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Software Review: Micro•Bridge Companion

© 1993 Richard S. Sternberg

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

While wondering for the first time in Micro Center, just to see why everyone was making such a fuss, I found out. I left the store having, quite accidentally, bought Micro*Bridge Companion by Great Game Products, Inc. of Bethesda, Maryland. Micro*Bridge Companion, which was well-reviewed under the name Bridge Baron V by Stephen Bobker, is a pleasure to play for both experienced and novice bridge players.

Micro*Bridge Companion has four modes of play. You can use the core bridge player mode, Bridge Baron. You can play a one to sixteen board duplicate bridge match. You can try your skills at one of the 24 challenging problem hands selected by Alfred Sheinwold from The Bridge World, a popular magazine for bridge fanatics. Finally, you can create your own bridge library of interesting hands and use the computer as a fancy set of bridge boards.

In the Bridge Baron mode, the application allows you to substitute the computer for zero to four players around the bridge table. You may choose to practice slam hands, game hands, partials, or take a random deal; there are 2,147,483,647 available hands, and you can create a library of your own favorite hands from bridge columns or actual play if over two billion hands isn't enough. You can also ask the Bridge Baron to give you the better hands, so you can practice bidding and declarer play, or you can practice defensive bidding, leading, and play by asking the computer to favor the other team or any other position. You can tell the Bridge Baron you want to play rubber bridge, in which case it will try to complete games and rubbers, properly bidding the second leg of partials and properly scoring honors, or you can have the Bridge Baron play duplicate bridge, where it will try to make the best of each hand, and will allow you to compare your performance on the hand, using International Match Points, with its best work. You can preserve all of your preferences in an options file, or, if you agree, the Baron will save all changes you make in its options for your next contest.

Once the hand is over, the Bridge Baron understands a bridge fanatic's penchant for replaying the same hand eternally. You can replay the hand as it was dealt, to try a different bid or play; you can have the computer replay the hand, which it does automatically if you selected duplicate bridge; or you can rotate the hands around the table and play the hand over again. You can repeat this as few or as many times as you wish until you are satisfied that you understand the hand and its optimal play. The only problem I detected in this wonderful replay feature is that the replayed hands in rubber bridge mode are added to your rubber score each time they are played.

At the novice and intermediate levels, the Bridge Baron is a promising bridge teacher. At any time, whether bidding or playing, the Baron will offer its suggestion of the best next play or bid by asking for a Baron Hint (CMD-H). During the bidding process, the Baron will give you its evaluation of your hand using four different criteria, which it explains well, and will give you an evaluation of all of the hands based on the bids made thus far. After all that, if you get it wrong, or if you just want to try another possibility in play or bidding, the Baron has an extensive undo command, which, though executed by typing (CMD-B), instead of the Mac's standard (CMD-Z), allows you to take back bids or play all the way to the start of that bidding or play sequence. Best of all, the Baron includes an on-line flowchart of exactly how it decides what to bid and play, so you can learn exactly how a silicon expert makes bridge decisions.

The Baron plays Standard American (the conventions created and taught by Charles Goren), but it uses Blackwood, Stayman, Gerber, and Unusual 2NT. I was significantly impressed that it is loaded with, relatively speaking, so many conventions, including weak 2-bids, negative doubles, weak jump overcalls, and forcing 1NT responses. I like its 'play,' and I was downright shocked when it correctly bid to game over what I thought was an inspired psychic. I'd love to see more convention options, though. The application could actually be used to test the effectiveness of different conventions if it had more conventions to select. When I was a tournament player, we used a much more developed convention card for both bidding and play; I find it less enjoyable to bid Standard American, particularly since unmodified Standard American stinks. As nominees for first conventions to incorporate, I would offer the slam conventions, Roman Progressive and Cue Bidding, and the play conventions of high-medium-low card signals. (The Baron appears to understand simple odd-even/high-low signals.)

The program runs in color, and runs fine on an Apple 12" monitor, as well as the larger varieties, but the cards are equally readable in black and white. In my view, the writer ought to "pretty it up," since most card games on the Mac use color better. Simple things like using colored backgrounds on dialogue boxes would add to the appearance of the product, but, if the writer did that, some avid players, who presumably are used to barren regional competition rooms, might like the application less. I have run the application on System 7.0.1* on an LC, a PowerBook 100, a Plus, and an SE; it ran perfectly on all. I presume it runs under System 6, because the program is older than System 7. The application loads simply with no muss and no fuss; you drag the application onto your drive, ignoring the three sample data files, which appear to be there to make the disk look more full, and start playing. The application is not copy protected, doesn't fool with your mind by making you enter your company name before playing bridge, and has a simple, enjoyable, and obvious, Mac-like interface. It is slightly too mouse dependent, having fairly few keyboard shortcuts, but features such as being able to click "okay" anywhere on the screen and automatic play of singletons make this limitation insignificant.

As my most significant critique, I wish the program could understand competitive bidding better. On a passed hand, if the other side bids on the one level, particularly in rubber bridge on a partial, and I overbid at the two level, my hand hasn't suddenly turned valuable. Nevertheless, Bridge Baron V consistently thinks it ought to tell me that it has three-card support for my suit, which is particularly annoying when it lacks support, having only three number cards. I've gone down by one a number of times, but I get the most International Match Points when the computer would have wimped out to the competitors' partial and I steal the show with a competing partial. Other than this, the Bridge Baron is an excellent bridge player, and can be set for four different levels of playing ability for everyone from the novice to the rated expert.

I've been looking for a good bridge program for a while, and this is it, but you should avoid buying it directly from the writer. While the writer is Thomas Throop, and the company, Great Game Products, Inc., is located at 8804 Chalon Drive, Bethesda, Maryland 20817, the direct sale price is $59.95. I happened to run into the version marketed by the Lifestyle Software Group, 63 Orange Street, St. Augustine, Florida 32084 (Telephone: 904-825-0220), at Micro Center for $35.95. I've been told that similar prices are available by mail order.