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Gitelman is 2005 Honorary Member

NABC Daily Bulletin Orlando Florida

“If you’re not careful, bridge could ruin your life.” That’s the warning that Ted Horning gave Fred Gitelman many years ago. Gitelman ignored that advice, and now he is the 2005 Honorary ACBL Member of the Year.

Gitelman is special. His bridge programs have made a major difference for hundreds of thousands of bridge players. He has been active in promoting Junior bridge. He is a talented writer. He has served on many important bridge committees. He has coached some of America’s international teams. And he’s a fine bridge player as well – he placed second in the 1995 Bermuda Bowl, for example. But this article isn’t about Gitelman’s’s accomplishments. It’s about Fred – the real Fred. Most bridge players have heard that Gitelman plays bridge with Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. How did that ever come about?

Surprisingly it started with Warren Buffett, the internationally famous financial guru. One day Gitelman got a phone call from someone who said, “I really like your software. What do you recommend?” Gitelman went into his usual sales pitch, and the man told Gitelman what he wanted. When he gave his address, he started, “My name is Warren Buffett.”

Gitelman decided to try to follow up on this and asked if Buffett would give him some business advice. He received a reply that said, “I think your software is fantastic, Please feel free to use my endorsement as you see fit.”

Buffett offered one major piece of advice: “You must find partners to work with. The most important thing to look for is integrity. There has to be trust.”

Buffett told his friends about Gitelman, and one of those friends was Bill Gates.

Three years later Buffett and Gates decided to take a train ride from Alaska to California, and the plan was to play a lot of bridge. Sharon Osberg was their third, but they needed a fourth So Gitelman got another historic phone call – this time from someone who said he was with the Bill Gates Estate. It was an invitation to join the trio on the train as a fourth. Buffett had suggested, “Why don’t we get Fred,” and Osberg said it was a good idea – Gitelman would fit right in.

So Gitelman flew to Bozeman MT – first class for the first time – and got on the train. “We played bridge for 12 hours a day for the remainder of the trip,” Gitelman said. The relationship blossomed. “We get together every once in a while and just play and play. I’m going to be playing with Bill at a Seattle Sectional in a couple of weeks. Bill likes duplicate very much – he loves competition. Warren prefers the social games.”

Now that he is so successful, Gitelman has a major bridge goal. “I want to have a positive impact on the game. I’m concerned about numbers. I’m afraid that we won’t have many players by the time I’m your age. I hope I can make a difference through the work I do.”

Gitelman’s interest in bridge goes back to when he was six years old. “I used to watch my mother and father play with friends. Then they gave up the game for a while and I got caught up in computers. I guess you might say I’m compulsive – I sat in front of a computer most of the time until I was 17. “In high school there were three fellows who liked to play bridge, and they needed a fourth. They knew I was into computers, so they thought I was the kind of person who’d be okay in bridge. I was instantly hooked. I gave up computers and did nothing but play bridge. I started playing in club games, sometimes skipping school to do so.” One of his teachers was Ray Jotcham, a fine bridge player in his own right. “He helped foster my interest. I’d study and read books, and then I’d talk to him so I could put everything in focus. “Ted Horning also was a very positive influence. He was a pro, but he started playing with me and didn’t charge. He liked me and thought I had promise.

“I think that living in Toronto helped my bridge career. There are lots of great players there, and they are willing to help young players come along. That’s why so many Toronto youngsters have done so well – players like Geoff Hampson and the Wolpert brothers, Darren and Gavin. We always have 15 or 20 young players who do well.” Gitelman came along that way as well. The Canadian Junior team of which he was a member earned a silver medal in the 1991 World Junior Championships.

“I dropped out of college after four years and concentrated completely on bridge. Then I met Sheri about three years later, and she convinced me that I should start my own business writing bridge software. The first five years were very stressful – we were on the verge of giving it up every time that bills were due. Then all of a sudden things started to get better.”

Gitelman believes there were two reasons for the turnabout. First, he was beginning to have success as a player, so his name began to have credibility. Second, millions of people were buying computers – computers were beginning to become a regular household item.

Now Bridge Base Online is making bridge players around the world happy – and it’s free! As many as 300,000 players per day log in, and at any given moment there are as many as 5000 people playing. Gitelman took a moment to pay tribute to Uday Ivatury, the third member of the software company that includes Fred and his wife Sheri. “I needed help, and Uday volunteered. He worked night and day for six months and never asked for a cent. Finally I made him an offer and he accepted. He’s the best computer programmer I’ve ever met.” Gitelman believes the online program is good for the game. “It’s high quality. I’ve had help from volunteers all over the world, and they constantly come up with ideas for improvement. Strangely enough, though – most of the company’s sales come from educational CDs. But I guess that makes sense since the online game is free.”