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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 be played.

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, computers.

"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 programs.

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 chess."

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.

Teaches basics

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 differently."

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."

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