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Lessons From The Bridge Table

by Tom O'Connor on April 15th, 2014
Bill Gates & Warren Buffett lock horns at a recent bridge tournament.

Bill Gates & Warren Buffett lock horns at a recent bridge tournament.

The card games, Bridge & Whist, both consist of 13 tricks being contested by two pairs of individuals, with each pair trying to maximise the haul of tricks for their own side.

But Bridge comes with an added wrinkle: in advance of the card play per se, one pair contracts to make a certain number of tricks.

An auction process decides which of the opposing pairs play to make the contract or play to defeat the contract – each pair being respectively termed the offence or defence.

A risk management thread is at the core of the game, throughout.

Warren Buffett, himself an avid bridge player & sponsor of the Buffett Cup (the game’s equivalent to the Ryder Cup), puts it thus:

“Bridge is about weighing gain/loss ratios.
You’re doing calculations all the time …. you gather
all the information you can and then keep adding
to that base of information as things develop.
You do whatever the probabilities indicate based
on the knowledge that you have at the time,
but you are always willing to modify your behaviour
or your approach as you get new information.”

Negotiation tactics also come into play.

The everyday term “to finesse”, meaning to evade or skirt an issue that could otherwise cause deadlock between parties to an negotiation comes directly from the bridge table.

It denotes a ploy to win a trick with a card that is not a certain winner – typically taking the calculated risk that any card that could beat it, is in the hand of the opponent who has already played.

And, just as success in negotiation largely depends on reading the mind of one’s counterparty, so too in bridge, where every card played by the opponents must be analysed for the motives that may lie behind it, and so inform where one should onwards take the play.

And, teamwork too is very much to the fore.

This is especially so when a pair is on defense.

Here the partners have to continuously interpret & update their strategy, from the choice & sequence of one another’s play – in terms of whether & how each variously chooses to win, lose, lead, follow and/or discard in different situations.

These are many of the same competencies required in the workplace.

And, so one wonders as more & more workplaces begin to provide funky breakroom/hang-out areas for their employees, if a pack or two of cards might be the ideal addition.

It’s an idea President Eisenhower would have roundly endorsed – as he was well-known to always have a deck at the ready to fill any quiet interlude when serving as Commander during World War 2.

Like on the occasion in November 1942, when heavy fog suddenly held up the 800-strong Allied invasion of North Africa.

“What’ll we do now?” asked one of his officers.

To which Eisenhower instantly replied: “Let’s have a game of bridge” – whereon, he immediately rounded up General Alfred Gruenther, General Mark Clark and Commander Harry Butcher, for an imprompto game.

And, then, of course, there is the other story told of how after the war in 1948, he had to be pulled away from the bridge table to take a phonecall from President Harry Truman, offering him the job of Head of NATO in Paris.

On returning to his game, he was asked: “Who will you take as your Number 2?”

”Well, I ought to take Bedell Smith,” he replied. “But I think I’ll take Gruenther because he’s the better bridge player.”

And, as it turned out, Gruenther did indeed get the nod … succeeding,  in due course, to be the Head of NATO himself, when Eisenhower returned to the U.S. to run for president.

Though, Eisenhower’s words were uttered in jest, no doubt; still, we can deduce that Gruenther’s bridge-playing prowess hadn’t come against him!

PS. For related Torc training programmes, please click on the following links:
1. Integrative & Distributive Negotiations
2. Behavioural Models of Negotiation
3. Streetwise Tactical Negotiations

PPS. For related negotiation blogs, please click on the following Torc links:
1. Lincoln: Model Negotiator
2. Pride as a negotiating pitfall
3. Cool Hand, Hustle & Sting
4. Women make better negotiators
5. The art of the haggle
6. Negotiating – eyeball to eyeball
7. Humphrey Bogart’s dual duel
8. Negotiating: when the stakes are high
9. Streetwise tactical negotiation
10. Stand-offs … & face savings
11. Anglo Tapes: The Negotiation Lessons

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