Guest Blog — By Invitation

Giving Back to Bridge for the Holidays: Fred Gitelman on Commentating

I have always thought that watching BBO commentary is defined as entertainment, and so commentators should be entertaining, but also informative. What do you see as the role of the commentator?

The role of the commentator is to provide commentary that the audience finds interesting or stimulating, but since a typical audience consists of a very broad range of bridge player types and personality types, that covers a lot of ground. For example, I agree with you completely that being entertained is important for a lot of audience members, but this could mean any number of things because different people find different things to be entertaining. Some may enjoy jokes, while others may enjoy stories, and some probably find it amusing when the commentators disagree with each other.

A lot of audience members are watching to try to learn something about bridge, but they range in skill level from complete beginners to world-class players. Also, some bridge players are very interested in bidding systems or conventions, while others delight in card play, bidding theory, defensive signaling, or opening leads. 

I believe that those commentators who try to explain the thinking process behind the experts’ decisions are highly appreciated. Sometimes a discussion of wider bridge-related issues arises during a Vugraph broadcast, such as: what systems should be allowed, breaks in tempo, appeals committees, professional, and sponsors, etc. I suspect there are many in the audience who are interested in hearing the commentators’ views on such matters.

Some audience members are interested in things like the history and nature of the event, the venue itself, and the personalities and accomplishments of the players. If the event in question is part of a larger tournament, there will be members of the audience who will be interested in hearing about the results of other matches or events in that tournament.

To summarize, there is no simple answer to your question because different audience members have widely different wants and needs. There are a wide variety of potential roles for our commentators that will be appreciated by various segments of the Vugraph audience.

As somebody who does commentary, I am never quite sure of what is expected of me. I think it is important that at least one person on the panel can understand the bidding system and explain the auction, but it isn’t always easy to do that, especially if you don’t know in advance whom you will be watching. What are the expectations you have of your commentators?

BBO has very few expectations. The way we see it, the commentators are unpaid volunteers who donate their time and skills in the interest of doing something good for bridge. We are extremely grateful for this and we do not think it would be appropriate or reasonable for us to have detailed expectations of these fine people. Of course we do hope the commentators will be courteous to one another and to try to refrain from offending the audience members, tournament organizers, or players, but that’s about as far as our expectations go.

I certainly agree that the commentary holds added value for the audience if the commentators are familiar with the bidding systems being used, are able to provide biographical information about the players, etc. Sometimes Roland Wald (our Vugraph Coordinator) is in a position to assign commentators that he knows are familiar with such things, but usually this is not realistically possible.

Naturally, we appreciate it when a commentator goes the extra mile and studies the players’ systems before a session, but this is certainly not something that we expect from these volunteers – as I said above, we are grateful that they are there in the first place and I suspect that the number of volunteers would shrink dramatically if we started to impose necessary qualifications on them.

Are there any other ways you expect commentators to prepare themselves?

Nothing more than showing up with the right attitude. It is probably only a matter of (not very much) time until voice-based (as opposed to the current chat-based) commentary is available. So in addition to that, and if and when the time comes that we start paying commentators for their service, we would likely reconsider the expectations we have of them.

Sometimes the players we are watching are not really “stars” especially in the lesser events. How far should commentators go in pointing out players’ mistakes, especially the clear-cut ones?

That’s a good question for which there are no easy answers. We certainly don’t want the commentators going out of their way to make the players look stupid, but the fact of the matter is that even the best players in the world sometimes make mistakes. The commentators might remind the audience of a few simple facts to help to put criticism in its proper perspective:

  • How much easier bridge is when you can see all 52 cards!
  • That playing in major tournaments can be an exhausting experience (physically, mentally, and emotionally).

  • That there are sometimes factors which are not immediately obvious (jet lag or illness for example) that cause good players to sometimes play badly.
  • That the event in question is not (say) the Spingold Final and it would not be realistic to expect the vast majority of players to get a given hand right.

