Carolyn Lynch quietly becomes world champion bridge player
In financial circles, the name Lynch is usually associated with Peter, the storied Boston money manager who grew the Fidelity Magellan Fund into a $14 billion colossus delivering average returns of nearly 30 percent a year.
But in a different domain, it’s the other Lynch — his wife, Carolyn — gaining acclaim.
On the competitive bridge circuit, known to attract famous analytical minds like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Carolyn Lynch, 68, has quietly developed into a world champion.
She also has five national titles in the complicated game some compare to chess with cards, earning her an entry in the Official Encyclopedia of Bridge. In bridge parlance, Lynch is a “grand life master,” the highest ranking in the American Contract Bridge League, the game’s governing body in North America.
Her rise through the ranks has come through practice and serendipity: an elevator accident that gave her copious time to hone her skills, and a cheating scandal by another team that elevated her squad from second place to gold medalists.
Her success, she says, has been surprising even to her.
“I’m really pretty happy with my life, but I’ve never done anything I’m really great at,” Lynch said. “I’ve always been kind of average, so it’s odd to be 60-something-years-old and find out you’re good at something.
“If I had found out at 21,” she mused, “imagine what I could have done with my life!”
Bridge is sometimes viewed as a pastime of the leisure class. But for Lynch it is more than an idle diversion: she estimates she plays an hour or two online a day, and travels nine weeks a year to compete as far away as Brazil and Indonesia.
“I wish they had all these tournaments in Worcester or Everett once in a while,” said Peter Lynch, 71, who often watches webcasts of his wife playing, and says he was once glued to his home computer from 10 at night till 9 in the morning while Carolyn competed in a match in China.
“I was touring SpaceX with Elon Musk like five or six years ago, and I’m walking around this enormous plant holding up a [laptop] watching her play bridge,” recalled Lynch, referring to the founder of the private space travel company. “I don’t think anybody had ever done that with Elon Musk before. But I told him, ‘This is the final four. I’ve got to watch this!’ and he said, ‘I understand.’ ”
The Lynches, who celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary this month, are among Boston’s wealthiest residents. Boston Magazine has estimated their net worth at $352 million and their charitable Lynch Foundation is valued at $130 million.
So it is comically discordant to hear Carolyn Lynch, as she prepares for a tournament next month in Valley Forge, Pa., explain why she took up bridge in college, before she was the spouse of a wildly prosperous investor: “It was cheap. It was free. It was the only thing we could do that didn’t cost a dime.”
In retrospect, Lynch said, she played “really badly” then. But she kept up the game after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she met her husband, and played with him at an officers’ club in El Paso during his stint in the Army in the late 1960s.
“Then he was sent overseas and that was the end of that,” Carolyn Lynch said.
The arrival of three daughters ushered in a long hiatus while Lynch was a stay-at-home mother with a legendarily workaholic spouse, leaving little time for recreational cards (“Do you know what a husband is like on Sundays when he works six days a week?” Carolyn Lynch asked. “He’s a lump.”).
Only about 15 years ago did she begin playing regularly again. She attributes her transformation from a good player into a great one to a freak accident: In 1997, while visiting the Union Club of Boston, a private club on Park Street, she was in an elevator that fell several stories to the building’s ground floor.
She says she sustained injuries to her back, hip, and shoulder that left her “mildly disabled” for several years.
As a result, “I had all this time to sit around and play bridge on the Internet,” sharpening her skills, Lynch said. “So every cloud has a silver lining. That sounds so Pollyanna, and I hate Pollyannas, but that is true for me.”
In 2008 Lynch won her first national championship, a title the American Contract Bridge League says fewer than 1 percent of its 160,000 members can claim.
She won her world championship in a 2013 tournament in Bali, Indonesia, following a scandal that titillated the bridge world: Judges stripped the original winning team, from Germany, of first place when its players were caught on video signaling their moves to one another through a pattern of coughs. Lynch’s team was named the new winner.
Pat McDevitt, a world champion bridge player from Brookline who occasionally plays with Lynch, describes her as a strong tactical player with a high tolerance for risk and an unruffled demeanor. The latter is a key attribute, he said, since even the slightest hesitation can “signal to an opponent that you have problem.”
Lynch’s wealth gives her one competitive advantage: in tournament bridge, affluent people sometimes hire top-flight players to play with them to increase their chance of winning. Some professional bridge players make a living playing with well-to-do benefactors.
Lynch pays for several of her teammates, including two world champions from Texas, Mike Passell and John Sutherlin (she calls Sutherlin her coach), and two world-renowned players from Poland.
“You’ve got to be competent yourself to succeed, but she’s scouted out some of the best players from other countries to play with her,” said Paul Linxwiler, editor of Bridge Bulletin magazine, the official publication of the American Contract Bridge League. “This is not a cheap thing. Top-level players earn pretty hefty salaries.”
The combination of Carolyn Lynch’s fortune and talent, he added, means “the Lynch team is always very dangerous in these events.”
Lynch declined to disclose how much she pays her teammates. But top pros, some of whom charge annual retainers, can make six-figure incomes, in addition to travel expenses.
Bridge is a cerebral game that requires not just luck, but also intuition, logic, knowledge of probability, and the ability to work cooperatively with others; each competitor has a playing partner. Its complexity tends to attract computer programmers and financiers, including billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who once famously said, “I wouldn’t mind going to jail if I had three cellmates who played bridge.”
Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates occasionally appears at national tournaments where, “honestly, some people don’t recognize him,” said Linxwiler. “But he’s not anywhere in the same league as Carolyn Lynch.”
Peter Lynch, who retired from Fidelity in 1990 at age 46, characterizes himself as an “intermediate-advanced” bridge player.
He plays with Carolyn at the private Chilton Club in the Back Bay on Monday evenings from October through May and describes the game as “incredibly similar to the stock market.”
“It takes a lot of judgment, a lot of guts and stamina, not just the brain,” he said. “You’re always making guesses. You’re doing a risk-reward ratio. You have to be really strong and you’ve got to make mistakes and forget about it.”
Of his wife’s prowess at the game, he said: “I know she’s very bright . . . but I had no idea she’d ever get to this pinnacle.”