“In psychology, the cards fly off my hand, whereas in bridge, it is hard,” Seligman says modestly.
Though he calls himself a “low expert,” Seligman is an American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) Diamond Life Master—having earned 5,000 Master Points as of 2009, which put him in the top two percent of league players. (Today, he’s closer to 6,000 points.) He also holds a World championship online team title, and is the co-owner of a record-setting 88.61 percent game.
It was in 1999 that Seligman, along with the late Paul Soloway (“one of the great players of all time,” Seligman says, with whom he partnered for 15 years), Eric Rodwell (also considered one of the world’s best players), and three other Americans won the Internet World Bridge Championship Team title. The tournament was sponsored by the website OKbridge, with 172 teams from 33 countries competing in online matches until the finals, which were held in person in Boston. Seligman and company’s win over the Russian team was “terrifically exciting,” he says, calling the title “the closest I’ve ever come to stardom.”
He’s a bit more ambivalent about his other main claim to bridge fame: on Christmas Day 2009 Seligman and his partner Meyer Kotkin played in a 37-pair, 12-board event on another popular site, Bridge Base Online (BBO), and achieved what New York Times bridge columnist Phillip Adler, writing it up in the April 23, 2010, issue, described as “the highest-ever score on the Internet—unless you know differently.”
Kotkin, a professional bridge teacher and mathematician with a PhD from the University of Michigan, who lives in South Jersey, describes that record-breaking game as “a surreal session.” He explains the meaning of an 88.61 percent game this way: “The percentage per board represents how many of the other players sitting in your direction you beat. Of the 12 boards we played, the lowest score was 71.4 percent.”
Kotkin attributes their success to a combination of “luck, excellence, and the generosity of our opponents.” That they ended up as partners was unplanned. “We both just arrived on the site at the same time, around 5 p.m., and agreed to play together,” he says. “The stars were aligned.”
Seligman, on the other hand, calls the high percentage “a fluke,” comparing it to golf: “It’s like making three holes-in-one in one game.” Before that game, he says, his personal best was “82 percent, and that was 30 years ago.”
As is probably clear by now, bridge players no longer have to scramble to organize a game around the kitchen table as Seligman’s mother did. The Internet has embraced the game and players have reciprocated. Certainly, Seligman has.
He plays bridge online three to four hours per day, he says, “often sporadically, and sometimes interspersed with work” in his home office or at Penn. Don’t call his devotion an addiction, though. “If I stopped working and stopped seeing my family to play bridge, it would be an addiction.” Rather, “bridge is entertainment, and a major part of my life. A place I go, to be comfortable and warm, especially after a hard day,” he says. “I just can’t wait to get to the bridge screen and start playing.”
On several occasions this past summer, Seligman allowed me (a novice bridge player) to observe as he played online. Seligman lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, and his home office is carved out of a corner of his rather large living room, allowing for dogs, children, and his wife to pop in and out.
(Unlike the young Marty, Seligman’s own children have not taken to bridge but are “picking up chess,” he says. After some gamesmanship soul-searching, he has concluded that his preference “has something to do with partnership, how well the pair is doing, and the game’s complexity. There are many more bridge combinations than chess combinations. Mathematically, bridge is vastly more complicated.”)
At his desk, Seligman has arranged four large monitors two by two. I watch from a spot just behind his right shoulder. One screen displays the colorful bridge website, where the names of Seligman, his partner, and their opponents appear around a virtual table. Seligman’s partners vary, and include Chris Compton from Texas; Gunnar Hallberg, a Swede who resides in Bristol, UK; and Murray Melton from Las Vegas. He uses his real name online, but many players go by a moniker—humorous or otherwise—to conceal their identity. Both Warren Buffet and Bill Gates adopt pseudonyms when they play on BBO, though they revealed them to the readers of a bridge magazine last year.
Other screens variously display Seligman’s email inbox, an academic article he is reading, family photographs, the Times or another news source, or, at the moment, an image of a glorious hot-pink rose in full bloom, which Seligman thinks “might be a Chicago Peach,” but he isn’t sure, “as a half a dozen look like that in my rose garden.”
(Gardening is another of Seligman’s passions, though one he finds “far less rewarding” than bridge. “I don’t get pleasure out of gardening. It’s just something I do because I like the result—the flowers,” he says. “Bridge is much, much more serious. I don’t know anything about gardening, but I know something about bridge.”)
While multi-tasking and playing Speedball (a set of hands timed to allow about 4.5 minutes per hand), Seligman provides a running commentary about his hand, his strategy in bidding and playing once the contract is bid, and why he thinks his partner does what he does. It is impressive, and I try to absorb his words of bridge wisdom.
Every once in a while, Seligman interrupts himself and says: “Okay, now I have to concentrate,” or “I have to go into the tank,” or “We’re back in the hunt.” Seligman “can usually play a hand without thinking,” but “when something new happens, about one out of three or four hands, I have to go back and review all the bidding and review all the cards that were played up to that point before I can make a decision,” he says. “When you go into the tank, that’s a lot of work; but the better the player, the less frequently they have to go there.” On the other hand, “being in the hunt means the chance for possible winners.”
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FEATURE: Passion Play by Barbra Shotel
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