Interview with Matt Clegg, of Okbridge
Q. Hi, Matt. Thanks for giving us this interview. I’m going to start with an obvious question that most people think of when choosing a place to play bridge on the Internet. How does OKbridge compete with other online bridge clubs, especially those like bridgebase that are free? In other words, why would someone pay to join OKbridge rather than play for free elsewhere?
OKbridge is a premium quality site designed for people who don’t mind paying to get the best that money can buy. This is why we attract so many expert players, including many world and national champions. For people who want the best, it’s not a question of money, it’s a question of quality. Obviously, this means that our site is not for everyone. For those who don’t demand the highest in quality, I would recommend one of the many popular free sites such as Yahoo, MSN, Pogo, or BridgeBase.
Q. Matt, where and when did you learn to play?
I was first exposed to the game of bridge as a child. My grandparents played bridge all of their lives. Even though my grandfather was an accomplished scientist, for reasons unknown to me, he was never interested in the ACBL [American Contract Bridge League]. Perhaps the demands of raising a family were too pressing for him to consider tournament play. My three uncles on my father’s side learned to play bridge and they occasionally play. However, it skipped a generation with my father.
Q. If you don't mind my asking, how old are you and how old were you when you started playing?
It’s hard to believe, but I just turned 40. I first took a serious interest in the game in college. I majored in mathematics at the University of California, Riverside. At that time, UCR was a very small school, with only 60 students total in the math department. It was a wonderful environment. In my senior year, a young professor, Marek Chrobak, joined the department and got some of the students interested in playing bridge. Somebody found an old copy of an introductory book by Alfred Sheinwold, and we taught ourselves to play. We had many enjoyable lunchtime bridge games. Of course, we didn’t know anything about what we were doing, but it was fun.
Q. Matt, can you give us a brief history on how you got the idea to create online bridge back in the early 90's?
After I graduated from UCR in 1988, I entered the Ph.D. program in mathematics at Berkeley. At that time, I had intended to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a university professor. I came home to Riverside to take a summer job after the first year, and it was then that I met Merja Karjala. She was visiting from Finland and had to come to study in my dad’s lab.
After she went back to Finland at the end of the summer, we couldn’t afford a lot of international phone calls, so we started using the Internet to communicate. The next spring after classes at Berkeley ended, I got on a plane to Finland, and we got married. Meeting Merja was without a doubt the best thing that ever happened to me.
I had lined up a job working in a computer science research laboratory in Finland, but I needed something to do in my evenings and weekends. So I thought it would be fun to write a computer program to play bridge over the Internet with my friends back in the States, and that’s how OKbridge was born. The first version was released to the Internet as freeware in August 1990.
After Merja finished her master’s degree in molecular biology, we came back to the states and I resumed my graduate studies. In 1997, I earned my Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California, San Diego.
By the way, the “OK” in “OKbridge” is short for “Oklahoma.” At the time that I first wrote the software, one of my friends, Steve Brick, was teaching math at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
Q. Can you tell our readers a little bit more about your family?
Merja and I have been blessed with a wonderful 10-year-old daughter, Anastasia, and twin five-year-old sons, Joseph and Christopher. A year ago, Merja entered medical school at St. George’s University in Grenada. She loves medical school, and she is going to be an outstanding doctor. I have spent much of my time over the last year in Grenada, and I have become very fond of the island and the Grenadian people. It is a beautiful, lush tropical island, and despite their poverty, the people are exceptionally warm and hospitable. Recently, we bought a sailboat, and we have been planning to live on the sailboat in Grenada and St. Vincent in the coming year. Hopefully, we will also be able to spend some time cruising the Caribbean.
Q. Grenada? Didn’t a hurricane just hit that island?
Yes, unfortunately, Grenada was hit by Hurricane Ivan. It was category three when it hit the island and it increased in strength to category four as it passed over. The eye of the hurricane passed over the house that we were renting near Secret Harbor, and our house as well as everything in it was destroyed. Fortunately, Merja and the kids were unharmed and they were able to stay with some friends until an evacuation could be arranged a few days later.
