Glance at him and you might think he stepped off stage as the lead singer of a rock band.
Long brown hair, two-day beard stubble and a big smile.
Justin Lall is definitely a star, but not for hitting the right notes in concert. He's one of the top bridge players in the country, a savvy professional who's in Omaha for a tournament pitting 12 top Americans against 12 of Europe's best.
The 25-year-old Lall lives in Las Vegas, earns six figures competing nationally and is the youngest player in the Buffett Cup, named in honor of bridge lover Warren Buffett.
Omaha is known for drawing top talent for such events as the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, the College World Series and the coming U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Organizers say that in the world of bridge, the Buffett Cup is at the top of the deck, showcasing some of the best talent in the game. They liken it to professional golf's Ryder Cup, in which top American and European teams face off.
“They are the superstars of bridge,'' said Cookie Hoberman of Omaha, chairwoman of the tournament.
This is the first time Omaha has hosted the Buffett Cup, which has been played in such places as Ireland and Wales.
Bridge lovers across the world are following each hand of the tournament online from places like Italy, France and the Netherlands. For Thursday's final round, fans can come to the Hilton Omaha and hear live commentary by bridge columnist George Jacobs.
Tournament organizers say encouraging people to try bridge is a priority of the four-day competition that started Monday. Part of the sponsorship funds are going to Bridge in Schools, an effort that helps local kids learn the game. Other local nonprofit groups also benefit.
Organizers also want folks to know that bridge players come in all ages.
Lall, who is a fan of the band Red Hot Chili Peppers and loves hitting nightclubs in Vegas, gives that point a boost. Turns out, he's also a pretty good poker player who competes in tournaments.
But he devotes far more time to bridge, which he considers significantly more challenging.
“Bridge is to poker,” he said, “as chess is to checkers.”
Top professional bridge players such as Lall can earn a nice living, said Donna Compton, a captain of the U.S. team. She estimated that about 20 players in the United States make between $100,000 and $500,000 each year.
Lall said he earned $200,000 playing bridge last year. He crisscrosses the country for regional and national tournaments that keep him on the road for a nearly six months a year, hitting cities that sound like concert tour stops: Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco.
Lall started playing at age 10, learning from his parents. He already knew how to play hearts and spades, and quickly found that bridge was way more complicated. He took a beatdown during his first few games.
“I was terrible,'' he said.
He resolved to improve and got the book “Five Weeks to Winning Bridge.” He devoured the book in a day, and his bridge talent began taking off.
At age 12, he won three regional tournaments against top players. By age 15, he was playing occasionally with the legendary Bob Hamman, his partner in the Omaha tournament. This year Lall became the youngest Grand Life Master ever, the highest rank in the American Contract Bridge League.
“Bridge is my passion,'' he said.
Monday in a second-floor ballroom of the Hilton, he wore jeans and Birkenstock sandals as he held his cards close. He sat across from Hamman as they played a team consisting of one player from England and one from Ireland.
In another corner, the American team of Jill Levin and Jenny Wolpert played a team from Bulgaria, wearing long-sleeve black dress shirts with the circular stars of the European Union flag on the left front.
American players wore white short-sleeve dress shirts with their names on the right front in cursive. Above the pocket on the left: “Team USA Buffett Cup.”
Players sat at folding card tables with green felt tops.
The room was quiet enough that the sound of a volunteer unzipping a laptop case stood out.
Unlike players in other tournaments, competitors in the Buffett Cup don't get paid. Players are attracted by the prestige of representing the United States, and earning bragging rights against the other team, Compton said. The Buffett Cup started in 2006 and is held every two years.
The Americans have won two out of the three tournaments. Lall said that while he respects the European talent, he likes the chances of team USA. The poker player and big NFL fan knows that confidence counts.
“To beat the best,'' he said, “you've got to think you're the best.”
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