Canada’s bridge champion is trying to save the game from falling off a demographic cliff
If you’re serious about bridge, then you know Fred Gitelman. His Bridge Base Online is the largest bridge website in the world, and, this October, the Toronto-born player and his U.S. team won the World Bridge Championship. Gitelman, who majored in cognitive science and artificial intelligence at U of T for three years, talks to Lisa Bryn Rundle.
When did you first discover bridge?
When I was a teenager. It’s a beautiful game. Every time you deal the cards, there’s a completely new problem to solve. People have said golf is like that: every time you play, there are shots you haven’t faced before and that makes the game more interesting.
How did you end up making bridge your profession?
My wife deserves credit for that. She convinced me that starting a software company and developing bridge software might actually work. Most people thought that what we were doing was really stupid. Nobody even knew the Internet existed at that time. PCs were not household things.
Some articles use the word sport, some use the word game – which is it for you?
It’s not an important distinction for me. There was a movement to get bridge into the Olympic Games. That’s when they started calling it a sport. I thought it was ridiculous. I played on the Canadian team when it was a demonstration sport in Salt Lake City and we won the gold medal, so that was kind of exciting.
Does bridge need rebranding?
Absolutely. Bridge has this image of being a game that one’s grandmother plays. Unless something changes, in 20 years the game is going to fall off a demographic cliff. Teaching people to play through the Internet is more appealing for young people: they can download some software and play against other computer players. I’d really like to see the software that we write help make the game more popular among a younger generation.
Poker seems to have a high profile right now. Is there a sense of competition there?
I don’t think so. But bridge players have been impressed by what poker has achieved. And there has been some influx of poker players who want to try something more challenging.
I don’t mean to belittle poker in any way. But technically bridge is harder. Psychologically, there’s more to poker.
What was the World Bridge Championship like for you?
It was a lifelong dream come true, so very exciting. But it was also extremely intense. You play eight hours a day, for two weeks. You’re just sitting there thinking and thinking and thinking.
Does one key moment stand out for you?
My partner and I made a grand slam very close to the end. Our opponents were universally considered to be the best ever. It’s like playing against Michael Jordan and getting a slam dunk with two seconds left.
Is it true you have coached Bill Gates in bridge?
That’s not the term I would use. I’ve become friends with Bill Gates; we play sometimes, and he’ll ask me for advice.
So is he any good?
I would say if he’d spent anywhere near as much time as I have on bridge, he would be an A1 player. But he has a very busy life.