By Michael Bamberger
Saturday, September 20, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When it was all over, the losing captain was all alone, as losers always are, thinking about what could have been. The smooth hair, the lively eyes, the confident manner — it all hid nothing. You could see a fast mind was swirling. Where did it all go wrong. The selection process? The pairings? The preparation? The dinner menu? So much to second guess. So, so much. The players were waiting.

The captain picked up a small pile of tournament programs, dropped them heavily on a table and sighed. She put on a brave face and headed out of the ballroom and to the team room.

Donna Compton, captain of the 12-person U.S. team in the 2008 Buffett Cup bridge competition, now has a 1-1 record. On Friday, her Team USA had lost to the European team at a hotel in downtown Louisville. The final score, 205.5 to 172.5.

After a heady two-year stay in Compton's Dallas home, the Buffett Cup, named for the American bridge player and businessman Warren Buffett of Omaha, Neb., was going back across the Atlantic. In '06, when the Ryder Cup was in Dublin and the inaugural Buffett Cup was, too, the American bridge players were winners. But they couldn't keep a good thing going. The Euros went young, forgoing experience in favor of faster reflexes. In Compton's view of the world, that made all the difference.

"Their average age was younger than our youngest player," Compton said. Each team, by constitution, had 10 men and two women. The average European player was 37 years old.

The youngest of the American players, Geoff Hampson of Las Vegas, approached his captain. He was wearing fancy cowboy boots, a trim gray suit, a white team shirt unbuttoned at the top, sunglasses perched on the top of his shaved head.

"Am I overdressed for dinner?" Hampson asked his captain. In an hour or so, the Europeans and the Americans would be gathering for a gala post-event dinner. Compton suggested the suit coat was not necessary. They spoke of how good things looked for the American team after the first day of the three-day competition.

They said they drank with the European team until four in the morning before the first day of play. It was Compton and Hampson and all the European players. An effective strategy, but it only worked for a day. After the first day, the European captain, Paul Hackett, gave his players a midnight curfew.

Hampson felt that team camaraderie was part of the problem. When the first Buffett Cup was played, in Dublin, the whole U.S. team gathered each night in the hotel bar. But Hampson and Compton both felt that talent had won out, that the European team was deeper. "Form held," Hampson said. "It usually does in bridge." The next Buffett Cup will be held along with the Ryder Cup in Wales, in 2010.

Buffett, who is a golfer and a bridge player, was not on hand for the event. Compton said the qualities that made Buffett a good businessman made him a good bridge player as well: the analysis of information, and the ability to change that analysis on the basis of new information. Compton, not a golfer, picked up on some of that quality while watching Tiger Woods play in Dublin at the 2006 Ryder Cup. "I could see him judging the turf," she said.

Hampson is a golfer, and so were some of his teammates, but a U.S. player from Chicago, Steve Garner, was not among them. In the team room, the losing players were drinking bubbly and playing backgammon and discussing the upcoming Ryder Cup. "In bridge, if you misplay a hand, you'll be up at two in the morning trying to play it again and again in your mind," Garner said. "Golf's not like that, is it?"

"You idiot," screamed a teammate, Zia Mahmood of New York City. "You are joking, right? Golf is exactly like that."

The discussion turned to another bridge player/golfer, and Mahmood's desire to play this person for $1,000 a hole. It was all rather amusing. The losing team's spirits were lifting.

Captain Compton was asked if she had any advice for Paul Azinger, the captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. She did not, as she was barely aware of the name.

For Team USA, the countdown to the redemption match in Wales had already begun. The captain hoped she'd be back for that one, but it was too soon to say.

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