Bridge may seem like a simple card game to the uninitiated, but once you're hooked, you may find yourself doing some extreme things. For Bill Gates, it was flying in bridge partners to surprise his friend, investment guru Warren Buffet, with a 24-hour marathon game during a long train trip. For late Chinese Premier Deng Xiao Peng, it was risking everything to play bridge underground after it was outlawed by Mao.
For Jay Baum, who up until December 2001 was chief executive officer of the Omaha (Neb.) Convention and Visitors Bureau, it was throwing away happy dreams of retirement and moving to Memphis, Tenn., to take over the helm of the AmericanBridge League as its new CEO.
“Someone said there was this job I would be perfect for, and when I learned what it was, I had to apply,” says Baum, who's been an avid competitive contract bridge player for 35 years. “Between the skills I had honed at the CVB and the passion I have for the sport, well, it all just came together for me. If I could pick any one thing to do, this would be it.”
Vive la Différence
When he first started out with the Omaha CVB, he “didn't even know what a CVB was — but that was a long time ago.” Over his 20 years with the organization, he progressed through the ranks, learning along the way that “running a CVB actually can be fun. The great thing is you get to make so many lifelong friends, and you get to really make a difference in a community.”
But even when he was traveling on behalf of the CVB, he'd find himself making a phone call to the local ACBL chapter to find a partner so he could spend the evening playing bridge. “There aren't many cities that don't have a bridge club,” he says. “That's the great thing about bridge: There are no boundaries.”
He hit the ground running when he got the news he would be the new ACBL CEO: Baum's last day of work at the CVB was December 28, 2001; his first day at the ACBL was January 2, 2002.
Baum had been with the CVB so long that he had much of his job down to a science. Now he's finding work to be a whole new game. “In a CVB you can focus on two or three things and you'll be right on target. Here at ACBL, you know where you want to get to, but you have a whole lot more things you need to work with to get there.” And that's about what one would expect with a membership of more than 160,000 like-minded contract bridge hounds spread throughout the ACBL's 25 districts in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda.
Baum has also found that it's a whole different thing being on the customer side of the equation for a change. The ACBL conducts three North American Bridge tournaments each year. The national championship event, held in Houston in March, drew more than 6,000 players. There were 10,500 tables in play over the 10-day event, with 2,000 people playing at 500 tables at any given time. “Obviously, we used a few sleeping rooms,” he understates.
The tournaments may start out with 150 to 200 teams, but by the time the field narrows down to the final games at the end, “it gets intense,” says Baum. “People go into a large ballroom outfitted with large video screens, and via computer they can watch the hands as they're dealt, see all the bidding and the plays. You get to watch the players' facial expressions as they go through their thought processes. It can be incredibly interesting.”
But does he get to play? “After four days of pre-board and committee meetings, I'm pretty beat up,” he says. While he says he'll never get to play as much as he wants — “because that would be all the time” — he will get to travel to some of the districts this year for regional tournaments.
Still, he's not doing too badly. Peanuts comic strip creator Charles Schulz, who was an equally avid bridge player, was thrilled when his Snoopy character was named an Honorary Life Master. Humans, however, have to accumulate 200 ACBL-sanctioned points in various levels of tournaments. Baum has the Beagle beat. He's a Gold Life Master with more than 2,500 points. But his real goal is to win a national event. “Unfortunately, that's easier to say than do. But I'll keep trying, and having fun along the way,” he says.
A Good Sport
When asked what he likes to do when he's not playing bridge or working, Baum just laughs. “I'm ashamed to admit this, but I've lived in Memphis for three months and I haven't been to Graceland yet. I've been downtown only once. I've just been so absorbed in the job.”
And he wants to introduce others to the object of his obsession. “Associations should think about including a bridge tournament, or lessons, as an activity or spouse program at their conventions,” he says. “Not everyone likes to golf, or do a 5K walk, or a couch-potato triathlon. We can help them put together a game that'll run smoothly. It wouldn't cost much: All you need is a deck of cards, a table, and four chairs. Anyone who can hold a deck of cards can learn how to play.”
But the outreach goes much further than that. You may have noticed his use of the word “sport” for what most would call a game. This is no accident: The ACBL and its umbrella organization, the World Bridge Federation, are lobbying hard to have bridge acknowledged by the International Olympic Committee as an Olympic sport.
“It's physical, in that you have to be in reasonable physical condition to compete eight, nine, 10 hours a day,” he says. “But it's not just physical; it's also a mental sport. You need endurance to compete up to 10 hours a day and to keep your concentration.”
So what is it about bridge that ignites all this passion? “Bridge is a microcosm of life,” says Baum. “There are no boundaries, and it brings all aspects of life into play — intellect, competition, partnership, and fun. That's what it's all about, really.”