Omar Sharif (1932-2015)
Actor, international playboy and avid bridge promoter Omar Sharif, born Michel Dimitri Chalhoub, died at a Cairo hospital on July 10, 2015. The cause of death was a heart attack, he was 83.
While Sharif is best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in Lawrence of Arabia and his performance in Doctor Zhivago, his true love was bridge. “Acting is my business,” he once said, “bridge is my passion.”
The Egyptian-born Sharif represented the United Arab Republic bridge squad in the 1964 World Team Olympiad, and was the playing captain of the Egyptian team in the 1968 World Team Olympiad.
Once ranked among the 50 best players in the world, he formed the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus to perform exhibition matches before such spectators as the Shah of Iran. Asked once why he spent so much time at bridge when he could have been making movies, he answered, “The real question is why I spend so much time making movies when I could be playing bridge.”
Sharif co-wrote a syndicated newspaper bridge column for the Chicago Tribune for several years. He was also both author and co-author of several books on bridge and licensed his name to a bridge video game; initially released in 1992, Omar Sharif on Bridge which is still sold in Windows and mobile platform versions.
He organized the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus in 1967 to showcase bridge. The Circus was a travelling tour of bridge players that promoted the game via exhibition matches. The team included Leon Yallouze, an Egyptian bridge pro, and Claude Delmouly, a French expert, as well as Benito Garozzo, Pietro Forquet and Giorgio Belladonna of the Italian Blue Team.
In 1970, Sharif and the circus went to London’s famous Piccadilly Hotel for an 80-rubber match against British experts Jeremy Flint and Jonathan Cansino. The stakes were £1 per point - huge stakes even by today’s standards (about $1.55 per point). The purpose of the event was to present bridge as a rich, exciting spectacle and to break through into television to bring the game within the reach of millions. The Circus ultimately won the match by 5,470 points, but Sharif still incurred a net loss after paying all related expenses.
The Circus, under the management of Mike Ledeen, caravanned through Canada and the U.S. in 1970-71. Sharif’s team joined with the Dallas Aces for a seven-city tour - Chicago, Winnipeg, Los Angeles, St. Paul-Minneapolis, Dallas, Detroit and Philadelphia. In each city, a team of local experts participated in the exhibition.
In 1975, sponsored by the Lancia division of Fiat, Sharif and members of the Italian Blue Team faced off in four challenge matches against American teams. Sharif’s team won in Chicago, but was defeated in New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
The Omar Sharif World Individual held in 1990 offered the largest total purse ($200,000) in the history of bridge.
Sharif authored “Ma Vie au Bridge,” co-authored a syndicated bridge column for decades, first with Charles Goren and later, Tannah Hirsch. He was also the hand analyst for the Epson worldwide bridge contests.
Sharif was a regular in casinos in France and a huge gambler and he once lost a house in a game of bridge. The heavenly £4.5 million mansion which, according to legend, he lost in a high-stakes game of bridge just days after he bought it in the decedent heyday of the 1970s.
Nestled in a 7,000 metre sq. complex built out of a volcanic quarry on the Spanish island of Lanzarote, the mansion, named Casa Omar Sharif because of its apparent connection to the Hollywood star, offers sweeping views, a private pool, lavish furnishings and private tunnels through the unique surrounding landscape.
Sharif, then one of the world's most desirable actors, is said to have fallen in love with the property while he was on the island filming The Mysterious Island in 1973 and bought it on the spot.
But, it is said the star of Doctor Zhivago only owned the house for a few days before he lost it in a game of bridge to an Englishman called Sam Benady, the property developer responsible for the mansion's construction.
Mr Sharif, then 82, had a worldwide reputation as an excellent bridge player but did not realise that Mr Benady was himself the European bridge champion.
The interior of the house features exposed wooden beams and lava formed rock, which is in contrast to the whitewashed walls. Today, holidaymakers are invited to stay in the house at a cost of £4400 a night.
In later years, his waning health and cash flow forced him to relinquish certain pleasures. He stopped living in the luxury hotels of Europe. He also gave up bridge, gambling, breeding racehorses and squiring beautiful women.
"It's very bad to underperform, as it were, like in bridge," he told the Guardian in 2004. "The reason I quit bridge is because I wasn't as good as I used to be. And now it's the same thing with girls, so why the aggravation?"