However, many people on the island were not as fortunate. Of the 90,000 residents on the island, over 60,000 were left homeless. It is estimated that 90% of the buildings were damaged. The hurricane was followed by rampant looting, and there is currently a dusk-to-dawn curfew. As I write this, three weeks afterwards, electricity had only been restored to a tiny fraction of the homes on the island, and many homes still lack running water.
When compared to the humanitarian crises in Darfur or Haiti, it is easy to see why Grenada has received so little attention. Yet, the Grenadians are in desperate need of help. I have compiled the following list of links to various informational pages and aid agencies should any of your readers wish to help out:
Q. Thanks for that information, Matt. Getting back to bridge, what would be your advice on how to get kids interested in the game, via the Internet?
That’s a tough question, because I’m not aware of any good sites that are specifically targeted to teaching kids how to play bridge. Our daughter, Anna, loves the Internet. My experience is that she prefers sites that are highly interactive, that are fun and that also have a lot of variety. In her case, if Harry Potter or Hello Kitty were a part of the site, it would be a big plus. Parental involvement is always helpful.
It is not necessary that the first experiences with the game of bridge on the Internet involve interacting with other people. However, when the child is ready, it may be appropriate to sign them up for an online playing site like OKbridge. If I were to allow Anna to sign up for a site where she would interact with other people, I would sign her up for a reputable pay site. Pay sites have the money to perform adequate screening and to respond to inappropriate conduct by members. One never knows what sort of predators might be lurking on a free site.
Q. Matt, can you tell me one or two things about your new version of OKplus that's new to online bridge?
The biggest challenge facing the game of bridge today is bringing in new players, and one of the most important strategies for achieving this is making the game more accessible. This is why I am such a big fan of E-Z Bridge, Audrey Grant’s work, the Fifth Chair Foundation and also Bridge Today University. All of these groups have one goal in mind, which is to make bridge more accessible.
The online playing sites must also do their part. A busy professional cannot afford to take the time to learn a cumbersome piece of software. Likewise, a retiree who has just bought his first computer is simply not going to be able to figure out a complex software package, no matter how much time he puts into it. No matter how much these people might be interested in taking up the game, they are not going to succeed in playing online unless they have software that is of very high quality and extremely easy to use. For them, it’s not a question of price, it’s a question of quality and usability. If these people are recommended to use an inferior though free site, then it’s quite possible that they will become frustrated and give up, and then they may be forever lost to the game of bridge.
OKplus is the latest step in a five-year effort by OKbridge to create the easiest and most intuitive playing experience possible. The OKplus interface was designed with the aid of Dr. Theo Mandel, a renowned authority in human factors and user interface design. We have sifted through thousands of customer comments, we have conducted numerous user tests, and we have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on making our software as usable as possible. In terms of ease of use, I believe that OKplus is by far the best software product ever brought to the market for playing bridge online.
Q. I've been using OKweb on my Macintosh, while my wife plays on her PC using windows OKwin. Should we switch to OKplus from our home computers? If so, why?
If you are happy with your current configuration, then there is no pressing need to change. However, many people who have setups similar to yours report that they cannot serve tables using OKwin. If this is the case, then switching to OKplus will solve the problem.
Q. One feature on my Mac OKweb that I miss from OKwin is the ability to record the hands to a text file on my computer. When I play with my wife, she records on her PC. Does OKplus have this feature or will it in the future? It's a great feature for teaching bridge or writing about bridge, because the hands are in a text file immediately after the game. I know that if you play competitive, the hands are obtainable through the OKbridge website, but still I would like to see the ability to have a text file made, whether playing competitive or noncompetitive. What do you think?
I am afraid that I owe an apology to you and the rest of our loyal OKwin users. You have had to wait on the sidelines while we at OKbridge have concentrated on creating a software product whose central goal was ease of use. All I can say in our defense is that I hope that this will have been for a good cause, namely the cause of bringing more people into the game of bridge.
Having said that, we are committed to the continued development and improvement of our software. Since the initial release of OKplus on June 29, 2004, there have been two additional releases, one on August 2 and the other on August 24. We are hoping to release another update in early November. Over time, all of your favorite features in OKwin will be added to OKplus.
