New deal for bridge fans
By: Ian Harvey
Originally Published in The Toronto Sun, May 14, 1997
Grand old game gets high-tech boost from Toronto Master
You might say Fred Gitelman and Sheri Winestock's future is in the cards.
He's a world-class bridge player who was a member of the Canadian team
which won the silver medal at the 1995 World Championships and a computer
programmer who has twinned his talents to design and produce a line of
bridge-based software products.
The Toronto couple now work from their mid-town home to market and upgrade
the line, in between flying around the world to major bridge tournaments
and putting the game on the Internet (www.bridgeplaza.com or inforamp.net/~fredg).
And while bridge isn't everyone's game, Gitelman figures there is a
potential market among the 20 million social bridge players in North America
in addition to the 150,000 "fanatical" tournament players they've
been marketing their products to so far.
Their story really isn't about bridge as much as it's about turning
talent to technological advantage. Something everyone can learn from.
While he first set out to design a computer program that would play
bridge at the level IBM's Big Blue plays chess, he quickly found there
was a niche for software to teach budding bridge players how the game should
That program, Bridge Master, has been recognized by fans and major league
players and translated into 8 languages.
It has even attracted the likes of billionaire investor-guru Warren
Buffett, a regular playing partner with Bill Gates Sr., who - you guessed
- passed it along to Junior, who just happens to run the biggest software
company in the world.
Junior liked it so much he hired Gitelman and Winestock to help redesign
a Microsoft subsidiary's online bridge site on the Internet.
It's a happy turn of events for Gitelman, 32, whose addiction to the
game started late in life when he played his first game at 18 years old.
So strong was the attraction it pulled him away from his other obsession,
"I was kind of a geeky kid," he laughs. "I was into computers
before there were computers, good at math and Rubic cubes."
Having played around with computers since age 12 (a Commodore PET) Gitelman
naturally drifted into computer science at the University of Toronto but
found bridge games were cutting into his study time.
So he quit when a Toronto software company offered him a job writing
Along the way he found time to establish himself as one of the youngest
world-class bridge players.
Still, he still doodled with the idea of developing a bridge game on
the computer, but while many others had tried, they had all failed.
"There are too many variables," he said, while packing to
go to Las Vegas as an invitee to play with partner George Mittelman in
the US$1-million Cavendish Invitational Tournament. "It's not like
In the meantime Gitelman hasn't given up on developing an "intelligent"
bridge game and has hooked up with Matt Ginsberg in Oregon, one of the
foremost developers in the world of artificial intelligence. And yes, Ginsberg
is also a bridge player.
But their main thrust is the desktop educational package. Six years
ago Winestock and Gitelman started working on Bridge Master, developing
it first as a DOS program and more lately for Windows.
Essentially it teaches the basics of the game and walks the student
through a series of hands and the appropriate way to play the cards. It
comes with 180 "hands" and additional hands can be purchased.
"Fred develops the software and I work with it trying to get it
to fail," said Winestock, a psychology PhD, as their dog Magic hankers
for attention in their home office.
The biggest surprise, they said, was discovering how things work in
the harsh world of retail.
"We kind of thought we were doing the distributors a favor by letting
them carry the product," grins Gitelman sheepishly. "Now we understand
So far they've sold 10,000 copies of the program, about half of those
in Holland where a contact has translated the software into Dutch. A Chinese
version is also in the works.
"Bridge is huge in Holland," said Gitelman. "If you stopped
the average Dutchman on the street chances are they'd be a bridge player."
Now Gitelman and Winestock also want to make the game more accessible
to the mainstream public and want to find shelf space for the game at major
retail stores like Zellers or Wal-Mart.
"We know we can't do it all ourselves," he sighs. "We
know we're going to have to hire a marketing person."