KSG Prof Plays His Cards Right

'Renaissance man' claims title as North American bridge champion

At 2 a.m. on Thursday, March 15—the day his undergraduate economics thesis was due—Richard A. Krumholz ’07 opened his e-mail to find a message from his advisor in response to a request for feedback on his final draft.

“We won,” the brief e-mail read. “I will write some more comments.”

Twelve hundred miles away in St. Louis, Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62, the Ramsey professor of political economy at the Kennedy School, was celebrating his victory in the North American Bridge Championship—and giving final advice to Krumholz on the economics of terrorism insurance.

At the championship, hosted by the American Contract Bridge League, Zeckhauser was in the mixed pairs contest, and the competition was close.

“We were behind going into the last round,” Zeckhauser said in an interview on Friday. “We had played 104 hands and just had to wait and see how the other team played.” Finally, Zeckhauser and his partner—Mildred Breed of Austin, Texas—triumphed by a slim margin.

This was Zeckhauser’s first championship win since 1966, when he won the United States contract bridge pairs championship.

Many bridge championship participants are professional players, but for Zeckhauser, the game remains just that: a game.

“The ideal profession for playing bridge is unemployed,” said Zeckhauser, who claimed that despite his success, he could easily imagine a life without bridge. “It’s a terrific hobby, but if the doctor told me I could never play bridge again, I would probably say, ‘oh darn.’”

Krumholz, who has worked throughout his senior year with Zeckhauser, said he is constantly amazed by his advisor’s brilliance.

“It is incredible,” Krumholz said in a phone interview. “He plays bridge as a part-time hobby and now he is the best player in the country. He’s a renaissance man, even with his research.”

Zeckhauser started playing bridge at age 12. “It was a fun thing to do, and a good way to get into Harvard,” he said.

As an student in Quincy House, Zeckhauser was on the Harvard Bridge team, which won the intercollegiate championship in 1962.

Zeckhauser said he competed seriously in championships until age 27, at which point his career and family took priority. He started again, he said, because “my kids are grown and my wife is understanding.” In 1998, he was a finalist at the World Bridge Federation championship in Lille, France.

According to Zeckhauser, the game of bridge is a good model for everything from economics to dating.

“A successful marriage is like a successful bridge partnership,” said Zeckhauser. “There will be disasters in every relationship, but you have to be able to cope with the disasters effectively and try not to make the other person feel that they’re to blame.”

Nevertheless, he did add that bridge almost put his marriage in jeopardy when he and his wife had to fly directly from their 1967 honeymoon in Mexico to the U.S. team trials in Atlantic City.

“She hasn’t accompanied me since,” he said.

Zeckhauser occasionally uses bridge analogies in his teaching at the Kennedy School, “but usually it takes a little while to explain what it is that you’re talking about,” he said.

“I do a lot of work with economic uncertainty, and in a very crude way, [bridge] compliments my economic skills,” Zeckhauser said, proudly adding that “Warren Buffett says that bridge is the best preparation for business.”