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Marty Fleisher Interview: Part 1

Marty-B-and-W We recently had a chance to have an intriguing conversation with the captain of the winning Vanderbilt team, Marty Fleisher . Marty also won the 2010 U.S team trials and will represent the United States in the upcoming Bermuda Bowl. Once a young bridge prodigy, he took a hiatus from the game, only to re-emerge and climb his way to the top.

Bridge Winners (BW): So let's start at the beginning, tell us a bit about yourself.
Marty Fleisher (MF): So I grew up in Teaneck, NJ in a card-playing family. My father played poker his whole life, my mom played bridge and poker, and my uncle (my mother's brother) was and is a very good bridge player. My dad, who was a professor of English literature, took a sabbatical and decided to learn bridge. So at the age of 8 I decided to learn with him. And then my mother and uncle taught us.

BW: So you learned at home with your mom, dad and uncle?
MF: Yes, and then I started to play duplicate at the age of 11.

BW: Did you play a lot as a kid then?
MF: I played probably twice a week, but I also studied a lot. In high school we played in the Grand National Teams with our club team and made it all the way to the finals where we lost to Kantar, Eisenberg, Swanson and Soloway.

BW: Wow, that's pretty amazing. So you grew up in Teaneck and Michael Kamil was from Fort Lee?
MF: Yeah, he was from a nearby town and some of the other players in the club from Teaneck included Bill Pollack and Marc Jacobus who was also from a nearby town.

BW: Interesting.
MF: So I kept playing and then entered college at Swarthmore, where I studied philosophy. My high-school bridge partner and I won the intercollegiates in our first year of college.

BW: I believe you won the intercollegiates by quite a bit?
MF: We won our region by about 8 boards (which people say is the largest winning margin in a pairs tournament). We then won the National intercollegiate championship by a fair amount.

BW: Who was your partner?
MF: Alan Heubert, who was a really a talented player. Shortly after college he joined a religious community and hasn't really played since.

BW: So then when did you stop playing?
MF: I kept playing through college, but around the time I went to law school I stopped playing, I just got too busy with law school, and I also met my wife there the first year in law school (even though we actually knew each other in high school).

BW: So now you and Andrea live in New York City and both work in Manhattan.
MF: Yes, we both work in Manhattan where Andrea is a partner in a 7-person law firm. I practice law maybe 5% of the time, but mostly run 2 investment funds that invest in life insurance policies.

BW: Is the law practice related to the investment funds?
MF: No, I practice employee benefits law, which I did full time from the time I first started working as a lawyer until I began the funds in 2005, 2006.

BW: Can you tell us a bit more about the investment funds you run?
MF: The original business model was to buy whole life insurance policies shortly after they were issued to people, and then hold them for 2 years. After 2 years, life insurance becomes non-contestable. That is, if the person dies for any reason, the insurance company has to pay. So if you held them for that 2 year period then you could sell them into the secondary market for much more then you paid including the fees.

BW: So is this based off a mispricing by the people selling the insurance?
MF: Yes, it was sort of a mispricing by the companies people selling the insurance. So that worked really well for a while, but then when the financial markets cratered in 2008 the secondary markets for these policies collapsed. So, the policies that I was not able to sell we are still holding and the investors are paying premiums on them.

BW: So you are now holding these policies as opposed to selling them off.
MF: That's right, because you really have no one to sell to at a reasonable price.

BW: To clarify, the original concept was to pay people without a lot of assets to hold life-insurance policies?
MF: What we were doing, is we were buying insurance from people shortly after they were issued.

BW: So the most profitable policies are from people in a lot worse health then the life insurance companies thought they were?
MF: Exactly right. What we would do is get independent life expectancies on all these people. We thought some insurance companies were making mistakes, and we were exploiting this.

BW: Are you still exploiting this flaw in the system?
MF: No. The flaw has been removed, and the law changed in most states to prevent us from doing what we were doing. And the secondary markets collapsed by so much, you really can't make money doing what we were doing.

