Fred Gitelman is a top North American player, having won a number of North American Championships, the Gold Medal in the 2002 IOC Grand Prix, and placing second in the 1995 Bermuda Bowl. Additionally, he is well-known for the educational software he produces through his company Bridge Base Inc. His most recent project is Bridge Base Online (BBO), which he began in 2001 for online bridge play.
Jeff Tang: Why did you decide to create BBO last year?
Fred Gitelman: Actually it was sort of an accident - I will explain... My company makes money by selling educational CD-ROMs for bridge. These CDs consist of a viewer program and a set of data files that represent "bridge content." It occurred to me that one day we will end up selling just the data files for download over the Internet (i.e. instead of CDs). This would have several advantages for both me and our customers, but I had to learn how to write a program that would send messages over the Internet to make this possible. So I did some research and found out it was not that hard.
The first thing I did was create what is now the "Bridge Library" on BBO. Once I realized how easy it was to write client-server applications, a whole new world opened up for me. I already had a "bridge interface," so I started adding features - online bridge, chat rooms, VuGraph theatre, etc. That is how BBO was born. It took only about 2 months to get all the basic functionality in place, and ever since then I have been improving it, and plan to continue to do so. Eventually we will start to sell content through this site, but probably not for at least a few months. I am hoping that I will be able to keep basic access to BBO free "forever."
JT: Various online games like OKbridge, Yahoo!, e-bridge, Swan, MSN's Gaming Zone all attract different types of players: players willing to pay $$, Goren players who aren't... Are you trying to cater to a particular type of player base?
FG: No - I am hoping that BBO will ultimately become the best possible place to play for all bridge players.
JT: I noticed you finished 8th in the Blue Ribbon Pairs (congrats), but everyone seems to be playing IMP pairs on BBO. =) Any reason for that?
FG: I am not sure why. I am one of the few "top players" who seems to really like matchpoints. I like IMPs too of course, but MPs is a much better test of skill in my view :)
JT: Our friend Eugene Hung shares that opinion. Thanks for letting me be "East" in the current Deal of the Week where he is declarer. I'm always happy to oblige.
FG: I didn't realize you were East... was a very nice deal.
JT: That was probably the best hand we've played online. Well, congratulations on also winning the gold medal at the IOC Grand Prix in February. What are your thoughts on bridge's validity as an Olympic sport?
FG: I never really bought the idea that bridge should be in the Olympics. Just never felt right to me, and I was always quite sure it would never happen. The general public seemed to find the idea ridiculous, and the IOC is very sensitive right now to looking stupid. Not sure why exactly, but I always thought Olympic events should have some physical component. Bridge is a wonderful game, but the Olympics are not the right place for it (unless the fundamental nature of the Olympics were to change). I think bridge organizations would be smart to forget about the whole thing and concentrate their efforts elsewhere.
JT: So assuming you don't get to play in an Olympics, what are your current career goals as a player?
FG: I would like to win a World Championship one day. That is one of the main reasons I moved to the USA earlier this year (from Canada). Other than that I hope I continue to enjoy playing bridge and to find it as challenging as I always have. I am quite sure that goal will be achieved. Another tournament I would really like to win is the Cavendish. This is my favorite event and I have come close to winning a few times.
JT: Having moved from Canada, is there anything you think should change to make American bridge more popular? Since everyone likes to complain about this and that with the ACBL.
FG: Very difficult question. Something is not quite right and I am very concerned about the future of our game. I am not sure the ACBL deserves all of the blame for this. Seems like nowadays there are a lot of options that people have for entertainment, and in general I don't think people have the attention spans (or spare time) that they once did. This makes it hard for people to get really into bridge. Still, bridge has an image problem and it will take some good marketing to change that. It seems the general population perceives bridge as a very difficult game that mostly old people enjoy. I am hoping that my efforts with respect to bridge software and online services will help get younger people interested.
I also think that the interest that Bill Gates has in bridge might really make a difference. I think the ACBL has made some clear mistakes over the years, but some of these will be very hard to correct. I do think the current management of the ACBL is trying very hard.
JT: Gates was on 60 Minutes playing on Microsoft's XBox though. =) I think the value proposition of an XBox to kids (vs. bridge) is no comparison to them.
FG: I agree that 90% of kids these days would rather play action games than learn bridge. But for the other 10% I think bridge could have a lot of appeal if it was presented to them properly. Not all kids are mindless twits!
JT: For those that do play, and for beginners in general... What do you think are the most important educational principles (counting, bidding, etc.)?
"I would like to win a World Championship one day. That is one of the main reasons I moved to the USA."
FG: I think learning about trick taking is by far the most important skill, and I also think that this is the best way to teach new players to play. Traditionally bidding has been emphasized in North America, but I think this is a big mistake, especially for complete beginners. They are told things like "you need x points to bid that" or "you need y spades for that" and it all seems completely arbitrary to them. It makes the game seem complicated and mysterious, but if you teach them the basic mechanics of card play, and just get them to start playing some hands, it all makes sense and it is fun. Bidding can come later. And once they understand things like "lots of trumps are good to have," then the bidding makes a lot more sense. So that is the approach we take in our software.
JT: I have to bring up my idea of lessons on negative inferences... I mentioned it to Mike Lawrence once but he said there's not enough money to be made in writing bridge books anymore.
FG: We have now created 6 software products with Mike, and they have all been good money makers. The retail price of software is higher than that of books (but this will likely change in time), and the production costs are lower, so there is more money per unit for someone like Mike. I agree that negative inferences are very important and also that this is a subject that has not had that much attention in bridge literature.
JT: What are your plans for future software?
FG: The BBO project is the main focus of my work right now. In the not too distant future I hope to add functionality for online tournaments, as well as a facility for buying content directly through our site. I suspect we will also do things like add a voice channel and maybe even video as more and more people get broadband. I am also working on a sequel to the Learn to Play Bridge program that I wrote for the ACBL, and I am working on translating some of our existing programs into several languages. I would like to make a Bridge Master for defense one day, but not sure when I will get a chance. Only so many hours in each day...
ACBL has also just asked us to start broadcasting their major events.
JT: Oh really? e-bridge can't do it?
FG: Apparently a lot of people think our software and service is better. We broadcast the Reisinger from Phoenix, a last minute thing we were not planning. But my team got knocked out, so I decided to do it. Feedback was very positive and apparently a lot of people e-mailed the ACBL about this. So just the other day ACBL asked me to broadcast the Vanderbilt and I am hoping this will become a regular thing.
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