Bridge Program Takes On the World

Build a better bridge program, and Warren Buffett and Bill Gates will beat a path to your door.

That's what happened to Fred Gitelman, a top-ranked bridge player from Toronto who is also a software developer. He put together a program called Bridge Master to challenge and educate players of the card game, along with a company called Bridge Base Inc.

Result: sales of $300,000 a year, a letter of endorsement from billionaire investor and bridge enthusiast Mr. Buffett, and a development contract from software giant Microsoft, run by Mr. Gates, another billionaire bridge player.

"Warren Buffett was an early customer, and he called for refills," says Mr. Gitelman, who explains that the program comes with 180 hands for $60; a disk with new problem hands costs $15. "When I sent him his package I also asked for an endorsement of our product and some business advice." Gitelman got both.

"He told us to link up with someone of integrity, business smarts, software knowledge, and bridge enthusiasm," says Gitelman. "He said we could do away with the bridge enthusiasm but not the integrity. I found that interesting."

Bridge is a card game divided into two parts: First comes the bidding, when the four players say how many "tricks" they will take; second, players try to make good on their bids, playing with a partner.

"Our program is not a game," Gitelman says, adding that earlier bridge programs were too easy. His hands are pre-set, not randomly picked by the computer. "Our aim is to educate. We don't allow you to make a mistake. You have to pick the best line of play every time," he says.

There are said to be 17 million bridge players in the United States and Canada. The game is more popular in Europe, and that is where Bridge Base Inc. has been making its biggest sales. One bridge afficionado translated the game into Dutch, and the company sold 4,000 copies in the Netherlands last year, compared with 3,500 English-language programs in the rest of the world. Sales of the bridge program were up 300 percent in 1996, helped by other endorsements, such as one from the bridge critic in The New York Times.

His connection with Buffett paid off in other ways as well: "He plays bridge with Bill Gates Sr., who mentioned it to his son," the Microsoft chief, says Gitelman. "Now I'm working for Microsoft on developing an on-line bridge program."

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