The notion of “clear-cut” is important in my view. For example, there are some commentators who seem to consider just about every bidding decision to be clear-cut, whereas in my view the exact opposite is closer to being the truth. It drives me crazy to read comments like “no bridge player would overcall at the 2-level on that hand”. The tone of such a comment not only sounds condescending, but in my view such comments display remarkable ignorance – nobody really knows things like what the “best” range is for 2-level overcalls and highly-successful players have widely differing opinions on such matters.

The bottom line is that matters of judgment and style should not be seen as clear-cut. It is fine to say “It is not my style of overcall at the 2-level with that hand” or “my judgment suggests that a 2-level overcall on that hand is not a winning action”, but that is very different from saying “it is WRONG to overcall at the 2-level on that hand” or (even worse because it is also insulting as opposed to being simply ignorant) “only a beginner would overcall at the 2-level with that hand”.

Extenuating the positive can help make up for well-deserved criticism of a player who is having a bad day.

Is there anything you shouldn’t do when you are commentating on BBO?

In addition to the things I have mentioned already, here are some more pointers:

  • Remember that you are there for the audience, not for the purposes of stroking your own ego.
  • Try not to monopolize the conversation. Make sure that the other commentators have a chance to have their say.
 Most importantly, don’t insult groups like the ACBL and WBF who organize tournaments and who pay the not insignificant expenses associated with broadcasting Vugraph. These organizations are far from perfect, but BBO Vugraph is not the right venue for complaining about their shortcomings.

I feel strongly that all bridge players should appreciate the fact that tournament organizers are willing to provide them with free Vugraph of their events to bridge fans all over the world. It shows a distinct lack of class in my view to embarrass tournament organizers through a medium that would not exist without their support. Vugraph costs BBO a lot of money. Many people are under the (completely wrong) impression that vugraph is a source of profit for our company.

Have you considered any way to keep commentators informed about issues, expectations, and even the number of assignments coming up?

We (actually Roland Wald) do this already.

Roland maintains an e-mail list consisting of several hundred volunteer commentators. When a new commentator is added to the list, Roland provides that person with a document that is a guideline for commentators (much of its contents is reflected in my answers your questions). This document has also been made available to the general public through BBO Forums.

A week or so before a given Vugraph broadcast, Roland will let everyone on his list know about the event in an effort to sign up volunteers. Occasionally Roland uses his e-mail list to inform commentators of things like new polices, software changes, etc.

I know that BBO is always looking for some new help. What kind of people are you looking for to provide commentary? What are the qualifications people should have? What kind of commitment are you looking for?

Aside from having good manners, the ability to think and type at a reasonable pace are probably the most important qualities for a Vugraph commentator to have!

Anyone who does not have a history of bad behavior on BBO is welcome to volunteer. Roland believes in giving anyone who volunteers a chance to show their stuff. I believe that this is a wise policy as there are some excellent commentators who are not super-expert players. Typically these people are good because they realize they are not super-expert players. They focus their commentary on subjects that they can speak on with authority. That is a good thing because there are a lot more audience members who are interested in things like “how to respond to a negative double” or “why declarer should take a 2-way finesse into the safe hand” then there are players who are ready for “how declarer should time the play in order to arrive at a compound squeeze”.

It does not take a super-expert to be able to offer analysis that will be of interest to the non-experts in the audience – strong teaching skills are much more important. In fact, many super-experts have a lot of trouble offering comments that do not go over the heads of most of the members of the audience. It is not so easy to articulate subjects that are beyond obvious to you (or to even recognize that trying to articulate such subjects will have value to much of the audience).

Roland will typically assign roughly 4 commentators per table. In some cases he has the luxury of flexibility and, when that happens, he will try to put together a good mix of commentators who rate to appeal to various levels of players (and ideally include commentators who are strong in terms of things like entertainment value, ability to provide human interest stories, and knowledge of the players in question).

Are there any other useful roles people can play to help out? Sometimes I think that additional coordinators might be a good idea with the huge increase in events.

Since the very first days of BBO Vugraph (back in 2003) Roland has been our one and only Vugraph Coordinator. He puts in a massive number of hours and you are correct that the huge increase in events has made his task all the more demanding. Although Roland may seem super-human to some, he is in fact human and occasionally he needs to take a break. When that happens, we typically assign a very competent member of our staff to take over his duties (which reminds us every single time just how difficult these duties can be!).