BW: Do you have any moral objections to the fact that your company has to root for people to die to profit now that the secondary market has collapsed?
MF: There was never any plan to hold these and root for people to die. Unfortunately, it has evolved that way. These were all people who took out policies for the purpose of selling them to us and got paid very well to do it. They are not going to die any sooner or later based on the fact that my fund owns these policies. So, I guess, I think it is fine.

BW: Fair enough. So these people made a conscious choice to profit through this glitch in the market?
MF: That's right.

BW: Let's get back to your history as a bridge player.
MF: From 1983 to 2003 I played in maybe one regional a year and went to a national maybe once or twice in that time. During this period I was on a plane to give a talk in Chicago, and I was sitting across the aisle from a guy reading a bridge magazine, who turns out to be Seymon Deutsch. And he said "Are you on the way to the nationals also?" I didn't even know the nationals were going to be in Chicago and I was going to be there. That's how out of it I was.

BW: Wow. Did you read the Bridge World?
MF: Yes, I read the Bridge World, and I read the Bridge Bulletin also. Basically, I only had 3 or 4 weeks off a year and I had a wife that didn't play bridge so there was no time to go to the nationals. I really hardly ever played.

BW: Who were your early partners?
MF: I played with Alan Heubert in high school and in the intercollegiates, but he was not my partner on our team that finished second in the Grand Nationals. Our team started as 4 club players. After winning our district we were allowed to add another pair, and that was Ron Gerard and Art Keller. So I stayed friends with Ron Gerard and in the 1980s and early 90s I played with him. In fact I won my first regional playing with him and Larry Cohen was one of our teammates, who was also winning his first regional.

BW: That's pretty cool.
MF: So he was my partner in a semi-consistent way, a couple of times a year for many years, and then I moved to Massachusetts. I opened my own law practice, had a lot more free time and wanted to get back into the game. After moving I didn't really have a partner and in the mid 90s I started playing with Jay Stiefel.

BW: Did you find the game had changed much in your absence?
MF: People bid much more, especially with preemption. Hard to believe, but I was a conservative preempter at one time.

BW: Shocking.
MF: So I played with Jay Stiefel from 1995 until about 1998, when I moved back to New York. We went to the nationals but didn't do particularly well. We got to the round of 8 once (of one of the major knockouts). At the time I started playing with Jay at the age of 36 or 37 in 1995, I had won 7 regionals in my life.

BW: It is pretty amazing where you were then and where you are now. You were able to pick the game back up, and become an excellent player. Do you feel if you had not learned so young, and tried to learn more recently could you have become as good as you are now?
MF: No, it would have been impossible. In fact, I think no one has done it.

BW: So you are in the camp that if you are not very good as a youngster then you have no chance of becoming a great player?
MF: I can think of only one really top player, and I'm not saying I would put myself in that group, who did not learn in their teens, and that is Zia. If you look at the top 30 or 40 players in the country, I think every one of those players learned in their teens. I'm not saying it can't be done, but nobody has other than Zia.

BW: So you feel like it was ingrained in you from your youth, so you could come back to it, kind of like riding a bicycle?
MF: That's right. I mean improving as much as I did from 37 to 52 is unlikely, but not unprecedented.

BW: Tell us about the influence Chip Martel had on your comeback?
MF: I met Chip Martel in the intercollegiates in 77 and we became moderately friendly in the mid-80s. Still. I hardly went to the nationals so I didn't see him. When I started to go to the nationals again I became quite close to him and he taught me a lot.

BW: So how did your partnership with Michael Kamil come about?
MF: I knew Michael since we were kids and obviously, he was very talented early on. He is 2 years younger than me. We used to have this Sunday IMP game at the bridge club and I was always picked first. I remember the day when he got picked before me.