Q. Do you think bridge will gain popularity in the future? What are you doing to get new people to OKbridge, people who either play only "kitchen bridge" now or, more important, people who currently know nothing about bridge? Do you advertise or promote OKbridge to any NON-bridge people on the Internet?
I firmly believe that the potential exists for bridge to gain in popularity. However, if the game is to gain in popularity, it will require the collective effort of everybody involved in the game of bridge working together.
At OKbridge, we know that the number-one obstacle to bringing new people into online bridge is ease of use. We know this from customer surveys, from usability studies and from market research. This is why we have invested so much time and effort into the development of OKplus.
For OKplus to succeed in bringing new people into the game, we must now ask for the assistance of our members. Please try OKplus and give us your honest feedback. If you have friends who are interested in playing bridge online, please invite them to try it too.
We have found that investing in advertising has not usually worked – we owe almost all of our growth to generous words of praise from our members.
Q. Do you think there's still resistance among older people in playing online rather than in real life?
Definitely. I hate to admit this, but my grandmother is a case in point. She is 84 years old and she plays bridge several times a week. Some years ago, I bought her a computer and she uses it every day to e-mail with her sons. However, up until the release of OKplus, she did not play bridge online. Why? Because the software was not easy enough to use. She is afraid of making a mistake and being perceived as stupid or inept.
Q. What can OKbridge members expect to see in the coming months and years?
We are now going to turn our attention to adding the advanced features that we know our members will like. We are going to revise and expand the Lehman rating system. We will be adding new and different tournament formats, such as individual tournaments and team tournaments.
We also feel that we have not finished our work in making the game of bridge more accessible. We plan to work with bridge teachers to enhance the teaching-related features of the site. For new players, we would like to add a free section to our site that contains bridge tutorials and exercises.
Q. Have you been working on any other projects outside of OKbridge?
I am actively interested in various aspects of advanced computer science, especially distributed algorithms and protocols, real-time systems and some parts of theoretical computer science. In the last few years, there has been a tremendous of interesting practical work in highly available and scalable Linux systems. I hope to find a way to make a mark in one of these areas.
Q. Last question, a bit altruistic.... Matt, has bridge become just a business for you (I kind of doubt it)? What social benefits do you see in bridge, especially online bridge, especially OKbridge, that will improve people's lives?
OKbridge has combined two things that I love very much, namely the game of bridge and advanced computer science. Also, I was taught as a kid that if you have an idea, then it is a worthy endeavor to turn the idea into a business. If the idea is a good one, you will be rewarded by economic success. Our western heritage includes a long history of innovators who followed this model, such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. It’s the American way, and I’m proud to be part of it.
It’s easy to state the social benefits of bridge. It improves your mind, and it brings you together with other people. Both of these are factors thought to be associated with long-term health and longevity. In the online context, these factors are amplified. The opportunities for learning and improvement are much greater online because of the tools that are available, and it is possible to meet people from around the world. Numerous marriages and countless friendships have formed through OKbridge.
Since we are near the end of the interview, I just want to take a moment to recognize the many outstanding people who work for OKbridge, including Dave, Kari, Martin, Michael, Sharyn, Stephen, Tricia, Tuna, and Wendy as well as the tournament directing staff and the many other people, too numerous to mention, who contribute in one way or another to OKbridge. All of these people are working for one purpose and one purpose only, namely to make sure that your experience on OKbridge is as good as it can be. They are an incredibly dedicated group of people who I feel proud to be associated with. Too often, when something good happens, I am the one given credit, when actually one of these unsung heroes was responsible.
I would also like to express my deepest gratitude for the opportunity that has been given to me by the bridge community and especially the community of OKbridge members. To the extent that OKbridge has been successful, it is due to the generous support of the bridge community. This community has given me the chance to work in areas that I really love and to do some very challenging things. Through this community, I have had the good fortune to become acquainted with many wonderful people and I have made many friendships that I hope will last throughout my life. My fondest wish is to be remembered as having made a positive contribution to this community.
Q. OK, one more question...Who's your favorite bridge partner and why? :)
Do you mind if I answer a question with a question? When are you available?