Lord Wolfson of Sunningdale, the chairman of Great Universal Stores and Next, talks about his passion for bridge with the financial writer and bridge author Jonathan Davis.
The modern game of contract bridge was, according to legend, invented by Harold S. Vanderbilt, a member of the famous American business dynasty, who devised it to while away the time on a leisurely cruise through the Panama Canal in the 1920s. Ever since, the game has retained a particular appeal for business people and financiers of all kinds. It is, as Lord Wolfson of Sunningdale points out, one of the few games that can be played equally for pleasure and for competitive satisfaction.
The chairman of Great Universal Stores, who was Lady Thatcher's chief of staff at 10 Downing Street for six years, has been playing bridge since he was a boy. One of Wolfson's earliest memories was of being caught in an illicit bridge game at his school, Clifton College. He remembers being let off any punishment because: 'I was the youngest player in the game, despite the fact that I probably organised it' - a useful early lesson that life, like business, is not always fair.
At university, Wolfson twice played for Cambridge in the annual match against Oxford, winning once and losing on the other occasion. 'I thought it would only be a matter of time before I was called up for the national team,' recalls Wolfson. 'In retrospect, it was the highlight of my bridge playing career and I have been going downhill ever since.'
With the exception of his time working for Lady Thatcher, Wolfson has spent his working life in retailing, first with GUS, (long associated with the Wolfson family), then as chairman of Next, before the call to return to Gussie came last year. This busy working life has, unfortunately, left insufficient time to play at the highest level, but Wolfson plays regularly in the high-stake rubber bridge game at the Portland Club, a well-known private club in London's Mayfair which has long been responsible for setting and administering the rules of bridge in this country.
Portland Club bridge is played for fun as well as monetary gain, but in a highly-competitive manner. This, one quickly senses, suits Wolfson very nicely.
'I play bridge mainly for pleasure, except when the game is for money when I play strictly for business,' he announces with a smile as we sit down to play a couple of 'friendly' rubbers at my club, the Savile. It doesn't take long to realise why our guest has enjoyed such a successful career in politics and business.
Within the first few minutes, he has executed a squeeze, one of the more advanced plays at bridge, something which is well beyond the scope of the vast majority of bridge players in this country. Without saying a word, he has staked out his credentials in the clearest possible way and served notice that he is not to be trifled with, a tactic which doubtless reaps handsome rewards at the negotiating table too.
Like the majority of naturally-gifted players, Wolfson plays quickly, pausing no more than once or twice during a hand to think, before acting decisively. He is plainly equally blessed with the other requirement of a good bridge player - the ability to read the strengths and weaknesses of the other players at the table. Only in defensive play does he reveal any discernible shortcomings; and that, by common consent, is the hardest part of the game, where even the greatest experts make the most errors.
Wolfson himself modestly describes his bridge as 'totally out of date'.
By this he means that he plays the game the Portland way, with the simplest possible rules and a minimum of artificial bids. 'Iain Macleod (the former Tory politician and expert bridge player) wrote a brilliant book called Bridge is An Easy Game. Unfortunately the modern game at the highest level is no longer simple. It is a very complicated game, especially in bidding and it is not something which I have either the time or the patience to learn. I don't know whether my simple old-fashioned game is good or bad.'
The answer, to this eye, seems fairly clear: anyone who can play bridge and consistently win at Portland Club rules can play the game. But are there any parallels between the art of playing bridge well and success at business? Wolfson sees one very clearly. 'In bridge, as in business, you never have all the information you need ... you have to do the best you can with the limited information you have. It is not a scientific business, thank goodness.'.