because of her looks and smarts—of which she has plenty—but because of her bridge skills. A two-time world champion, in 1991 and 1993, Osberg got the bug at Dickinson.
“The woman who lived next to me was a bridge player and needed a fourth,” she recounts. “I sat down and thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ I got hooked.
“We played all-night games,” she adds. “If someone collapsed we’d go to the dorm lobby and buzz each room to see if somebody was up and could come play. It’s a good thing I started as a junior; if I were a freshman I wouldn’t have graduated. Many brilliant bridge players never make it out of college. It’s definitely a liability.”
Well, maybe it’s a barrier to graduation but not to overall life success. “The game has changed my life,” says Osberg. “Everything I’ve done, all the important relationships I’ve had, my career—all are the results of playing bridge.”
Let’s talk about those relationships. In the early ’90s Osberg was playing in a tournament at the Empire State Building where celebrities were matched with more common folk.
“Warren came to play, and the man changed my life,” she says. “To have the opportunity to listen to him, to learn from him, having him expose me to his circle of friends, I can’t say enough about this very wonderful man. He’s been a friend, father and adviser since I met him, and we talk at least once a day. I’ve been hundreds of times to Omaha [where Buffett lives].”
When asked, via Osberg, why he favors her as a friend and a bridge partner, Buffett responds, “Sharon is a smart, outstanding human being. She’s loyal and generous, fair-minded and socially involved. And she has an orderly mind.”
About a decade ago, Buffett connected Osberg with Bill Gates Sr., who had played bridge in his younger years. After she set senior up to play online bridge, he invited her to meet his son, who had played the card game as a child. She’s been a coach, partner and friend to the Microsoft founder ever since.
But Gates and Buffett have not been Osberg’s only celebrity partners. For the last several years of Katherine Graham’s life, Osberg was a regular weekend guest in the Washington Post publisher’s home, where she played bridge with the likes of Sandra Day O’Connor.
“She [Graham] was THE person in Washington, D.C., and had magnificent parties,” recalls Osberg. “It was like seeing myself in a newsreel. I felt like a spectator in my own life.”
With dignitaries like Henry Kissinger in attendance, Osberg felt out of her element. “She would always have a ‘babysitter’ for me, some poor soul whose job it was to stay with me.”
Like Graham, Osberg has been a trail-blazing businesswoman. Retired from banking, she now serves on mutual-funds boards and does technology consulting.
Her career got rolling through bridge connections, of course.
After a brief stint at a Washington, D.C., commodities firm, post-Dickinson, Osberg moved to California, and in six months, through bridge, she met the senior manager of data processing for Bank of America.
“Here I was, this political-science major with absolutely no background in anything, and this guy was willing to take a chance,” she says. “He brought in many good, young bridge players, and none of us disappointed him. Bridge is all about analysis, pattern-recognition and problem-solving. All play well in the technology field.”
Osberg rose to executive vice president of online services at Wells Fargo Bank during the ’90s, when being young and male was critical to technology success.
“I was never a great technician, but I had the management skills required, as well as enough technical knowledge to allow me to do what I needed in the banking industry to move forward,” she explains. “It’s the same in bridge. There are a hundred more math-inclined people than me who are great bridge players, but I see the big picture. Having a liberal-arts education helps me see that big picture.”
Another of those ’70s bridge players recruited into banking is David Smith, Osberg’s former husband. Married less than a year back then, they reunited two years ago—and now share the house in Tiburon, where, in 2005, Osberg held a three-day 75th-birthday party for Buffett, which Gates attended.
With their faith in Osberg as a player and organizer, Gates and Buffett handed her $1 million that year to start a bridge-in-the-public-schools program. Buffett explains why he chose her to head the project that they hope will spark a revival for the graying game, whose players have an average age of 67:
“She’s a top-notch player who also is well-organized. Sharon has a strong fiduciary sense when handling the money of others. But she also has a passion for the game, is interested in young people and is a collegial worker.”
Says Osberg, “We have 11 programs up and running—it keeps me off the streets.” By this winter, there were programs in Houston, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Badger, Minn.
She’s excited to think how students’ lives will be enriched by playing the card game. “Bridge is very applicable to math and analytical skills, teaches social skills and the need to be able to work with a partner. Almost everything you need going forward in life to be successful you learn in bridge.”
A partnership that she began in January with a community-service league in Newark, N.J., should help with expansion. “They’ll reach tens of thousands of kids, where I could only reach 2,000 or 3,000,” she says.