As far as I can tell tell, our Vugraph program is in very good hands, but anyone who thinks they might be able to contribute is welcome to volunteer. Roland is definitely the man to talk to about this – as far as Vugraph is concerned, BBO itself does little more than provide the software.

What is involved with getting your event on BBO? I have noticed that Canada doesn’t have very many events broadcast.

Any event is welcome to use BBO for Vugraph purposes. We do not charge any fee for providing these services, but tournament organizers will have to pay their own expenses (things like operator salaries if volunteers are not available and the cost of Internet connection at the playing site). Event organizers who are interested should contact Roland Wald. He will provide them with all the information they need to produce a Vugraph broadcast on BBO.


Linda LeeNovember 25th, 2010 at 12:00 am

I know that it actually costs BBO money to put on these broadcasts. This is a great service to the game.

The game is so much richer because we can share all the wonderful moments of some top-flight games.

I have enjoyed my time as a volunteer commentator and I urge others who are qualified to apply.

Judy Kay-WolffNovember 25th, 2010 at 6:09 pm


As you know, I am strictly a “watcher” and derive boundless thrills and excitement from following crucial matches on BBO even without any close personal rooting interest most of the time.

What you and your group have done for the world of bridge is unequaled and you are to be congratulated for your genius, persistence and ongoing improving and updating BBO with continuing innovations. WE ALL THANK YOU.

You have already given back to the game in ‘spades!” You’re light years ahead of the game (an innovator in bridge like some old timers like Morse, Marconi, Edison, Bell, et al.). Accessibility is the name of the game!

Your biggest fan.


Linda LeeNovember 26th, 2010 at 5:12 am

I completely agree with you comments about pointing out how hard it is to get everything right when you are the player and not the commentator looking at 52 cards. In fact, one problem I sometimes have (and I think everybody does from time to time) is being too double dummy in the discussion. I do fight it.

But nevertheless, I have watched some rather terrible dummy play. In one case watching a final of a championship the declarer started with nine top tricks in two hearts (I mean draw trump and place your hand on the table). Then managed to reduce to eight and finally went down.

The next time this declarer played dummy I couldn’t help myself. I pointed out that there was no order that she could play the cards (excluding crashing high cards) that would prevent her from making the contract. I accept criticism for that one.

But I have also been admonished for pointing out that the “line of play was not the best” when it was truly terrible because the player was a client.

In any case I love doing commentary. I realized it brings me more into the session. I think more about the deals. I urge people to try it.

nick fahrerNovember 26th, 2010 at 9:15 pm

I’d like to think the bridge community has been enriched by the availability of online VuGraph. And I can say this having been involved as a participant, operator, organiser and commentator since the very first days.

Dont anyone underestimate how hard each job is. As a player on VuGraph, I’ve come out of a set looking like a novice – knowing hundreds of my friends among others were watching me.

As an organiser, I’ve battled with the bureaucracies from suburban clubs to the WBF in order to put the best quality VuGraph presentation on for the world to see.

But by far the hardest jobs are operating and commentating. Operating effectively is very very difficult. You often need to keep up with the fastest of players who dont always openly show their cards played as well as having an understanding of the systems played and the meanings of bids, which you need to communicate to yoru audience.

We should be thankful for the hundreds of commentators that BBO has on hand. They arent all brilliant analysists, they arent all even good analysts, but they all offer their own brand of insight and commentary and for that I am grateful. From a viewer’s perspective I find a Vugraph table without commentary completely hollow.

Judy Kay-WolffNovember 27th, 2010 at 2:04 am

To Nick:

I agree with your last sentence about Vugraph being hollow without commentary and I appreciate the many capacities in which you have played a major role.

Let me preface my remarks by saying I take bridge very seriously. My circumstances have caused me to do so.

