In Search of the Real Bill Gates

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Last October Gates brought Melinda and their new daughter to visit Buffett and his wife in San Francisco. They ended up playing bridge for nine hours straight. Another marathon session in Seattle started in the morning and lasted--with a break for Melinda to pick up lunch at Burger King--until guests started arriving for dinner. "He loves games that involve problem solving," Buffett says. "I showed him a set of four dice with numbers arranged in a complex way so that any one of them would on average beat one of the others. He was one of three people I ever showed them to who figured this out and saw the way to win was to make me choose first which one I'd roll." (For math buffs: the dice were nontransitive. One of the others who figured it out was the logician Saul Kripke.)

Their relationship is not financial. Buffett, who does not invest in technology stocks, bought 100 shares of Microsoft just as a curiosity back when he met Gates ("I wish I'd bought more," he laughs), and Gates describes his investment with Buffett as "only" about $10 million ("I wish I'd invested more," he likewise jokes). But Gates shares Buffett's interest in the media world and even likes to joke that he has created a digital encyclopedia called Encarta that now outsells World Book, which is controlled by Buffett. So far Microsoft has mainly treated content as something that its software managers can create from scratch. But given the relative cheapness of some media stocks compared with that of Microsoft, Gates may someday look for some big acquisitions (he was in serious talks about taking a $2 billion stake in CNN before Time Warner merged with Turner Communications), and Buffett would be a useful partner.

Another of Gates' vacation companions is Ann Winblad, the software entrepreneur and venture capitalist he dated during the 1980s. They met in 1984 at a Ben Rosen-Esther Dyson computer conference and started going on "virtual dates" by driving to the same movie at the same time in different cities and discussing it on their cell phones. For a few years she even persuaded him to stop eating meat, an experiment he has since resolutely abandoned.

They were kindred minds as well as spirits. On a vacation to Brazil, he took James Watson's 1,100-page textbook, Molecular Biology of the Gene, and they studied bioengineering together. On another vacation, to a Santa Barbara, California, ranch, she took tapes of Richard Feynman's lectures at Cornell, and they studied physics. And on a larger excursion with friends to central Africa, which ended at some beach cottages on an island off Zanzibar, among their companions was anthropologist Donald Johanson, known for his work on the human ancestor Lucy, who helped teach them about human evolution. In the evenings on each trip they would go to the beach with four or five other couples for bonfires, Hood Canal-style games and a tradition they called the sing-down, where each team is given a word and has to come up with songs that feature it. Winblad remembers Gates disappearing on a dark beach after his group had been given the word sea, and then slowly emerging from the mist singing a high-pitched solo of Puff, the Magic Dragon.

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