Bridging the gap

Davis resident Chip Martel plays bridge, and he plays it well. In fact, he plays bridge so well that next month he’ll be flying to Bali, Indonesia to compete in the 2001 World Bridge Bermuda Bowl, winning that right in a national competition in June. It’s a tournament he’s won twice.

Martel’s only problem, if you can call it a problem, is that the rest of his six-member team lives in the Bay Area and Southern California, making it difficult to get together and practice, something crucial to success in this complex card game.

Yet the team has applied a high-tech solution to preparing to compete in this age-old game: the Internet. While they prefer live, face-to-face action, Martel, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis, and his wife, Jan, a retired tax attorney—both longtime bridge players—enjoy honing their skills online.

“You can play anytime you want. You can play at home. You can play with people who live far away. If you have a partnership with someone who lives in New York, you can practice with them, whereas if you had to get together, it would be much more difficult,” said Jan.

Anyone with a computer and the right software can use the Internet to play the game. The American Contract Bridge League—the main sponsor of bridge competitions in this country—even has a list of online sources listed on its Web site.

Playing online might even give the Martels an advantage over their pre-Internet predecessors. They can acquire detailed printouts of matches that were played, learning from successes and mistakes to prepare for upcoming matches.

And Chip Martel has certainly taken his game to the highest possible level. In addition to having won the Bermuda Bowl twice, he has won four other world championship matches.

Yet for all of the advantages of playing online, he said there are several disadvantages too. The couple agreed that the social aspect of the game is lost because players can’t see their opponents and talk and interact with them.

“Maybe for those who are younger and have more or less been brought up in the Internet age, that seems like a more natural thing,” he said. “But for me, actually being with people and seeing them is still different.”

Another disadvantage is the security risk. Bridge is played on an honor system, but with the advent of Internet matches, team members can contact with their partners through an instant messaging system, e-mail or simply on the phone to talk about the game—something they’re not supposed to do.

But when he flies to Bali to play, Martel will be competing the old-fashioned way: with actual cards.