However, I cannot believe that a weak bridge player does not have the common sense to know how they will appear to a largely knowledgeable public. It is difficult for me to

accept the fact that people are so egotistical that they really feel they are qualified to jump right in with the big boys (and girls) and struff their stuff. Unless they totally overrate their games, they cannot possibly realize how foolish they look to a universal audience which is sophisticated.

I don’t claim to be an expert, never did and never will. I accept my ability for what it is and I cannot believe some of the same ilk are

unaware of their shortcomings and come off with such an air of authority.

I suppose I don’t believe in the more the merrier. I feel the fewer the better — as long as they are qualified. Perhaps I have been spoiled and accept reality having been exposed to so many great players and authorities. Maybe it is just a question of my upbringing that causes me to take such a strong stance.

So let us agree to disagree — though I do think the concept of BBO is absolutely sensational and keeps getting better and better!

nick fahrerNovember 27th, 2010 at 9:02 am

Ms Kay-Wolff,

I have absolutely no idea what you are agreeing to disagree about.

Judy Kay-WolffNovember 27th, 2010 at 10:25 am


You seem to think it is open

season on allowing any and all persons to serve as commentators regardless of their capability, knowledge, judgment, expertise, etc.

I refer to your statement about the “hundreds of commentators that BBO has on hand.” You seem to think it is wonderful. I believe in quality — not quantity.


Chuck ArthurNovember 28th, 2010 at 9:44 pm

BBO is Fred’s baby: he gets to make the rules. Freedom of the press attributes to the person who owns the press! Anybody who doesn’t like the rules that Fred (or BBO designate) makes can use somebody else’s site or develop their own. I accept that fully. That said, I assume that Fred posted such an article on a blog to invite our comments and to gauge feedback.

I liken a BBO vugraph commentator to a TV commentator for any other sport: football, soccer, baseball, or hockey to name a few. They tend to “Tell It like it is” these days, in the Howard Cosell style. If a guy makes a bonehead play, he is not afraid to say so in so many words. If somebody makes a bad overcall in bridge, the commentator should be able to say so; else how is somebody who is learning the game, who happens to be watching, going to gain an insight into the game via BBO. Certainly, common courtesy dictates that commentating should not degenerate into a free-for-all. He can phrase his comments in language that is somewhat soft, yet gets his point across. I think that is what Fred is saying.

I think that the status quo that exists in BBO commentating is quite an acceptable compromise. I think that that long list of do’s and don’ts that are published are somewhat extreme. See Debbie Rosenberg’s post on this subject to BBO forums by doing a Google search on the word vugraph and the word phrase “guidelines for commentators”.

She standard for vugraph commentating was set by the late Edgar Kaplan. His stints on vugraph happened back in the days when vugraph was vugraph… none of this fancy electronic gadgetry. The audience gathered in a smoky theatre watching hands presented via an overhead projector and sepias while the commentators, who were doing the same thing, droned on. If you were lucky enough, Edgar was one of the commentators, complete with his witty repartee and cutting sarcastic comments. Nikos Sarantakos (and others, I gather) has gathered these “Kaplan nuggets” for our enjoyment. I dare not mention his site explicitly lest this comment be flagged as spam, but allow me to allude to it as follows. The usual http prefix is followed by members (dot) tripod (dot) com (slash) ~sarant (slash) bridge (slash) kapnugets (dot) htm.

Let me speak to a related, if somewhat off topic, subject: the vugraph operator. I speak from experience: this is an extreme difficult job to do. He or she must continuously be focusing their vision between the table (a few feet away) and their computer screen. The job is made more difficult by the insensitivity of the players who carry on as if the operator is not present. They do not show their cards played clearly and mumble something amongst themselves in what passes for a claim. There needs to be a modification in attitude when there is a vugraph operator present; this needs to be enforced by a director. Through all this, some operators do this job extremely well. In addition to transcribing the bidding and play at their computer, they somehow find time to relay to us in the audience the table action. In this regard, Jan Martel sets the standard for a vugraph operator. Her comments, relayed to us in the audience, enhance our enjoyment of the presentation immensely. I encourage all vugraph operators to do likewise, when they get a chance.

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