BW: How old were you then?
MF: I was 18, he was 16. So we were friendly on and off. At the nationals in Vancouver in 1999 we lost to his team in the Vanderbilt, but I ended up hanging out with Michael a fair bit after the match. 2 years before that in Albuquerque 1997 we beat them in the round of 32 of the Spingold where we got to the round of 8, which was actually Edgar Kaplan's last tournament.

BW: So how did you start playing with him?
MF: I found out that he had stopped playing with Mike Becker. I called him to play in the Philadelphia nationals in 2003. In the first pair event we came second. If we had taken one extra trick on almost any hand, we would have won.

BW: Wow.
MF: In fact Michael thought we had won anyway because in the middle of night Michael Rosenberg, who had won, found a score correction against himself, and went to find the director to correct the score. But it was a weird correction that didn't change anyone's score.

BW: At this time Michael was still an options trader?
MF: Right. Then we got fixed up by Michael Becker to play in the Vanderbilt with Richard Pavlicek and Lee Routenberg, and at the tournament we found Barnet Shenkin and Bob Jones. We entered the Vanderbilt and reached the finals, beating Steve and Bobby in the round of 8 Smile .

BW: In your partnership you're known to be very aggressive and Michael is very conservative. Do you think the styles complement each other well?
MF: Well we would go down a lot if we both bid like I did. I think it is fine. He wishes I would bid less, and I wish he would bid a bit more. We are trying to find a good compromise in the partnership. In fact I am trying to rein it in a bit more, and he's trying to bid a bit more. I think it is working pretty well.

BW: If you looked at a hand would you know what Michael would bid on it and he would know what you would bid?
MF: For sure, and I think that is one of the things about being an established partnership. We've been at a tournament when someone asked Michael a question and he would respond "You can ask Marty, but I know what he would do."

BW: So at this time you were not a sponsor yet?
MF: Not at all. This was in 2003. My only foray into being a bridge sponsor was hiring Eric Rodwell to play in the Cavendish for my 40th birthday, which we won.

BW: Sounds like money well spent. Smile What made you decide to do that?
MF: I thought it would be fun to play with a really good partner in some event against really good competition. I always want to be able to play against as strong players as possible. The problem was if I entered the Vanderbilt or Spingold, I would play one really good team and lose to them. But, if I entered the Cavendish I would get 2 and a half days against players who were really good, and I thought it would be fun to have a really good partner.

BW: So Rodwell would certainly be on everybody's short list of first choices. What influenced you to choose him?
MF: Actually, it was Chip's idea. He said he would be a good partner for me and thought we would like each other. So I called him to see if he was available, and he was happy to play. I think he was as surprised as I was that we won. I was extraordinarily nervous in the 5th session in particular. I had never really had a chance to do well in a major event so I was very nervous.

BW: How did you calm your nerves before playing the last session of the Cavendish?
MF: I kept saying to myself, "15 more boards, stay in the zone." Then, "12 more boards, stay in the zone you're doing fine. You really can win." I just kept telling myself you are going to play all right. All I wanted to do for the last 4 rounds was make some normal bid and be dummy. I felt a little embarrassed about that, but that's really what I wanted to do. We had gone through 4 and a half sessions and had a good chance to win and I did not want to screw it up.

BW: When the event was over, did you think you had won?
MF: I thought we probably had won, because I kept hearing that Garner and Weinstein, who had been leading, were not doing that well. I thought as long as nothing bad happened, we were probably going to win. In fact as soon as I left the playing area Chip asked me "How was your last round?" I said it was fine, and he said "Well, you won then, you are 200 ahead going into the last round." That was really really exciting.

BW: So what about before board 1 of the final session?
MF: I said to Eric "I need a pep talk." He said, "You are playing really well, just hang in there and keep doing what you are doing."

BW: Not exactly Vince Lombardi. Had you played in the Cavendish before then?
MF: No, never.

BW: Wow, so the first time you played it you won. So, I assume the first time you were a client was very profitable.
MF: Yes, highly profitable. Smile

Continued with Part 2 of the Marty Flesiher Interview

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