When Bjorgvin Kristinsson took to playing bridge as a kid growing up in Iceland, he had no idea it would eventually land him a spot on a team with two of the world’s richest men.

Billionaire bridge aficionados Bill Gates and Warren Buffett invited Kristinsson to play bridge and shoot the breeze at the Nebraska Regional bridge tournament last week, one of the biggest tournaments in the United States. (All this time we thought Gates was into Xbox!)

“What surprised me most was how casual and down-to-earth both Buffett and Gates are,” Kristinsson said. “They weren’t flashy, they weren’t obnoxious — they were just regular guys with a bunch of bodyguards.”

The call came from Peggy Kaplan, the top-ranked bridge player in Minnesota and one of Kristinsson’s bridge-playing pals. It was Kaplan who was originally invited to join the team, but she had already committed to another group for the tournament.

“He has a very good temperament and I knew Bill and Warren would enjoy playing with him,” Kaplan said.

Kristinsson also had the time and means to get to Omaha with little notice, which isn’t all that hard to do when playing bridge is your job. While bridge is sometimes viewed as an intellectual game for the leisure class, for Kristinsson, it is a daily obsession that’s earned him professional status.

In tournament bridge, there’s no exchange or money or gambling involved, but well-to-do players sometimes hire professionals like Kristinsson to play with them to increase their chance of winning.

While Kristinsson wouldn’t disclose how much he makes as a professional player, he said he makes “a decent living” but was not paid to play with the Microsoft founder and billionaire investor Buffett. Top pros can make six-figure incomes.

Kristinsson, 46, estimates he travels to play in bridge tournaments two weeks out of the month and plays 8-to-12 hours a day. When he’s not at tournaments or studying the game online, he plays at the Twin Cities Bridge Center in Minneapolis.

“I don’t have much social life,” he said. “All of my friends are in their 70s. It’s not very good for a relationship to be on the road two weeks a month. That‘s the downside.”

‘Just steak and Coke’

So what’s it like to play bridge with two of the most powerful men in the world?

“If it weren’t for the game of bridge, I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet them,” Kristinsson said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sit down and have lunch and dinner with those guys and talk politics and life.”

In addition to playing on their bridge team, Kristinsson joined Gates and Buffett for lunch and dinner.

“It was nothing special. No high-priced wines, nothing out of the ordinary,” he said. “Just steak and Coke.”

Meeting Gates and Buffett wasn’t the high point for Kristinsson. It was playing with Bob Hamman, who is widely considered to be the greatest bridge player of all time. Sharon Osberg rounded out the team.

“It’s great to be able to play with Gates and Buffett, but to play with Bob, that’s the big thing,” he said. “That’s like Tiger Woods asking you to play golf with him.”

As for the team’s performance in the tournament, Kristinsson said: “We did not do so hot.”

 

@aimeeblanchette