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High-tech finesse
By: Robert Burg

Special to The Toronto Star, Originally Published December 22, 1996

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 his software.

"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 endorsement."

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 is outstanding.

"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 I started."

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 to do."

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 to advanced."

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."

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