Online Bridge Architect
This month’s ACBL bulletin features BBO’s own Uday Ivatury, who received the 2021 Honorary Member of the Year award for his extraordinary work to save bridge clubs stranded because of the pandemic that paralyzed the entire world in 2020.
Article by Chip Dombrowski, originally published in the ACBL Bulletin. Reproduced with ACBL’s permission
Usually, by the time someone has made the kind of contributions to the bridge world that lead to being named ACBL Honorary Member of the Year, they’ve achieved a level of prominence. Many are known for teaching – Larry Cohen (2011), Audrey Grant (2013), Eddie Kantar (2015), Patty Tucker (2016). Bridge organization is less visible work, but still, some like Jan Martel (2018) and Becky Rogers (2020) are well known for it. For 2010 Honorary Members Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, the prominence they bring to the game was precisely the point.
It’s hard to stay below the radar while making contributions on par with the people on this prestigious list. Uday Ivatury tried his best to stay out of the spotlight during the 19 years he built Bridge Base Online into what it is today, but the spotlight finally found him: He is the 2021 Honorary Member of the Year.
BBO was admitted into the Hall of Fame in 2018, and co-founder Fred Gitelman was named Honorary Member in 2005. But online bridge took on a new significance in 2020 as bridge players around the world suddenly had no other place to play and thousands of clubs had no source of income to stay in business.
It was clear there needed to be some way for clubs to hold their regular games online, but no existing online bridge platform was designed for that, and no one knew how long it would take to create one. The answer, it turned out: A little less than two weeks. Ivatury worked virtually nonstop building the infrastructure to make it happen.
“I would talk to him at 11 p.m. and the next morning at 5 a.m.,” said Greg Coles, ACBL director of operations. “He was working around the clock to help. He was a key driver in making this project happen in a matter of days.”
Jay Whipple, who worked on the project with Ivatury, describes their collaboration during that time as virtually 24/7. “He alone was worth an IT department of 20,” Whipple says. “We accomplished in about two weeks what would have taken six months with ‘normal’ IT development and communication protocols.”
But Ivatury has a hard time accepting the honor. “I don’t feel it’s deserved,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve done anything.” To him, putting in that kind of effort is just normal.
The virtual club program launched on March 25, just 13 days after the cancellation of the Columbus NABC. In the eight months from April through November, it put more than $15 million into the coffers of nearly 600 participating host clubs, which represent nearly 2000 clubs that have pooled with a host. Many of those clubs went from the brink of collapse to doing better than they were before.
“Without Uday’s expertise and assistance there’s no way it could have happened in anywhere close to that time,” Coles said.
Whipple explains how it happened: “No time was off limits and no one wanted to be the ‘critical path’ – the bottleneck. It was a race to get your piece done so no one was waiting on you. There were plenty of glitches and nothing was perfect, but we stood up the application and fixed problems immediately. We lived by the motto that the sun may set on a problem, but it was not going to rise without a solution in place.
Ivatury has been solving problems in online bridge for a long time. He came to the U.S. from India in 1978 to finish college at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. He became interested in computers when they were barely a thing and set off on a career in programming. Also while in school he became obsessed with bridge, joining the ACBL in 1980. He met both his wife, Laura Tolkow, and a future business partner at the bridge club, and all but maybe two of his friends are bridge players. After working at IBM and other companies and then a few startups, he considered himself basically retired by the time BBO came along.
Gitelman and wife Sheri Winestock launched BBO in spring 2001. “But it didn’t work properly because the programmer (me) didn’t really know what he was doing,” Gitelman said. He approached Ivatury, whom he had known for years to be a skilled programmer, at the Fall 2001 NABC in Las Vegas and asked for help. The pitch: the site would be both high quality and free.
Ivatury volunteered to help get the software working and insisted on not getting paid, Gitelman said. “Even then it was clear that Uday was deeply concerned about ‘the good of bridge’ and believed that online bridge would
play a critical role in the future of the game.”
Or, as Ivatury explains it, “It sounded interesting and I had nothing better to do with my time.”
Over the next several months, as Ivatury got things working, Gitelman and Winestock realized they didn’t want to lose him and offered to make him an equal partner in the company. At the time they still had no plans or prospects of ever making money, but Ivatury agreed.
But after a few more years, BBO did become a real business – and that’s when Gitelman found out he really needed help. Ivatury took on the role of CEO in 2007. “Uday has a well-deserved reputation of being the brains behind much of the technology that powers BBO, but he did so much more,” Gitelman said. “Uday managed all of our major business relationships, dealt with things like contracts, insurance, taxes, hiring, firing, salaries and overall company planning. I would be capable of competently executing approximately zero of those things myself. But we are just getting started. Uday was the creative force behind some of BBO’s best ideas.”
Gitelman cites instant tournaments, robot tournaments and arcade-style games such as Just Play Bridge as examples of those ideas.
Winestock also attests to Ivatury’s creative brilliance. “The thing that makes Uday special to me is his unique way of thinking about things,” she said. “Usually over a late night drink at the nationals, he will tell me some crazy idea. He calmly, lengthily and mostly logically explains why it makes sense. He almost convinces me until I realize it is still ‘just crazy.’”
Ivatury has also served on various ACBL committees as a technical expert and done consulting work in a volunteer capacity for ACBL staff, Board members and tournament organizers, Gitelman said.
“Despite not being a people person, Uday developed personal relationships with members of our staff, TDs, volunteers, bridge politicians and thousands of bridge players from every corner of the world,” Gitelman said. “He volunteered a great many hours and keystrokes over the years supporting the ACBL in various initiatives. Even though Uday seemed to spend most of his waking hours working, I can’t imagine how he got all of this done!”
Ivatury admits to being a workaholic, not sleeping much and being at his desk all hours. “That’s what I miss the most,” he said. “When your job becomes something you’d rather do than not work, that’s the ideal.”
He remained at the helm of BBO until late 2018 when the business was sold to 52 Entertainment. He’s left a few times since then, only to come back as a consultant to help resolve one project or another.
When the pandemic hit, Ivatury got perhaps the greatest test of his career in the virtual club project. But the work didn’t end in March. In May the ACBL ran its first special event online, Silver Linings Week, which offered triple silver points. When the results of the Monday games were reported, it was discovered that a flaw in BBO’s software was awarding too many masterpoints in limited games, Coles said. The discrepancy had been there all along, but it wasn’t noticed until it was tripled.
To put the problem in perspective, Coles looks back on when he started working at Headquarters as the developer of Live For Clubs. “I was talking to various scoring programs. They all said we don’t want to calculate masterpoints, it’s too complicated. The ACBL masterpoint formula is notoriously complex. I realized I could gage how serious someone was by whether they knew enough to say they didn’t want to calculate masterpoints.”
But Ivatury wasn’t afraid, and BBO had been calculating masterpoints for years. On Tuesday of Silver Linings Week, Coles explained the problem with the miscalculation to Ivatury, going into the details of the formula so he could learn how to apply it correctly. A couple hours later the problem was fixed.
“I think the biggest wow is his work ethic,” Coles said.
Ivatury continues to shirk recognition and downplay his accomplishments. “It’s more like living in a virtual world than working,” he said.
Winestock disagrees. “The bridge world owes a great debt to Uday. This is a well-deserved award.”
Whipple sums it up: “Uday is one of a kind. While he can be terse and annoyingly stands his ground, he is almost always right. You could never ask for a more loyal, dedicated and competent partner on a project. It was an honor to have been able to work so closely with this gifted talent on such an important project.”