By: Robert Burg
Special to The Toronto Star, Originally Published December
A Toronto bridge champion has created software that's
winning praise from all the experts.
Which hobby do legendary investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft czar
Bill Gates have in common? Fred Gitelman knows.
Gitelman is an international bridge champion from Toronto who six years
ago started bringing his expertise into the world of educational computer
software. His company, Bridge Base Inc., has since sold thousands of copies
of diskettes to bridge fans, including Buffett and Gates.
Buffet was the first of the two billionaires he discovered had used
"I got a call from Buffett about two years ago, and he said that
someone gave him a copy of our software and he said he liked it,"
recalled Gitelman of his encounter.
"he said he wanted to order some more. So I included a letter with
the software saying that if you have any business advice that could be
helpful, please let me know, and also, if you could give us a letter of
An endorsement for his Bridge Master software soon followed: "Bridge
Master is not only the best learning tool I ever encountered," wrote
Buffett in a letter to Gitelman. "But it is also great fun."
The advice was more general: "You should try to link up with someone
of integrity, business smarts, software knowledge and bridge enthusiasm."
Buffet added: "If I had to sacrifice one of these qualities I would
drop bridge enthusiasm. The last one I would drop is integrity."
While Gitelman is still looking to "link up" with that person
of integrity to expand his business, he and Sheri Winestock, a founding
partner as well as his girlfriend, are doing quite nicely.
Sales this year for Bridge Base were about $300,000 - an increase of
300 per cent from the previous year. With a popular Web site on the Internet
recently launched as a vehicle for marketing the software, and a new version
of the software for Windows launched in September, revenues for next year
look even more promising.
The connection with Gates also might prove fruitful. That started when
Gates' father, also a bridge fan, passed the Bridge Master software he
owned to his son. Gitelman figures Gates must have liked what he saw since
Microsoft has recently signed him on as a consultant to develop an on-line
bridge game for the Microsoft Network.
"What we would like to do is turn it into the most popular (on-line)
bridge game," said Gitelman, who added that he hoped Microsoft and
Gates' interest in bridge will increase the game's popularity.
Another factor in Gitelman and Winestock's success has been the bridge
press who have praised their work. In November, for example, Alan Truscott,
bridge columnist for the New York Times wrote that Gitelman's software
"We have been getting 20 phone calls a day since the column,"
said Gitelman, as the phone rang at their small home office in the Eglinton
Ave.-Yonge St. area. The software sells for $59.95 with refill sets costing
an additional $14.95.
The 31-year old champion bridge player didn't plan a career as a software
developer dedicated to his hobby. In retrospect, it makes sense.
At age 21, he was missing most of his classes at University of Toronto,
where he was studying computer science, because of his love for the game.
"I would be going to a tournament or a bridge club," said
Gitelman, who started playing bridge at 17. "Or I would just read
bridge books or magazines. Pretty much everything has been bridge since
Not surprisingly, he dropped out of school when the vice-president of
Netron, a computer software company, offered him a job as a programmer.
It helped that the vice-president also is a bridge player who knew Gitelman
from local tournaments.
Three years later Gitelman met Winestock at a bridge club. Soon after
dating, Winestock persuaded Gitelman to start Bridge Base and work full
time at developing software for the game.
"At the time, there was other software," said Winestock, "but
the developers didn't play bridge well, and it wasn't very good. Fred was
clearly the best at both bridge and programming so it was the right thing
Bridge is a card game for four people played in two partnerships. In
one aspect of the game one member of the team will become the "dummy"
and lay down his or her cards on the table, while the partner becomes the
"declarer" and take on both hands. In Bridge Master, Gitelman
lets the bridge student be the declarer who plays against the computer-simulated
competition. Colorful graphics and text to point out strategies are part
of the package.
What makes the software challenging, said Doug Baxter, an expert player
from Toronto, is that Gitelman only allows the student to execute the best
possible line of play against the computer, or else face defeat.
"I was really impressed," said Baxter. "I thought it
would be good but it is even better than I expected. Fred is a fabulous
player. He comes across scenarios that maybe are not known to others and
he tailors the difficulty to different groups of players - from beginners
Bridge Master is also the only software sold at the Kate Buckman Bridge
Studio, a 900-member bridge club on Mount Pleasant Rd.
"The program is well laid out graphically," said Alex Kornel,
vice-president of the club. "It is as close as you will get to real
life card playing."
There are about 17 million bridge players in North America, said Gitelman,
but only a tiny fraction of that number play the game seriously and compete
in clubs and tournaments. The atmosphere is in stark contrast to some countries
in Europe where the game is played and studied passionately.
Bridge Base benefited from that popularity this year when a bridge player
in Holland translated the text of the software into Dutch and then distributed
it to the local market. Bridge Master sold 4,000 copies in Dutch, more
than half of all the company's software sold this year.
"Right now bridge in North America is not doing so well,"
said Gitelman, comparing it to Europe. "One of the things I would
really like to accomplish is to make bridge a more popular game here. Bridge
is challenging. It is fun. It is satisfying when you play well, and you
can always learn more and you can always play better."